Friday, April 27, 2007

How to be a centrist


Zealots are selective skeptics. They search for facts--or pseudofacts--that support their beliefs, while ignoring or discounting whatever doesn't.

Centrists are equal opportunity skeptics, always willing to toss their dearest conclusions if new facts warrant it. This puts us at a disadvantage. Zealots are always certain. We usually aren't. But we can't play their game. We have to play ours.

Some tennis players are known for being able to control the rhythm, the pace of a match. We can do that. It starts with language and premises. Never let them frame the debate with loaded words. Insist on neutral terms. And look for opportunities to hoist them with their own petards--espeially when you find them applying a different standard for credibility of their assertions vs. yours.

And don't let them paint you as their opposite. Conservatives want to fight liberals, and vice versa. Neither really knows what to make of us. So that messes with their game right off the bat.

There's something called the judicial temperament. That's a lot like what it means to be a good centrist. Cool, clear, subtle, sly, but fundamentally honest. Like Olympic curler Cassie Johnson. If you don't know what I'm talking about here, watch one curling match at the next winter Olympics. Curling is more like a really active chess game, rather than a sport like soccer or basketball.

Or maybe I just wanted to post a pic of Johnson here. Your choice.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

We can win the Iraq War--for a huge price


My bottom line: Fish or cut bait.


















Of course we can win the war in Iraq. But neither the 'Publicans nor the Demos--nor the electorate, without terrific leadership--has the stomach for the sacrifices required to do so.

It would probably require reinstating the draft, in the form of national service, with military service being one option within that. It would certainly require rescinding every single tax cut for the very rich that has been the single most important "accomplishment" of the six year Republican hegemony. It would also require putting the nation on a war footing, instead of just the volunteer military and their families. I would support doing what it took to win in Iraq, not because we should have gone in--and we surely shouldn't have gone in the way we did--but because we have spent the last four years teaching our enemies everywhere not to fear us, and in the long run that is way too high a price to pay for temporary surcease.
Too bad the Republican administration doesn't really want to win. Sure, they'd love to win if they could do it on the cheap. But when it comes to choosing between our long term position in the world vs. helping Republican donors acquire more wealth today--well, that's a no-brainer for them.
And too bad the Demos in Congress don't seem to grasp the importance of being feared by our enemies, either. It's like having to choose between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dum-Dum.
The details:

The Demos say we've lost. Well, at least Senator Reid says so. Meanwhile the Republican leadership has been saying we've won or victory is just around the corner--and that it's only biased "mainstream media" coverage that portrays Iraq as a disaster.
That's a smokescreen. Winning the war requires sending enough troops to establish order everywhere and train the Iraqis to take care of their own country. The Republicans have been claiming for years that sending a lot more troops--not just 20K or so--would just encourage the Iraqis to stay dependent on us, make us look like occupiers, only provide more targets for those "few dead-enders" and (in a whisper) cost too much. Of course if we'd sent enough to begin with we might well be out of there by now. Von Clausewitz says never wound your prey--deck him. We didn't, and we and our troops have been paying the price ever since. This is why General Powell loathes Bush--I think even more than for his retrospective humliation at the UN.
And we are occupiers. That's how most Iraqis have seen us since about a month after we invaded. Remember, those lands have been dominated by foreign occupiers for hundreds of years, and everyone else came in claiming they weren't occupiers. It was up to us to convince them otherwise, and we didn't. Installing Proconsul Bremer just sealed the deal. Overall, the Republicans' war plan just made us look like incompetent--or even malevolent--occupiers. When you keep over 200,000 troops (counting those morale-destroying armed civilian contractors) in a country for four years how do you expect to be seen?
The trick is to be good occupiers who provide security and electricity and water--normal life for normal people. If we'd done that most Iraqis would be intensely relieved. You aren't a good occupier when more than half of a country's physicians and literally millions of its middle class flees the country, when neighborhoods are in control of militias, when hundreds of thousands of a country's religious minority (Christians) get ethnically cleansed from places they've been for a millenium.
Here's a centrist stance on Iraq:

1. Invading Iraq had exactly nothing to do with the Islamic fascists who attacked us. Saddam hated and feared them, and only had the most superficial contact with them. The money to families of Palistinian suicide murderers was political theater to let Saddam posture as a pan-Arab champion. Iraq's being a locus of Islamofascist attacks on the West resulted from our prolonged occupation of the country, with our huge permanent-looking bases and use of Saddam's palaces making us look to Arabs like "meet the new boss--same as the old boss."

2. In order to invade Iraq the Republican leadership diverted needed men and materiel from the war against the ones who had actually attacked us, in Afghanistan.
3. We had a causus belli for going to war with Iraq: we were not at peace with the country, only had a truce from the 1991 war, and Saddam had been violating the terms of the truce constantly. We could have gone back to war on that basis. But there was no hurry. We could have lined our ducks up, marshalled actual international support, and trained and provisioned the troops sufficiently. The Kurdish area was already freed. Instead of taking over the rest of the country in one swoop, we could have occupied the Shiite region in the south, on the same basis as the Kurdish region. And then gone after Baghdad and the Sunni region only after consolidating the Shiite south.

4. But whatever the battle plan we didn't have to rush into war with Iraq with the troops and their commanders ill-provisioned and undertrained in Arab language and customs. And no plan B in case they didn't greet us with flowers. And not enough troops. If we'd waited nine months or so we could have done the job right. And Saddam wouldn't have been any more or less prepared for our coming. He didn't need time to prepare. We did.
5. So--what now? If the Republican leadership were serious about winning they'd put America on a war footing, bring back the draft (actually, national service with military service an option), rescind all the tax breaks for fat cats, kick our army out of Saddam's old palaces and spacious enclaves and put them in dusty, less fortified encampments throughout the country, seal Iraq's borders, and quit playing whack-a-mole with the insurgents. And publicly apologize to General Shinseki, who called it correctly in 2003 and got publicly humiliated and shoved aside for his pains.

6. And if the Democratic leadership were serious about supporting the troops they'd kill multibillion dollar weapons programs designed to fight the Soviet Union and focus instead on troops and training and the devices needed to support urban combat and counterinsurgency. Armored cars to replace Humvees to start with, along with an upgrade to the M16 that already exists and is vastly more resistent to jamming in sandy conditions. And a gazillion little tactical UAVs. Beyond strictly military issues, the Democrats could cut off funding on the basis that half measures kill troops and civilians for no good cause. We should fight to win or walk away from it, and if the administration isn't willing to tick off the selfishtarians who fill its coffers by killing their tax breaks, you could argue that the Demo legislature shouldn't throw good money after bad. Though of course if they cut off funding the Republicans will claim that the Demos lost the war in Iraq.

7. However, we can only win in Iraq with the agreement of the partisan Shiite theocratic Iran-leaning government that our blundering democraticization installed in Iraq. Right now the people who most want us to leave are the Shiite factions who believe they can count on Iran to help them subjugate the Sunnis. Sunni noncombatants are the ones who most want us to stay, along with Al Qaeda, since our continued incompetent presence is their best recruiting tool. Honestly, I bet Osama Bin Ladin thanks Allah every day that George "Huh?" Bush is President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States. From Osama's viewpoint, Bush is the gift that keeps on giving.

8. So what we can do in Iraq will be constrained by its goverment, which isn't really on the same page with us. They want us there to help them subjugate the Sunnis, not to help give the Sunnis enough of a say--and, most critically, a share in the oil revenues from outside the Sunni region, where nearly all the oil is--to blunt the insurgents' appeal. So anything we do we'll do at an angle to what the Iraqi goverment wants from us. It will take adroit diplomacy to outmanuver them. And that's a hallmark of the Bush administration, right?
9. And what we can do there will also be constrained by the president's ability to rally the nation behind the sacrifices required to truly win there. Von Clausewitz (still the preeminent military theoretician of the last two centuries) insists that the military must go to war with the public's support. Bush has squandered that support, which was overwhelming on September 12, 2001. Then he could have put the nation on a war footing. Instead he told us to go shopping--the path of maximum profit for his patrons. Reinstituting the draft was possible then. It's a very, very tough sell now. Likewise diverting military expenditures from costly weapons systems that make lots of money for political patrons, in favor of arming and training our troops better. No lobbyists are trolling Congressional hallways seeking support for Arab language classes for soldiers.

10. So in the real world it may not be possible to do what's necessary to save the situation in Iraq. It will harm America for many decades to lose there, and in terms of getting a government in power that's going to do us good in the long run, I suspect we've already lost irrevocably. The biggest winners are Iran and Al Qaeda (not the original organization, but as a movement that's metastasized worldwide.
11. So what should we do at this point? If I were leading the Democrats I'd give Bush exactly what he's asking for, but in a package that rescinds all his tax cuts. I don't think his plan will suffice, but in the long run his failure needs to be complete and without excuses. If I were leading the Republicans I'd say Bush failed in execution in Iraq and try my best to get the country behind what it would take to actually win. If I could talk to America as a whole I'd say we have to either fish or cut bait. Make the sacrifices needed to win or withdraw to Iraq's borders and confine ourselves to cutting off transnational insurgent and Al Qaeda supply lines. And put all the saved resources into Afghanistan, currently the world's #1 supplier of heroin--and victim of endless incursions from Taliban bases located within the boundaries of our "ally" Pakistan.

12. And the next time you talk to a partisan Demo or 'Publican about Iraq, here's what to ask:

To the Demo: Say we pull out in short order. What do you see happening then, in Iraq and anywhere else where it's come down to force of arms? Like Afghanistan? And if we are not to be the world's cop, are you down with China becoming that? Or no one? Do you really believe that peace is the natural state of the human race? Ask the ghosts of Europe's Jews what happens to a people who rely on sweet reason alone to defend themselves.

To the 'Publican: You say you're for victory unlike those Defeatocrats. Well, prove it. Are you game for killing all those tax cuts, reinstating the draft, and shouldering the enormous cost in blood and treasure that would be required to actually achieve victory? Or are you like Bush--all hat and no cattle?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Gun Control


It gets my goat when gun nuts help nuts get guns.

The NRA supports letting nuts get guns. Not that they campaign for this. They simply want unfettered access to guns by anyone who hasn't yet committed a felony. That creates a giant loophole for crazy people. NRA folks demand that we must endure the annual killing spree by one nut or another as the insignificant price a "free" society must pay for this God-given right.

I notice that many of them seem quite alarmed at the thought of imposing a sanity test for gun ownership. Hmmm. You could see that as a libertarian thang. You could also see them resembling that remark...

None of this means I oppose, say, hunters killing deer with rifles. We've eradicated the predators who used to eat deer from much of America, and we have to take up the slack or suffer deer population explosions. Of course those predators took out the sick and the old deer. It would be nice if hunters did likewise. But perhaps that's too much to ask for?

As for the Second Amendment--neither gun nuts nor gun restrictionists are williing to concede that the 2nd Amendment isn't perfectly clear today about what it says. If you review hundreds of years of legal opinions and discussions of this amendment, the only thing that's really clear is that even the most learned legal scholars are divided about its meaning.

It also matters whether you're a so-called textualist, strict constructionist, or liberal interpreter of the Constitution. I've observed that very few citizens or even jurists are any one of these things consistently, however. Most are strict about the other side's laws and liberal about their own. Just as the Republican Party favored states rights until it gained control of all three branches of the federal government. After that we got an unending stream of Big Brother laws and actions.
Most who favor unfettered gun access describe themselves as strict constructionists and insist on hewing to the intent of those who wrote and ratified the Constitution.

Let's apply this test to the 2nd Amendment. At the time it was ratified "arms" meant "flintlocks." It takes about two minutes to fire a flintlock, reload it, and fire it again. Power and accuracy were limited.
Okay, let's give every American unfettered access to flintlock muskets.

There's also that messy language about state militias, which about half the scholars interpret as making this amendment about state militias, thus limiting gun ownership to militia members.

As far as I can tell no amount of legal wrangling will resolve this. Whatever the founders meant by this entire sentence is smiply lost to us.

Therefore I submit that the only way to clarify the 2nd Amendment is to write a new amendment that makes it perfectly clear. The congressional debate that ensued would be edifying, wouldn't it?

Because as it stands you could easily interpret "arms" in the liberal construction the NRA demands is the only one to include any firearm a man can pick up. Shoulder-mounted stingers that can down a 747. SAW machine guns that can mow down people by the hundreds. RPGs that can disable an Abrams tank. 50 cal. sniper rifles that can put a big hole through a man's chest half a mile away.

If "arms" doesn't mean what the founders meant--and there's no disputing what "arms" meant then--and if you're a strict constructionist, you must advocate banning all arms but flintlocks. If you think it involves everything I mentioned you're a gun nut and favor the most liberal construction of the Constitution imaginable. But even the NRA doesn't advocate that (though it certainly supports assault rifles, whose possessors could overmatch a company of the Kings Regulars in revolutionary times). The NRA favors treating the Constitution as a living document that allows reasonable reinterpretations of the meaning of its text, by its lights. So we get a very mild form of gun control.

Most Americans favor a slightly more constructionist slant, starting with forbidding crazy people from legally possessing firearms--and making sure info about who's nuts get where it needs to go, as was not the case in Virginia--and banning all rapid-fire weapons, especially assault rifles.

Very few advocate banning guns in toto. And nearly all of us favor making it a felony for a felon to possess a gun.

So honestly the gun control debate is really between those who all favor some degree of gun control and some degree of gun ownership freedom. We simply dispute the degrees. So let's have no more canards like "when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns."

And do let's look at what other nations have done about gun control, and consider the results of the different policies. We aren't alone on this planet, much as some of us would like to be. Maybe someone who isn't American has a good idea about this. Why not at least find out?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Issue du Jour

The Virginia Tech massacre

Instead of mourning with the rest of the country, right wing radio stations are obsessing about the possibility that gun restrictionists will use the Virginia Tech massacre as a causus pacem. But there's a deeper issue, and as is so often the case, the righties and the lefties have both contributed to it.

It boils down to the fact that righties and lefties agree--without admitting it in so many words--that there's no such thing as insanity. Lefties call nuts "differently mentally enabled." Righties act as if they just sat down one day and decided to misbehave, and if they break a law, they're just criminals who get locked up in jail with real criminals who do terrible things to them.

So nuts like Cho go around scaring people until they go completely around the bend. His teachers knew he was nuts. The girls he was stalking knew he was nuts. The school authorities knew he was nuts. But he was over 18, so they all had their hands tied because our current legal system won't act--it will just react after the damage is done.

There are exceptions. We prosecute people for possessing drugs or for driving high even if they haven't caused an accident. We prosecute people for verbal threats. But in general we wait until someone harms someone else.

Lefties want this because they place individual rights above the common good--and so do righties. They're absolutely the same about this.

Back in the day people got committed for bogus reasons--heck, in the Soviet Union they often put dissidents in insane asylums. But now we've swung over to the opposite extreme. We all have an obligation to society if we choose to live in society. It's a two way street, folks. And one of those obligations is to do something about people who are nuts before they do something bad to themselves or others.

If you think I'm blowing smoke, go Google what happened several decades ago when Raygun was guv of California. He closed down the insane asylums to save money. At the same time the leftie icon became Jack Nicholson's role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was a clever screed against nuthouses.

So now the nuts run loose and we get the Virginia Tech massacre. Gun rights are the least of our worries.

How's this for a proposal: society gets to require that insane people be put on meds in a reliable way or get locked up.





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L'affaire Wolfie

So..Paul Wolfowitz is under fire at the World Bank for getting his squeeze--who'd worked at the bank long before Wolfowitz showed up--a new gig that pays more than Condi Rice makes.
Lefties and righties have reacted predictably. In duelling editorial pages, the New York Times called for his ousting (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/16/opinion/16mon3.html?pagewanted=print), while the Wall Street Journal Editorial page called it all a Euro-leftie media putsch and demanded that everyone else apologize to Mr. Wolfowitz for smearing him (http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110009948).

What's a centrist to do?

First, you have to find out what the facts really are. For that I turned to The Economist, which, while ideologically conservative, tends to get its facts straight. And in its coverage of L'affaire Wolfie the Economist answered every one of the points raised by the WSJ opinion piece. See it at http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110009948. If you go to www.economist.com they'll give you a free one day pass.
I wanted to not only rebut the WSJ "smear of the smear" but find an honest conservative response to show what the WSJ could have done if it were truly conservative and not simply a direct extension of the Republican National Committee. I found it in, of all places, The Independent, a Brit paper with at least one conservative columnist. See the column at: http://comment.independent.co.uk/columnists_a_l/bruce_anderson/article2452376.ece.

This columnist, one Bruce Anderson, argues that Wolfowitz has the right attitude but insufficient organizational skills to turn the bank around--and now insufficient moral authority as well. Some quotes:
The World Bank's Washington head office is full of able people who all work hard. One-third are trying to do something. The other two-thirds are trying to stop them. Never has the doctrine of unripe time been preached so eloquently. The Bank's motto ought to be "Better not".
...
A speech by Paul Wolfowitz on corruption. Imagine. Shuffling feet and downcast eyes while he was at the rostrum: as soon as he left the room, derisive laughter. He cannot stay on...Every African dictator will now be summoning his juju men to cast their spells to keep him in post, and impotence.
...
In the short run, there is an obvious candidate to succeed Mr Wolfowitz: another neo-con, the former UN Ambassador, John Bolton. No-one ever accused him of lacking grip. Nor is he overburdened with sentimentality. Confronted with obstruction or incompetence, he uses his temper as a bulldozer. Mr Bolton is the man the World Bank needs, and deserves.

That would certainly give the NYTimes what its editorial asked for--especially since that editorial did not suggest a possible replacement. Watch out for what you don't wish for...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Political Correctness

When it comes to political correctness, we're caught in a squeeze play between Left & Right. The joke: each side believes it's the other side's problem--exclusively.

This makes Centrists like me roll our eyes. To be sure, on college campuses (outside the alternate universe of Christian conservative colleges) Leftie PC rules with an iron fist. But the Right's flava of PC rules the airwaves (outside the alternate universe of the few "progressive" media outlets).

And in the battleground of public school textbooks, both the Left and Right have tacitly conspired to squeeze the life out of social studies and English texts.

As a result, our school textbooks are now unreadable. Kids loathe them--reading them is like trying to eat cardboard. They never say anything about anything for fear of offending someone loud who has equally loud friends. Both Rightie and Leftie organizations police textbooks from a common viewpoint: (1) "fairness" means the book should indoctrinate students with my point of view and present it as if it's the only legitimate viewpoint; (2) if I can't get that, the book should say nothinig. Japan, BTW, has chosen the latter course. Its history textooks end with the Meiji era in the mid-19th century. They make us look bold by comparison.

On the other hand, we're the only advanced nation on Earth whose biology textbooks make no mention of evolution except in a special chapter, which is typically not taught outside urban/college town areas. So even the sciences are being made unintelligible, with biology reduced to a series of descriptions without a compelling narrative to explain why living organisms are the way they are. And now the same efforts are being made to expunge anything alluding to the possibility that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old, which will effectively neuter geology.

If you're a parent with kids in school, look at their texbooks and see if I'm not right. See if any of them are anything but a perfect cure for insomnia.

So here's yet another example of how the whirly-eyes hate liveliness, hate anything with idiosyncracies, hate any form of humor because they have no sense of humor beyond nastybaiting the other side...

A pox on both their houses. May they spend a millenium in purgatory with nothng to do but read the very textbooks their meddling ruined.

So--to the point of this blog--whenever the issue of the Perils of PC comes up, be sure to probe the speaker about his own side's sins in this area, and not just the other's. If you get your facts straight beforehand you can turn the speaker's trimphalism into a publicly embarrasing retreat from onesidedness.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Muslims in America


These were my posts to the now-defunct New York Times reader forum titled "Muslims in America." When I entered this forum I'd found that many of the forum participants advocated religious apartheidt. And one participant from Australia was focused on bashing Indonesia in toto due to some recent court cases in Indonesia featuring Aussies accused of drug running.

ehkzu - 11:18 PM ET March 21, 2007 (#3450 of 3631)

Is Islam in Indonesia a model?

My spouse and I have been to Indonesia three times since 1999, visiting Hindu, Moslem, and Christian islands, and went scuba diving on liveaboard boats with mixed Christian/Hindu/Moslem crews.

Our experiences were uniformly positive. I'm not thumping the tub for Islamic fundamentalism, which is probably the most bloodthirsty religion on Earth today that has a large following. However, most Indonesian Moslems practice a moderate form of Islam.

We'd all be a lot better off if every Moslem on Earth was as moderate as the average Indonesian Moslem. I realize the Indonesian government tends to kowtow to Islamists, executing Christian terrorists while giving their Islamic equvalents wristslap sentences. OTOH I'd hate to be judged by my government either. The average Moslem on the street that we encountered on our travels in Indonesia treated us just fine--and my spouse and I definitely stick out in an Indonesian crowd.

However, I do remember once waiting in a long line in Manila's international airport and having an encounter with an angry Islamist. He and his pal were trying to cut into the front of the line. A Jewish antizionist lawyer traveling with us challenged the guy--mildly. The Arab turned on the Jew (and our friend looks Jewish and is short) and barked at him You shut up! You just shut up! with such fury I was glad he wasn't packing. He didn't realize that our small friend was traveling with a bunch of guys mostly over 6' tall. We turned to the Arab making the ruckus and he suddenly found himself surrounded by a bunch of Americans towering over him. He quieted down then but you could still see the blind hatred in his eyes. It was chilling to see the face of a Jihadi (or Jihadi wannabe maybe).

Then again, I had a friendly conversation with a Pakistani Moslem on a ferry going to Hong Kong. And the nice doctor who treated me in Cairns, Australia was a Pakistani Moslem.

Just some personal experiences with Moslems abroad.

---------------------------------------------------

ehkzu - 2:12 PM ET March 22, 2007 (#3456 of 3631)

Treating all Muslims as Islamofascists is exactly what the Islamofascists want

Most Muslims in Indonesia are moderates, but they don't make headlines. The radicals are beyond evil.

You should see what the Balinese (mostly Hindu) think about Islamic radicals, whose bombings in Bali plunged that island into economic ruin that it's only just starting to recover from.

Bambi [the Aussie Indonesia-basher on this forum] wants us to punish all of Indonesia for the actions of a small minority of Islamofascists--who, I'll admit, have undue influence over a vacillatory and deeply corrupt government.

But Bali is Hindu. Why punish Bali for the crimes committed against Bali? Flores, West Timor, Sumba and a number of other islands are Christian. Why punish them for offenses committed against their fellow Christians in other parts of Indonesia?

On our last trip to Indonesia our boat captain--a Hindu commanding a mixed Muslim/Hindu/Christian crew--often wore a T-shirt emblazoned with these words: F*** TERRORISM ..only without the asterisks. He spoke for all the crew with this sentiment.

On a per capita basis Islamofascists have harmed the Balinese even more than they harmed America on 9/11. The way most Americans feel about Islamofascists...you'd have to take it to the next level to see how the Balinese feel.

Really, you could argue that the more prosperous we make Bali through tourism the more we strengthen its moderating influence on Indonesian politics. Another point--Indonesian public opinion in general went strongly against America after the Iraq invasion. However, when they saw how quickly and effectively we responded to the tsunami in Aceh many realized they'd been wrong about us, and it showed in subsequent polls. Especially after it got out that some local Indonesian officials had been stealing donated relief goods.

Acts of kindness like our rescue mission to Aceh are repaid way out of scale to what they actually cost us. And they give us more leverage with the government. When my spouse & I go to Indonesia we never get tapped for bribes or get the stink eye. I believe it's partly because we've taken the trouble to learn a few dozen words of Indonesian--especially the words for please and thank you and various greetings (plus Indonesians use a soft handshake).

Consquently wherever we go we do our little bit to improve Indonesians' opinions of Americans, because we're friendly and respectful (and we don't look like either billionaires or bums). I'm not advocating letting up in our battle with Islamofascism. I am advocating making that campaign vastly more effective.

One part is by helping all the Muslim moderates who currently don't dare say anything for fear of being accued of being pro-American. It will take decades to undo the damage the fool in the White House has done to our struggle with Islamofascism, which should be 1/3 military, 1/3 diplomacy, 1/3 police--instead of 90% military and everything else an afterthought.

A good start would be making your next vacation Bali... (no, I'm not working for the Bali Tourist Board...:)

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ehkzu - 3:40 AM ET March 23, 2007 (#3459 of 3631)

The Islamofascists want to kill off Western tourism to Bali

[This post responds to a post by the forum's Aussie Indonsia-basher. He asserted that the recent trial of an Aussie accused of drug running was conducted in Bali, with a Balinese crowd outside calling for severe punishment of the Aussie.]

Recently I watched a documentary about the race for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, here in the States. The incumbent mayor, as crooked as they come, was campaigning as a champion of Newark's poor blacks (poor in part because the mayor, also black, ripped off his constituents every way he could). Cheering throngs greeted this incumbent mayor wherever he went.

But some investigative reporters found out the "cheering throngs" were poor people bussed in from surrounding areas, paid by the good mayor to root for him. It was all a setup.

I strongly suspect the same is true for the [recent] trial in Bali. Remember, the Balinese are NOT Muslim--they're Hindu. They make their living off tourists--Western and Asian. I bet the crowds were shipped in from Java in the service of politicians trying to make anti-Western hay.

The Balinese are not anti-Western. I've been there repeatedly, as I've said. Heck, we were also treated well by the Muslims we encountered in Bali (there are a few) and in Muslim areas like Sumbawa Island and the Wakatobi archipelago and Batu Ata, a remote island in the Flores Sea that we visited.

In the remoter areas crowds of friendly kids would trail us around. In the cities they were all--all--perfectly civil to us. And we didn't avoid the locals like some tourists do. We mixed with them everywhere we went, chatting up shopkeepers, folks on the street, bus drivers. If Indonesia as a whole were anti-Western we would have experienced it.

Among Indonesia's 270,000,000 people there certainly are virulently anti-Western people, and because of that there are areas I wouldn't go to, including Jakarta, the capitol (of course I wouldn't wander around our capitol at night either, for that matter).

Bali is not one of those areas. Everywhere we went in Bali people would thank us for coming to their island and beg us to tell our friends to come. I've been to a lot of non-Western countries around the world, and in some of them they act like they're doing you a favor to give you the time of day. Bali in my experience is the most welcoming of them all.

Now you want to know who hates Bali? Islamofascists. They hate Bali more than Bambi [the Aussie Indonesia-basher on the forum]. In the Islamofascist Wide World of Hate, the most hate (apart from America and Jews) is reserved for polytheists. That would be Hindus. If the Islamofascists had their way the Balinese would be murdered en masse and replaced with Muslims. And the Balinese are acutely aware of this.

Failing that goal, the Islamofascists would love to see Bali's tourist-generated economy ruined (the Balinese are generally better off than other Indonesians). So I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that part of that circus trial's motivation was just that.

Try learn a little from people like me with real experience of these places. Your vision of Indonesia is exactly what the Islamofascists want you to have, and you're playing into their evil machinations when you diss it. The Islamofascists want total apartheid between Moslem countries and Western ones, because when a lot of us show up it messes with their attempts to demonize us and blame us for all their self-inflicted problems. And they're not above setting up a phony show trial to achieve their ends.

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ehkzu - 3:27 AM ET March 24, 2007 (#3466 of 3631)

European Muslims vs. American Muslims vs. Indonesian Muslims

Let me try to connect all this talk about Indonesia to the main focus of this forum.

Fact: Europe's Muslims tend to not be socially or economically integrated, and live in ghettos where their mores are practiced and enforced by their own. This is partly their fault but it's also the fault of their host countries, which tend to be ethnically homogeneous and generally reject outsiders. Ask the Jews, who lived in their midst for over a millenium and were never accepted.

Fact: America's Muslims mostly live mixed in with everyone else, and are socially and economically integrated with America as a whole. In America a guy with a first name like Muhammad on his resume can get a job, rent an apartment, marry a girl whose ancestors came from Sweden. All fine with us as long as he respects our culture and is a productive member of society. Because America is one of the very few countries on Earth where anyone from anywhere can become American if he makes the effort to really join our society.

Fact: A majority of Europe's Muslims say they hate the country they live in. 9/11 was tactically planned in Germany, and was carried out by foreign Muslims--many of whom didn't even speak English. OTOH the mass murder/bombings in England and Spain and the murderous mass riots in France and the murder of Theo Van Gogh were all carried out by residents of those countries.

Fact: Nothing like any of that has come from American Muslims. America didn't bring in Muslims as guest workers and park them in ghettos and never integrate them into our society. America is world's leading expert on assimilating diverse people into your culture.

The only group that isn't assimilating is the Mexicans/Guatemalans/Salvadoreans etc. because so many are entering--mostly illegally--and living together in such large numbers that they're not integrating—not even learning English...

My guess is that Australia's formerly homogeneous society is having problems with its Muslims because Australia's more like Europe than America. It's nobody's fault. It's just history. But it's going to take a serious, conscious effort by Australian authorities and citizens to try to apply the American model and reject the European one.

As for Indonesia...as other posters have said, Al Qaeda regards Indonesia's government as corrupt, apostate heretics, and are trying to build a radical Islamofascist movement there to eventually topple that government. So the current government—the least corrupt in Indonesia’s history, FWIW—is trying to appease Islamofascists without alienating everyone else. Prosecuting whites harshly for drugs is an easy way for them. So’s wrist-slapping Islamofascist terrorists while executing Christian ones.

But Australia may have to choose between justice and the future. Boycotting Indonesia might be just, but it is also just what Al Qaeda wants Australia to do. As with Muslims in America, the more Indonesia becomes integrated into Western civilization the better it will be for the average Indonesian, the average Aussie, and the average American. And the more it’ll grind Osama’s grits.

But also, as is true across most of the third world, aid money won’t reach the needy unless you put it in their hands directly. In Indonesia government jobs are often for sale—they don’t pay a salary, you pay to get the job. Your “salary” is what you extort. NGOs have learned this the hard way all around the world. They only give where they can be absolutely sure they aren’t just lining the pockets of some human tick.

But for heaven’s sake don’t make the average Indonesian think the only one he can turn to is Jamiah Islamiya (Al Qaeda in Indonesia), which loves to get rid of Western aid so it can say “We’re the only ones who care about you.”

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ehkzu - 6:55 PM ET March 24, 2007 (#3470 of 3631)

What to do with Moslems in America

To [the Moslem-bashers on this forum] -- my bottom line: you can’t wish them away, and in fact we desperately need America’s Muslims to be on our side.

There’s a huge battle going on within Islam, between the fundamentalists and the moderates, and thus far Bush and his cronies might as well have been jihadis themselves for all they’ve done to support wahhabist goals.

I advocate playing this game way smarter—-being better friends to our friends and worse foes to our foes. To McGuyver [another poster]--Yes, "murderous" was hyperbolic vis a vis the French riots--though the level of coercion applied to individuals within the ghettos is sometimes murderous. Ask any young woman who dares venture out without a hijab on her head.

McGuyver mentions the disconnect between generations in Europe's Moslem communities. The fine Brit movie "My son the fanatic" describes this incisively. I still maintain that the hostile attitude most Euros have shown towards their resident Moslems has contributed greatly to the problem there. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yes, wahhabism is innately anti-Western and anti-democratic. I believe any noncitizen preaching wahhabism should be deported immediately. Ditto the closely related salafism. And any citizen preaching wahhabism should be tracked like a mafia don. And also yes, the wahhabists/salafists have made a concerted effort to take over America's mosques.

But since the FBI regards most all Arab-Americans as traitors unless proven otherwise (I guess they make an exception for Genral Abizaid), we don't know what's going on in most mosques.

And since our current administration knows nothing--NOTHING--about Von Clausewitz, our almost psychotically inept campaign for hearts and minds in the Moslem world has made it difficult for Moslem moderates to openly side with America. Even though many still want desperately to move here. Check out the long article in the current New Yorker, "Betrayed" (you can download it for free), detailing how we've screwed over the Iraqis who have most helped us over the last four years.

My position is probably identical to Tom Friedman's on the issue of Moslems in America. Look at what we need for a second. We need spies in our large and growing Moslem community, to put it simply. Spies who are Moslem themselves and look it, who speak a variety of Arab dialects (and Arabic is a primitively complex language), Urdu, Pashtun, Farsi, Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Malaya and more, who can penetrate communities and cells here and abroad.

Where do you suppose we'll get them? One thing the Iraq war has shown is that our smart munitions aren't worth squat if we don't know where to aim them. I'm all for going after Moslem bad guys efficiently and brutally everywhere. But. But. We don't have a prayer of doing so effectively without loyal Moslem Americans in the FBI, in the CIA, in the military intelligence services.

And yes of course the wahhabists will do everything in their power to "turn" such people. It's our challenge to find and extirpate those who try and those who helped those who try.

One more thing we have to do is recruit an army of hackers who speak all the languages I listed above and work ceaselessly to kill every Islamist Website that shows up on the Net. We should have literally 30K people doing this 24x7. Kill the useless missle intercept project to fund it. At the same time we need to help promote moderate Islamic websites that show the wahhabists for the anti-Moslems they are.

We can't exterminate a billion Moslems, folks. So we have to live with them. And they've got the oil we need, so we have to deal with them. And hard power is as ineffective as a tank without troops around it. We need hard and soft power to accomplish this. And a military capable of dealing with the "distributed battlefield" of not the future but today.

Human Origins & Religion

These are posts of mine from the New York Times forum "Human Origins & Religion"

Human Origins

How compatible are religious beliefs and scientific theories?

Go to The Evolution Debate

ehkzu - 2:24 AM ET August 23, 2005 (#32992 of 79743)

The Creationist Cascade
First Post.

For the last few days at least this forum has almost entirely consisted of a protracted debate with advocates of so-called Intelligent Design.

But why? This plainly has nothing to do with the stated mandate of the forum. Such a debate actually belongs in a religion forum. It should be conducted between mainstream religionists who accept evolution as part of God’s universe vs. the fundamentalists who account for the bulk of those touting so-called Intelligent Design (SCID).

That could be an interesting debate, since fundamentalists have turned their backs on Christ’s spiritual revolution (all that kindhearted New Testament love one another stuff that puts the Spirit over the Letter) in favor of a narrowminded, legalistic, all-Letter-no-Spirit devolution of Christianity into a kind of Christian Wahhabism.

Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism” ably chronicles what we’re up against. She points out that fundamentalism is a recent development based on fear & anger at the morally complex world we find ourselves in. It’s the Inspector Javert problem, for those of you who’ve read/seen Les Miserables. After you finish this book you’ll know the enemy much better, & perhaps even have a little sympathy for their plight (i.e. not getting to live in Chaucer’s Engelond or thereabouts).

Still, why SCID in this day & age? The answer came to me as I was reading Chemist99A’s discussion of blood clotting (entry #33325). We’re having to deal with SCID because it’s part of a clotting cascade.

Here are the steps:
1. The political donor class (the richest 1% of America) wants to cement the wealth redistribution from the poor & middle classes to itself that it has engineered over the last 30 years.
2. There aren’t enough of them to swing an election, so they need patsies to betray their own needs & principles & give the donor class the 51% it needs to grab power, then gerrymander electoral districts & rig the campaign spending rules so it can perpetuate its control of the economy.
3. Fundamentalists make great patsies—fear & anger are some of the best get-out-the-vote motivators.
4. Shows of public piety & appeals to rigid, simplistic values + inciting fear/anger win over fundamentalists.
5. Fear & anger must be directed at someone. The age of the Robber Barons in the late 19th century was threatened by the Populist movement. The Robber Barons fractured that movement with racist demagoguery—mainly against Blacks, but also against Asians in the west & Jews in the northeast, plus southern European & Slavic immigrants. Today’s Robber Barons have correctly targeted Liberals, since Liberals directly oppose their wealth redistribution schemes—much more than any foreign threat does. That’s why Liberals are even better to vilify than Commies were in the 50s.
6. Education produces Liberals (it also produces Libertarians, but they can be suborned easily with antigovernment appeals).
7. Science education produces rational liberals who are least distracted by Robber Baron fearmongering & weapons of mass distraction.
8. Therefore destroying science education kills two birds with one stone: First, it gives today’s fundamentalists a target they can attack in local school board elections & by directly pressuring teachers & principals (actually, evolution is no longer taught in a majority of Red State areas—not by legal dictum, but just by persuading teachers that it’s more trouble than it’s worth, so they just skip over that chapter). Second, it produces less educated, hence more easily manipulable people.
9. The slick, well-financed campaign of the Creation Institute, with its Hollywood-production-value videos, is perfect for turning America’s science classes into a form of debased religion. And that’s the clotting cascade that winds up with us debating so-called Intelligent Design in a science forum in the New York Times in 2005.

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ehkzu - 10:59 PM ET August 23, 2005 (#33325 of 79737)

Intelligent Design has won

...because ID's real goal is to stop evolution from being taught.

First & foremost, it has won in the classroom. I believe if you surveyed all our public school science teachers, a majority would admit they no longer teach evolution—not because the state or the school board told ‘em not to, but because when they tried to teach it kids showed up brandishing bibles like taser guns, challenging everything the teachers said.

They stopped because the fundie parents harassed them & their principals, & the principals quietly advised them just to go with the flow & not buck “the community.” And it was easy to stop teaching it because their bio textbooks had ghettoized evolution into special chapters that could be skipped over or made optional, instead of weaving evolution into every page, every lesson.

So-called ID is just a feint to distract America’s intelligentsia while the real dirty work goes on out of the spotlight. This is the political genius of the RNC (Rich Nabobs’ Cabal) & the deal with the devil that the religious right has made with their paymasters: You apply leverage out of sight as much as possible.

If so-called ID were to be debated in Congress at a national policymaking level the scientific community would shred it into confetti. That goes for policymaking at the state level (except for the most backward states) as well. Heck, even at the school district level it could gain unwelcome national attention. But at the level of an individual science teacher just skipping the chapter? No problemo.

And no one notices. Heck, it’s even won in this forum. We could be discussing valid issues about human evolution. Instead this forum (in the last few days at least) spends >90% of its time batting down the intellectual gibberish IDiots crank out.

And sure we win every debate. So what? Kerry won all three debates with Bush, & look where it got him. In my first post (#33337) I described the so-called ID phenomenon as a clotting sequence triggered by the need of the political donor class to cement its successful scheme to appropriate more & more of the wealth produced by the other 98% of the economy (generally, people making less than about $250/yr.). Read it for the gory details.

However, I thought of an even simpler explanation: Chinese Com-yew-nists. Since we’re their biggest customer, they don’t want to destroy us. But they do want to supplant our current technological superiority with theirs, so that we’re reduced to sending them raw materials & getting MP3 players & summer frocks in return. What better way than to degrade our educational system so it only churns out consumers of technology rather than creators of it?

So here’s my conspiracy theory: the Com-yew-nists are secretly funding the Discovery Institute through far-right front men who’re playing ball with them to have power over us here, even if it does end up with us becoming a satrapy of China in 50 years. The Chinese take the long view & capitalize on our inability to do so.

Makes sense, huh? Meanwhile, why do the smart folks in this forum waste their time demolishing one lame ID argument after another? No ID’er has EVER changed his or her mind as a consequence.

They’re like the lady who thought she was dead. Her family dragged her to a shrink, who asked her: What’s the problem? No problem, I’m just dead, she said. He pondered this, then asked her Do dead people bleed? Of course not, she said. So he pricked her finger with a surgical needle & squeezed out a bright red drop of blood. She stared at it in amazement, then declared Holy cow! Dead people do bleed...

So…instead, find out what’s actually being taught in bio classes in your state’s public schools outside the college towns & magnet schools. Look at your local bio textbooks. And if you find what I think you’ll find, make a stink. Involve the PTA, other parents, the local paper. All the bad guys need is good folks’ silence.

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ehkzu - 5:16 AM ET August 15, 2006 (#62841 of 79737)

Did Humans Evolve? Not Us, Say Americans

NYTimes article, August 15, 2006:

>In surveys conducted in 2005, people in the United States & 32 European countries were asked whether to respond “true,” “false” or “not sure” to this statement:

>“Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” The same question was posed to Japanese adults in 2001.

>The United States had the second-highest percentage of adults who said the statement was false & the second-lowest percentage who said the statement was true, researchers reported in the current issue of Science.

>Only adults in Turkey expressed more doubts on evolution. In Iceland, 85 percent agreed with the statement. The ranking was as follows, from highest to lowest level of acceptance of science:

>Iceland Denmark Sweden France Japan Britain Norway Belgium Spain Germany Italy Netherlands Hundary Luxembourg Ireland Slovenia Finland Czech Republic Estonia Portugal Malta Switzerland Slovak Republic Poland Austria Croatia Romania Greece Bulgaria Lithuania Latvia Cyprus United States Turkey

Of course, with all due respect to the fundies who flock to what they blasphemously call "churches" every Sunday, where they proceed to work against pretty much everything Christ taught, & to the intellectual parasites who lead them, this will seem a great triumph.

They'd invert this stack to show how with their invaluable help we've almost reached the height of enlightenment enjoyed by Turkey, Iran, Hezbollan Lebanon, Sudan, & other equally bright lights on this suffering planet.

But from the point of view of anyone whose thinking can actually be differentiated from that of a chimp (i.e. analytic vs. associative) they've only succeeded in making the country I love into the laughingstock of the civilized world. Of course the race to the bottom isn't over. Destroy America's education system a little more & we may yet surpass whoever currently holds the "most backward" crown.

Go Christianist Taliban. Sis boom bah.

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ehkzu - 1:51 PM ET August 15, 2006 (#62863 of 79737)

Science is no more anti-Christian than a bicycle is anti-fish

Jyrsmith0 made a good point earlier:

>jyrsmith0 - 12:03 PM ET August 15, 2006 (#62934 of 62935)

>…I teach Chemistry & it becomes almost frightening to me how I can demonstrate my students’ lack of Science knowledge when I begin to address the Evolution vs. Creation issue. However, unlike a lot of my fellow colleagues, I do believe in a creator & I am Christian. I see no conflict in saying that God created Heaven & Earth by The Big Bang...

This is why I tell people I’m not an Atheist. Dictionaries pretty much define "Atheist" as someone who responds to the question “Do you believe in God” by saying “No” (Agnostics say “I’m not sure”). But I say “There was a word in your question I don’t get. What is 'God'" ?

Because you can’t define or describe “God” empirically. And since science is nothing more or less than codified empiricism, science has nothing to say about “God” one way or another.

So as a purely inductive thinker I can’t be an Atheist (or an Agnostic either).

First, it’s a negative definition. It would be like calling me a non-student, or a non-Chevy owner, or a non-Russian. All true but all non-illuminating.

Second, the term has no practical import. An Islamofascist would make no distinction between me & the most pious Amish farmer. To him/her we’re both Infidels who should be killed on the spot. Nor does it say anything about my philosophy of life. There are Atheists who live like saints, others whose behavior landed them in San Quentin. (ditto professed Christians I might add.)

"Atheism" isn't a philosophy. It's a biased term, just as "miscegenation" is (coined by Southern racists to fram mixed-race marriage as "wrongful racial intermarriage"), or a racial slur like "K...ke." [sorry for the ellipses--the NYTimes won't let me use a racial slur even in this context. So I can't quote extensively from, say, Huckleberry Finn either. Ain't PC wonderful?]

What I believe has nothing to do with a word I don’t understand, pro or con, & which can’t be defined scientifically, pro or con. Attempts at definition just wind up with tautologies shaped like Ptolomean epicycles.

Nonetheless I know a lot about religion, having been raised Episcopalian, & having married a devout Mormon Republican (but I repeat myself) decades ago, with whom I go to church every Sunday.

And from that knowledge the first question I usually have for Creationists isn’t “Why do you reject science?” --since from a religious viewpoint science is only the study of “How God Did It” as Jyrsmith0 rightly implies. Instead, my first question is “When did you reject Christ?” since the priorities & mindset of the Creationists exactly oppose the form & substance of the great Jewish reformer they pretend to follow.

Christ found his fellow Jews obsessed with the Word & forgetful of the Spirit, without which the Word is an empty chalice. He found them self-proud & failing to see their kinship with others—remember the Pharisees’ prayer? Christ said exactly nothing about homosexual marriage, abortion, evolution, Terry Schiavo, the inerrancy of the Bible, or pretty much anything else the Fundies obsess about.

Instead He stressed our kinship with the least among us, our obligation to help the helpless, our need to be kind. And He never gave a straight answer, instead teaching through parables that pushed his listeners to use their own gifts to seek the light rather than just sit there as little moons to His sun. And even though I still have no idea what “God” means, Christ’s mandates for our life here on Earth make perfect sense to me (even scientifically, based on what I know of sociobiology).

And using our gifts is surely part of that. If “God” didn’t want me to think, "He" sure screwed up by giving me a squillion neuronal connections. This line of attack has the advantage of not letting the Fundies frame the debate like they like to, tricky devils that they are.

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ehkzu - 10:36 PM ET August 15, 2006 (#62917 of 79737)

Springes to catch woodcocks

The twaddle Alhie posted--& which many of you spent a lovely afternoon refuting--is beside the point. What Alhie posted is Creationist PR. It's not designed to convince or convert rational, scientifically non-ignorant people. That's why it's so easy to bat it down.

But Alhie's side still won. Because across America, in a majority of public schools, evolution is no longer taught.

No, I'm not talking about laws passed by state legislatures or policies promulgated by school boards. I'm talking about old-fashioned many-to-one intimidation. Of individual teachers, of principals, of textbook publishers.

Textbook publishers have been coerced into ghettoizing evolution in a chapter instead of it permeating textbooks as it should. The chapter is easily skipped over. And a majority of American biology teachers do just that, time & time again.

The principal whispers in his ear "community standards" & "don't rock the boat." You can confirm what I'm claiming by perusing the National Center for Science Education. website.

Intelligent rational people like many in this forum don't even see it happening. This isn't done in college towns. It isn't done in big cities (mostly). It's done in Red America, & it uses IDiot lists like the one Alhie posted as part of their campaign.

The result, as I posted yesterday from a New York Times article, is that America is the most science-denying nation among civilized nations. A majority of Americans now deny evolution & many of them even deny that the Earth is over 6K years old. And that's the majority that keeps electing science deniers like Bush to the White House & Congress.

They've won. As result, I predict that within a century America will become a cultural backwater that citizens of advanced nations visit for a cheap vacation while those nations use ours as a source of raw materials & ag products. And the political parasites who prey on their own supporters as well as us use stuff like Alhie's list to keep them distracted while they rummage through all our wallets & systematically degrade our educational system. Ignorant, superstitious voters are far easier to control, after all.

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ehkzu - 11:46 PM ET August 16, 2006 (#63050 of 79737)

Fromderinside, pick another example

in

>fromderinside - 3:46 PM ET August 16, 2006 (#63087 of 63103)

you said

>Beta Splendens defend their nests to the death or swim down the throat of piranha because it is in their nature.

Bettas come from SE Asia, Piranhas from the Amazon Basin. They're never met in nature. Bettas do defend their nests--mainly from female Bettas, which would eat the eggs (the males build the nests & raise the baby Bettas). But not to the death. If they saw a school of piranhas they'd swim their scales off trying to get away. Piranhas are pretty fearsome, after all (though not as much as the candiru if you're a human).

Sorry, I joined this forum to talk biology, not theology. Isn't it refreshing to actually talk biology in a biology forum instead of Creationist twaddle?

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ehkzu - 12:16 AM ET August 17, 2006 (#63055 of 79738)

Solution for science teaching: federalize education

Most advanced nations have federalized education systems with consistent national standards. We should emulate them. A centralized system with federal standards would be far more transparent & far more resistant to the stealth campaign Creationists have been mounting at the local school level for decades.

After Goldwater's defeat, America's Christian Taliban realized they'd succeed most if they worked in the darkness, like mildew, far away from the national spotlight. That way they can intimidate individual science teachers & science museum docents, get elected onto school boards by taking advantage of low voter turnout in non-national elections, focus on small town America, & thus fly under the educated class's radar.

It worked. They defend local control by appealing to the hatred of central government that has been inculcated by rich people who hate paying taxes for services they don't need themselves. Have you ever heard of a rich person who thought he had enough wealth? They exist, but they're the exception (George Soros, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates...any others?).

Even with the Publican "Borrow & Spend" Party running the federal government, they can't get away with the kind of anti-science crapola they pull at the state & local level.

It's the supperrich I worry about, not the Fundies, ultimately. The Fundies are just their unwitting foot soldiers, gulled into serving the supperrich's war on the middle & lower classes, content with the anti-homosexual, anti-abortion legislation that gets thrown them (anything as long as it doesn't cost anything). Don't look at the hand puppet. Look at the hand in the puppet.

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ehkzu - 2:28 AM ET August 17, 2006 (#63072 of 79739)

There's even surer ground from which to joust with theists

Any form of arguing about the validity of atheism/agnosticism is letting theists frame the debate. Instead, play dumb. When a theist asks you whether you're religious, agnostic, or atheist, say "Huh?" Then, when they say (most likely) "That is, do you believe in God?" Just say "Sorry, there's a word you said that I don't understand. What is a "God?" They say "Don't play semantic games." You say "I'm not playing. I. Don't. Understand. That. Word."

Then they try to define "God," which can't be defined in any manner an empiricist would be able to deal with. Really, all definitions of "God" are tautologies. I welcome all who've been labeled "atheist" & "agnostic" to bust out of the framing devices theists would like to entrap us with. Just say the truth--which is that we really, honestly, non-ironically, don't understand what they're talking about.

Except for the one about what the insomniac agnostic dyslexic does.
A. He lies awake all night wondering if there's a Dog.

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ehkzu - 3:32 AM ET August 18, 2006 (#63229 of 79740)

Convergent evolution & human origins

How about talking about HUMAN origins for a bit? This being a Human Origins forum & all. I tried to do this a few months ago & my questions got buried in a mudslide of fundie twaddle & counterarguments, but I'm a glutton for punishment, so here goes again:

1. Why do we have five fingers? This question really means Why do salamanders have five digits? Why not, say, four? Is this arbitrary, or is there some evolutionary advantage for all terrestrially originated vertebrates having five digits, from frogs to bats to cats to whales to us? Obviously if five fingers were disadvantageous we'd'a lost the problem digits or morphed the hand entirely, as did horses, birds, whales etc. We're closer to salamanders than most other vertebrates, handwise, as befits our less specialized body plan. But if five fingers neither gains nor loses us anything they're liable to stick around. I don't see us losing our individual toes even though having them separate doesn't seem to get us anything (except for handless people who've learned how to substitute their feet, I suppose). An engineer friend argues that there must be some real value to five fingers because they cost us biologically to build & maintain them. I'm not so sure--bio features tend to have inertia absent strong outside selective repro forces.

2. Why don't we have fur? I'm guessing this has to do with our skin being highly enervated, serving as a sensitive sense organ that lets us use our opposable thumbed hands to pick off parasites, for example.

3. Why do we have topknots? (i.e. hairy heads). If no fur elsewhere (other than armpits & pubes, where in both cases the hair serves as a pheremone storage/distribution point).

4. Why do males have hairy faces & females not? I don't know of any other primate that's sexually dimorphic in this manner. My guess is that the females need naked faces to convey nuanced emotions in their roles as parents & mates & general-purpose tribal reifiers, while males' main work is more solitary--hunting & gathering--and hence needed less social communication.

5. Why do we have chins & other primates don't?

I have other questions about HUMAN origins but these are a start. I'm particularly interested in hearing from any evolutionary biologists who might be on this forum.

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ehkzu - 2:18 PM ET August 18, 2006 (#63297 of 79740)

Convergent evolution & human origins pt. deux

leszekcnn & Chemist99A, I'm inclined to agree with both of you that the human traits I mentioned (5 fingers, topknots, toes, relative hairlessness etc.) are probably generally arbitrary--historical holdovers, traits linked to functional ones & the like.

For example, I've heard it claimed that we quick-evolved our big brains relative to our body mass through neotony (preservation of juvenile traits into adulthood). Salamander babies are aquatic, breathing through external gills. But when they morph into adults they become land dwellers.

However, the axolotl, a large Mexican salamander, remains in the water, external gills & all, & the explanation is apparently neotony. Likewise perhaps our relative hairlessness is linked to the relative-big-brain thing, which is of course a trait of all baby mammals.

And speaking as a scuba diver who's spent quality time exploring the most diverse habitat on Earth--the coral reefs of Indonesia--it can be hard to wrap your mind around the mind-blasting array or organisms you see down there, much less come up with an evolutionary model for everything. Yet time after time I've seen things we thought were arbitrary turn out to actually have a convergent evolutionary model.

So while five fingers seems arbitrary to me as well, I want to make sure I'm not overlooking something--at least something that made it mandatory for salamanders. As one of you rightly pointed out, recent fossil finds have revealed that the earliest amphibians had many "fingers." It's easy to see how that got reduced in more successful models, just as the millipedes' many legs got reduced to--I think--10 in crustaceans, 8 in arachnids, then 6 in the most successful arthropods, the insects.

Yet animals didn't drop below that leg count until we got to the much larger terrestrial vertebrates. Interestingly (to me at least) we see some terrestrial vertebrates experimenting with cutting the functional limb count to two--tyrannosaurus & its ilk--and to zero with the snakes of course. But these seem to be more specialized adaptations than a general advantage--snakes for predation in underground tunnels I suspect.

So early amphibians got a functional advantage from going down to five fingers but not from going below that? Because any evolutionary change is biologically expensive. A recent news item points out how much:

>“It takes more energy than all the fossil fuel people burn on the planet in a year to form one new species of plankton,” said Andrew Allen, the study’s lead researcher at the National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

That's an argument for evolution only going as far as it absolutely has to go to gain a reproductive advantage, & no farther. Helps explain why humans are still so chimplike, don't it? More seriously, it helps explain why our layout accepts the highest mortality rate in childbirth of any mammal.

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ehkzu - 3:29 PM ET August 18, 2006 (#63313 of 79740)

To what degree are we the product of evolutionary convergence?

I ask questions like why 5 fingers, topknots, hairlessness etc. as details of the larger issue of evolutionary convergence. That is--to what degree are our species' characteristics the product of arbitrary, idiosyncratic happenstance, & to what degree are they due to evolutionary convergence?

I'm inclined to think that if we were able to wander about in the universe (perhaps even in the Bulk), we'd find that 99 times out of 100 the dominant life form on any planet supporting advanced life (sidestepping the point that our dominant lifeforms are bacteria & viruses, the obvious top predators here)--is

a: terrestrial (can't smelt iron underwater).·
b: erect bipedal (all ancestors tetrapods; then must free limbs for fine manipulation; elephant trunk an interesting sideshow but not sufficient; & erectness an invaluable adjunct to using our brains, since spotting predators from far away gives us more time to use our brains to outwit them).·
c: hominid (head on top, sense organs close to brain due to slow messaging along nerve pathways, eyes pointing forward for stereo vision, ears on side for stereo audition, horizontal mandibles, differentiated dentition yada yada).·
d: ...with skin color, for example, rigorously determined by amount of sunlight falling of a particular hominid at a particular latitude.

It appears to be an article of faith among many (especially people with just a liberal arts education) that we got here by accident, & aliens must look like the folk in the Star Wars cantina scene. But there's a reason why ichthyosaurs, sharks, dolphins & tuna are so similar, & if we could visit other life-bearing worlds, I think we observe similar convergence in dominant critters out there.

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Human Origins #63330 - ehkzu 4:58 PM ET August 18, 2006

Number five...number five...number five

Dang, I hadn't thought about the track record of 5-way symmetry in lower phyla like Coelenterata. I have heard speculation that there are sources of "genetic mandates" lower than what can currently see in our genome. And yes, when a species (or ancestor species) passes through a near-extinction bottleneck that sure can set not-so-useful traits in stone...

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ehkzu - 6:36 PM ET August 18, 2006 (#63335 of 79741)

Are we Devo? Yes, we are Devo!

re: jorian3l8 - 4:54 PM ET August 18, 2006 (#63409 of 63410) http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=mg1912 [...] "Why Doesn't America Believe In Evolution?" I posted this article earlier, but it's just as relevant here:

>Did Humans Evolve? Not Us, Say Americans
>NYTimes article, August 15, 2006: In surveys conducted in 2005, people in the United States & 32 European countries were asked whether to respond “true,” “false” or “not sure” to this statement: “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” The same question was posed to Japanese adults in 2001. The United States had the second-highest percentage of adults who said the statement was false & the second-lowest percentage who said the statement was true, researchers reported in the current issue of Science. Only adults in Turkey expressed more doubts on evolution. In Iceland, 85 percent agreed with the statement. The ranking was as follows, from highest to lowest level of acceptance of science: Iceland Denmark Sweden France Japan Britain Norway Belgium Spain Germany Italy Netherlands Hungary Luxembourg Ireland Slovenia Finland Czech Republic Estonia Portugal Malta Switzerland Slovak Republic Poland Austria Croatia Romania Greece Bulgaria Lithuania Latvia Cyprus United States Turkey

As for why...well, I think the Fundies love that Beatles' song "Yesterday...all my troubles seemed so far away...Now it looks like they are here to stay...How I believe in yesterday."

What seems like open air & an exhilarating big sky to us seems like anarchy & moral chaos to them. They're obsessed with Dostoevsky's maxim "Without God all things are possible." And I think a lot of the older ones are suffering permanent PTSD from the Hippie Era.
As Karen Armstrong points out in The Battle for God (I think that's the title), fundamentalism is a modern movement despite its claims to being the restoration of something ancient. Metaphorically speaking it's society's autoimmune disorder. And with the burgeoning home schooling movement we're seeing tens of thousands of Americans emerging into the adult world with completely Medieval minds.

So I suppose instead of heaping scorn on them here we should be inviting them to dip a toe into modernity & keep reassuring them that moral order is possible with or without their version of God.

Actually I think it's more possible without their God. Can you really call anyone moral who's doing good for the apr├ęs-life rewards awaiting him? Far more moral is the film noir-style goodness of the Stoic who does good without hope or expectation of reward, now or later.

And sociolbiologically speaking we're genetically programmed for goodness, more or less. Richard Wright's The Moral Animal is a wonderful exegesis of this arena at the frontiers of sociobiology. Because obviously it's adaptive for the gene pool of any social animal--especially one with such lengthy gestation & maturation periods for its young--to be good to each other, to understand the spirit of self-sacrifice, to even be willing to go to war in defense of one's tribe.

Since our mind is so RAM-based it’s easy for this genetic imperative to be misinterpreted & go awry. Doesn’t mean it isn’t there, though. And I don’t see religious institutions have any better a track record, frankly. In Les Miserables, Inspector Javert killed himself rather than face the ambiguities of the real world. His character’s suffering eloquently describes the internal war I suspect most Fundies experience, as they erect one Ptolomean epicycle after another in a vain effort to cram the real universe’s complexity into their orderly schema.

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ehkzu - 7:14 PM ET August 18, 2006 (#63338 of 79741)

1, 2, 3, 4, can I have a little more?

JStuart's link to a SciAm.com article was good--showed how the need to actually walk forced reduction of digits. Plus the article pointed out how it's much easier, evolutionarily speaking, to lose or morph something than to add something. So once you've lost the extra digits they're not likely to come back even if your species could use them again.

The article also left some room open for, probably, four or six digits. Probably not more or less--more just get in the way of efficient locomotion, less do too. Kinda like the way a living planet's sun should be a G2 star like ours--much bigger & it doesn't last long enough, much smaller & you have to get too close, leading to tidal lock & attendant horrors (plus small stars "burp" every so often due to fusion byproduct buildup in the stellar core; which burp will wipe out any life on any planet facing the star at the time.

In other words... (to the tune of the WWI soldiers' song "It's a long way to Tipperary"):

(chorus)
It's a long way from amphioxus It's a long way to us…
It's a long way from amphioxus To the meanest human cuss.
It's good-bye, fins & gill slits, Hello, lungs & hair!
It's a long, long way from amphioxus, But we all came from there!

A fish-like thing appeared among the annelids one day;
It hadn't any parapods or setae to display.
It hadn't any eyes or jaws, or ventral nervous chord,
But it had a lot of gill slits & it had a notochord.

(chorus)

It wasn't much to look at, & it scarce knew how to swim.
And Nereis was very sure it hadn't come from him.
The molluscs wouldn't own it, & the arthropods got sore,
So the poor thing had to burrow in the sand along the shore.

He burrowed in the sand before a crab could nip his tail.
He said "Gill slits & myotomes are all to no avail.
I've grown some metapleural folds, & sport an oral hood.
And all these fine new characters don't do me any good!"

(chorus)

He sulked a while down in the sand without a bit of pep.
Then he stiffened up his notochord & said "I'll beat 'em yet!
Let 'em laugh & show their ignorance; I don't mind their jeers!
Just wait until they see me in a hundred million years!"

"My notochord shall turn into a chain of vertebrae;
As fins, my metapleural folds will agitate the sea.
My tiny dorsal nervous chord shall be a mighty brain
And the vertebrates will dominate the animal domain!"

(chorus)

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ehkzu - 8:27 PM ET August 24, 2006 (#63851 of 79741)

Apparently studying human origins no longer acceptable field of study

from today's New York Times:

>Evolution Major Vanishes From Approved Federal List
>Published: August 24, 2006
>Evolutionary biology--“the scientific study of the genetic, developmental, functional, & morphological patterns & processes, & theoretical principles; & the emergence & mutation of organisms over time”--has vanished from the list of acceptable fields of study for recipients of a federal education grant for low-income college students. Government spokespeople called the omission a clerical error. However, it hasn't been fixed yet if that is the case.

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ehkzu - 2:06 AM ET March 22, 2007 (#77609 of 79741)

Human Origins anyone?

Just dropped in on this forum to see how things were going. I've been off in Australia scuba diving. Now I've returned only to find the Human Origins forum has become La Casa de Glossolalia.

Let me straighten things out.

Humans, like all other creatures great & small, are descended from bugs. Then when we die bugs descend on us. We have religion because most humans lack sufficient imagination to imagine their own non-existence. All these sad & desperate efforts to explain evolution supernaturally differ not a whit from astrology, numerology, Madame Poobah's Palmistry Parlor, Occultism, Ptolomy's epicycles, & all the other cons con artists have practiced on the gullible since Igwok was hawking genuine mastodon salve in the late Pleistocene—all stem from the fact that hope clouds observation.

Religion is perfectly compatible with evolution because science is only about observable phenomena testable through scientific method & religion isn’t. The sets have no intersection. Now can this forum go back to discussing our actual origins?

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ehkzu - 6:35 PM ET April 11, 2007 (#79538 of 79742)

Science & religion are 100% compatible From a religious point of view

God did the universe. Science is simply the study of How God Did It. Any religious belief that contradicts proven scientific findings is just another example of human fallibility--of our still imperfect understanding of God.

Just as the human race evolved from one-celled organisms that existed billions of years ago, our understanding of religion evolved from primitive magical beliefs to the ethical foundations of today's major religions.

But who denies that we still have a long way to go? Anyone who believes their religious understanding trumps proven scientific theory has set himself above God. And that would be the sin of Pride.

Science is humble--every good scientist is always willing to see his most cherished ideas overthrown if new findings mandate it. Good religion is equally humble, as Christ told us to be...always seeking to better our understanding of God & His universe. That's His universe. Not Ours.

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ehkzu - 4:15 AM ET April 12, 2007 (#79617 of 79742)

What assertion?

re:

>nightrider - 8:06 PM ET April 11, 2007 (#79550 of 79616) Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never existed. Abraham Lincoln (Dec 3,1861)

>your assertion doesn't hold water ehkzu #79538 6:35 PM ET 4/11/2007

>nor does it prove that the universe, & countless others that have detected were formulated by a supreme being? Faith doesn't cut it.

>Prove your assertion.

My answer:

"Please do not understand me too quickly." --Andre Gide
I suggest you re-read my post. If you do you'll see that everything I said was prefaced by the dependent clause "From the religious point of view..."

I never claimed that this was--or was not--my point of view. I was simply making an if-then statement, which you should recognize from any course you might have taken in logic or elementary programming.

My only assertion was that IF you were religious THEN you should revere science as the surest path to understanding God's progressively less mysterious ways.

Do you disagree with the assertion that I actually made?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Illegal drugs


This is an interchange from the Exiles of the New York Times Immigration forum. My response is on top. Note my unique suggestion that we legalize drugs but treat as premeditated all crimes committed under the influence of both drugs and alcohol.
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As a statement of principle what the Colonel said is correct. The devil, as usual, is in the details. And here the detail is that our efforts to curb drug use are totally inadequate. I put it to you that what our society has actually chosen isn't to mitigate drug use so much as to make a show of mitigating drug use so we can feel good about ourselves--and to feed more and more tax dollars into an ever-increasing government bureacracy whose purpose has shifted at least in part from drug control to self-maintenance.

Moreover, I think you could make a powerful argument for the most basic role of government being the regulation of conduct between people. From this point of view, taking drugs is irrelevant. OTOH getting stoned and killing someone is totally relevant. That's why I've proposed that we legalize drugs but at the same time treat all crimes committed under the influence of a mind altering substance as premeditated--including alcohol.

The differential treatment of alcohol vs. other mind-altering substances, and of the drugs blacks and lower-class whites use vs. the ones legislators use, leads to a second key principle of governance in a constitutional democracy: equality under the law. All corrupt societies feature one set of laws for their nomenclatura (that was the privileged class in the Soviet Union), another for everyone else.

It is blatantly discriminatory to legalize one of most poisonous of mind-altering substances--alcohol--while making it a felony to use marijuana, arguably one of the least harmful of mind-altering substances. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose. It's not possible. Alcohol ODs OTOH, happen all the time. At the very least we should treat both the same, or, better yet, regulate the aspect of all this that actually matters: what people do to other people. Laws don't just require government enforcement--they must also be seen as fair. The current situation diminishes respect for the law, just as Prohibition did.

BTW I don't have a dog in this fight. I'm married to a devout Mormon and haven't had a drink since 1983 or illegal drugs since 1969. My concern is applying our finite resources to controlling crime between people--including illegal immigration, which is the crime of trespassing and often ID theft. and the constant incursions of drug cartels so powerful they control governments in some countries, and of course human trafficking--which is always a crime against other people.
And remember I never advocated legalizing drugs for minors, who by definition cannot consent. That's also why there's no such thing as a child prostitute.

So to get back to the topic of this thread: IF we legalize or decriminalize drugs we both cut off most financing for the international cartels that keep crossing our borders AND we free up serious government resources to apply to control international criminal activity that involves incursions and to amp up drug programs for minors--which have had some success, actually, except for alcohol. BTW a good step for that would be to "decriminalize" alcohol--i.e. keep it legal but ban advertising, which glamorizes it.

No one loves our current drug laws and enforcement activities more than the drug cartels. The DEA guarantees the profitability of the international drug trade by keeping the price up. If marijuana and heroin cost the same as parsely and beer the drug cartels are out of business in America. And the job of controlling our borders becomes a lot safer.

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Here's the immigration forum entry I was answering:
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------[quote pid=965 author=colonel_sanders date=1176347179]The War on Drugs cannot be 'lost' unless one gives up. It also cannot be 'won' any more than the War against Rape or the War against Arson or the War against White Collar Crime or the War against Human Trafficking or the War against Pickpockets.

It is an ongoing struggle to mitigate the harmful effects of a nefarious activity and always will be.
The members of a society decide what behaviors are unacceptably harmful and they take steps to minimize those behaviors. Each different human culture makes those sorts of decisions in different ways and all human cultures do make those decisions.[/quote]

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Local Politics


Kids Safe on Bikes?

Fewer and fewer kids bike to school. Instead you see daily traffic jams around schools as parents drop off and pick up kids for their one-mile commutes. Why? Parents fear for their kids getting hit by cars or abducted. And no wonder. TV news delivers a steady diet of kids in peril.

But here in Palo Alto [a college town with 56,000 population] the Police Department reports that since 2000 there has been ONE fatality involving a juvenile cyclist—and no stranger abductions at all. There have been nonfatal collisions and three attempted abductions, but still, Palo Alto’s streets are hardly a jungle.

Meanwhile our “protected” kids get fatter and fatter, impairing their quality of life and shortening their life expectancy.


I’m not saying just push your kid out the door on a bike. Too many kids ride obliviously, often with helmets unfastened, tilted back, or dangling from handlebars.
The answer is training and supervision. Want to be a helicopter parent? Fine. Accompany your kid to school on a bike, wearing your own helmet (I see way too many parents riding helmetless). Put your kids through safe cycling classes. Afterwards, if you do see them riding unsafely (and you should check periodically) make them walk for a week. Lastly, get them safe bikes from local bike shops. Some hints: aluminum wheels work in water; steel wheels don’t; forged brake caliper arms work; stampings break—and even a kid’s first bike should have hand brakes.

For example, this Trek Float, for kids aged 6-9 (thee's a girl's model too), has hand brakes and easily removable cranks. So instead of putting on training wheels you can just remove the cranks/pedals and lower the seat. That way the kid can learn to balance a bike naturally, getting it rolling with his own feet, using the hand brakes to stop. Then he doesn't have to unlearn the unnatural riding style of a bike with training wheels, and he's using brakes the way he'll use brakes on bigger bikes when he gets older.
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Neighbors have responsibilities too

Every week the Daily News runs letters from folks in a particular neighorhood or interest group. They generally say "City Hall [or the Daily News editorial page] isn't respecting our rights sufficiently." The latest is Alma Plaza, but before that we had "traffic calming" measures in north Palo Alto, Rickey's Hyatt hotel, Fry’s Electronics, a special Mandarin immersion program...someone’s always on the warpath about something.

In every case what certain neighbors or the special interest group mean by "their rights" is “what everyone else in Palo Alto owes us.” But they never talk about what they owe the rest Palo Alto’s residents.

Since Proposition 13 passed long ago, Palo Alto’s best source of revenue has been businesses. Property taxes don’t rise commensurately with everything else and generally produce a lot less tax revenue than a business does in the same place. Those business taxes fund our services and infrastructure (and generous city employee pensions).

So to the City Council I say yes, listen to the neighbors and the developers. But consider the rest of us as well. And we object to your dithering about commercial projects. It continually makes us lose businesses we need in favor of housing developments.

Please manage the city for the benefit of all, not just developers’ elaborate presentations--or the few angry people who get in your face at every Council meeting.