Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Draft of a press release for ACA

On December 20, 2005, judge John E. Jones III issued a 139 page ruling on the case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, stating that a rule requiring teachers to present Intelligent Design (ID) as a scientific alternative to evolution is unconstitutional. In Judge Jones' own words:
After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.
We in the Atheist Community of Austin applaud this ruling. We have been saying for many years that Intelligent Design is not science, but merely biblical creationism dressed up with the trappings of science.

Since the introduction of the Wedge Strategy in 1990's, it has been embarassingly clear that Intelligent Design is a front for a group of individuals whose ultimate goal is to undermine scientific knowledge and shoehorn religion into public schools. They have done no original research, produced no scientific results, and accomplished little more than a massive and relentless public relations campaign for their ideas. Their strategy has been to repeatedly infiltrate school districts in individual towns across the country, instituting changes in local education standards, in the hopes that ID might eventually receive a facade of credibility if they win enough political battles.

Our home city of Austin received a taste of this campaign in 2003, when the neo-creationist road show came to Texas to demand that misleading statements about evolution be added to the state's textbooks. In that instance, as in this one, they were resoundingly defeated.

Unless Judge Jones' ruling is appealed, it will only directly affect Pennsylvania school districts. However, because the ruling is so thorough, it will likely serve as a legal template for any future decisions on the topic of ID in schools. Judge Jones minced no words regarding the scientific uselessness of Intelligent Design, also stating:
Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.
The issue of creationism affects education throughout the country. It is not a matter of atheists against Christians. It is a matter of good science, backed by decades of evidence, against a nonscientific political crusade. It is about religion masquerading as science, trying to sidestep the Constitutionally mandated separation of church and state that exists in this country. This week, a major blow was struck against this agenda.

Note: If you receive this blog via the RSS feed, please check the original source page for revised versions that will follow.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


This post I wrote was deemed (by ongoing vote) the number one best post on the Motley Fool message board system for about four hours yesterday.

The discussion was about a college professor who had ridiculed creationism in private email. Another poster wrote, "Mocking someone else's beliefs is just plain ugly".

I replied:

That is a load of bunk and I will now mock you for having this belief.

(Waggling my finger) Mock, mock, mock.

All beliefs are created equal, but some become harder and harder to maintain with a straight face over time. Anyone in the 21st century who believes, for instance, that the earth is flat, deserves all the ridicule they can be subjected to for this belief. I mock them now.

Mock, mock, mock.

Fundamentalist Muslims believe that women are the property of their husbands and fathers, that they should not be out in public without male escorts and veils, and that they must never speak their mind or contradict their men. For holding those beliefs, I mock fundamentalist Muslims.

Mock, mock, mock.

As recently as 50 years ago, a large number of people in certain areas of this very country believed that blacks were inferior human beings, and that they should not be allowed to sit at the same tables as white people or share the same drinking fountains, and if they tried to marry white women, they deserved to be lynched. Those people were jackasses, and I mock them.

Mock, mock, mock.

You can sit around and come up with rational arguments to use against cretins who believe the holocaust never happened. And you SHOULD be familiar with those arguments, if you want to be solid in the real facts. But at a certain point, you don't legitimize holocaust deniers by giving them equal time in history classes and giving students the opportunity to decide for themselves. You tell them what the best evidence of history points to, and you rightly say that holocaust deniers are morons who have no leg to stand on.

Mock, mock, mock.

Don't get me wrong, I hold that everyone's right to BELIEVE their own ridiculous ideas is sacred, or as close to "sacred" as an atheist can muster. But to tell me that I have no right to POINT OUT that their beliefs really are ridiculous is outrageous. Many ideas are not just stupid, they are downright harmful to a society and the innocent people who live there. And since I do not believe in censorship, the best way to effectively combat these beliefs is to mercilessly mock bad, outmoded, and wrongheaded ideas every chance I get.

Mock, mock, mock.

It is not only GOOD to mock obviously bad ideas for being bad. I argue that it is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT to shoot them down whenever possible. Otherwise, ideas that are completely unreasonable start to sound reasonable to an uneducated populace who never learned how to tell the difference between fact and opinion. And the folks who cynically take advantage of other people's bad education to hoodwink them into believing things, so they can steal their money and commandeer their lives, are the lowest scum of the earth. They should be exposed. And then mocked.

Mock, mock, mock.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Republicans against creationism

Two recent articles by conservatives criticize Intelligent Design, one by George Will and one by Charles Krauthammer.

In a nutshell, Will and Krauthammer are extending a plea to the religious zealot wing of the Republican party: "Hey guys, could you please shut up about the intelligent design thing? You're hurting us and making us look dumb."

My opinion? It's not so much a problem with a small fringe group as it is with the way that the Republican party has intentionally chosen to structure themselves. You have the economic nerd wing of the Republican party, such as Will and Krauthammer, as well as probably guys like Rumsfeld and Cheney. Smart guys with a political philosophy that can be summed up as "screw the poor."

Then you have the religious zealots, who are intent on demolishing the rift between church and state -- many of whom ARE poor.

The economic nerds are the guys who aspire to power, and are smart enough to get it. But to do that, they need to get a majority of voters on their side, and they fill out their base by pandering to the zealot wing. These are people who probably wouldn't vote Republican if it weren't for the lip service they received to their agenda (i.e., overturn Roe v Wade, stop them uppity queers, and teach kids their religion in disguise as ID). I'm not saying they would vote for Democrats if these things were not on the table, but in all probability many of them simply wouldn't vote.

So those like Will and Krauthammer have a real problem. Their financial ideas (like supply-side economics, which is essentially the economist's version of creationism) have gained some measure of perceived respectability, but they simply aren't popular enough to win elections on their own without the support of the religious right. But then the religious right goes around making themselves highly visible and making the nerd wing look ridiculous.

Part of me wants to cheer for the Republicans who are now telling creationists to go jump in a lake. Then there's another part of me that says that their image problems are of their own making, so let's grab some popcorn and enjoy the fallout.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Please, Bill, put me on your enemies list!

To: Bill O'Reilly []

Dear Bill O'Reilly,

Please put me on your enemies list.

I am an atheist and I want to STEAL CHRISTMAS! Bwahahahahahahaaaaa!

Russell Glasser

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

I'm a grad student

Well, almost.

Russell –

The Software Engineering (SW) program admissions committee has reviewed your application and is recommending your admission to the Graduate School. The next phase will be for the graduate school to review your file and finalize the admission decision. This should only take a couple of weeks if not less before you receive a letter in the mail from the graduate school with their final decision.


Congratulations again – we are looking forward to working with you over the next two years. If you have any questions feel free to contact me.

Nicole *****
Graduate Program Coordinator
UT Austin - Center for Lifelong Engineering Education

Update: I got the official acceptance letter and accompanying bill (yikes!) a few days later. I start in mid-January.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Truth (With Jokes)

I bought Al Franken's new book, The Truth (With Jokes) today at Barnes & Noble before lunch. Wouldn't even wait a few days to get it shipped from Amazon. I believe it came out yesterday. I'm such a fanboy.

I haven't been reading nonfiction for the last several months. I was enjoying it for a while, but then it started to depress me. The last nonfiction I was reading was Jared Diamond's Collapse, which is REALLY depressing. I think I quit reading shortly after learning that the residents of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico turned to digging up corpses and eating them when farming could no longer sustain them.

That book now graces my bathroom, where I can take it in small doses of two or three pages at a time. In its place, I've been dividing my time between Shadow of the Hegemon by Card, and the long slog that is the "Dark Tower" series by Stephen King. (I kept hearing that this is something you're supposed to read. So far, at 3/4 through the first book, I'm not sure if I'm impressed enough to get the next one.)

Anyway, these will take a back seat as I'm already a couple of chapter's into "The Truth" since lunch. I didn't much enjoy reading a recap of election day, but he did manage to make it both dramatic and funny. He even laid out bits of the script they had planned for the next morning, based on the arrogant assumption that Kerry would definitely win by a lot.

An excerpt from that chapter:
A clap of thunder rumbled in the distance. Ah, I thought. A good omen. Mother Earth was about to be replenished, just like our drought stricken political culture.

My phone rang. Felt. Mark Felt.

(Footnote: "Mark Felt" is the alias I'm using in order to protect the identity of my real source, Judith Miller.)
Later in the book there's an entire chapter devoted to Terri Schiavo. That should be interesting.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The war against objectivity

"Some people today would say that there is no true reality, only perceptions and opinions.

...Today we often hear phrases like 'that may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.' To those that hold that there is no absolute truth, truth is seen as nothing more than a personal preference or a perception and therefore cannot extend beyond a person’s boundaries."
Thus sayeth Josh McDowell - Christian apologist, youth minister, and author of popular religious books such as "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" and "More Than a Carpenter". As a masochistic listener to Christian radio, I've heard him and many like-minded Christians repeat this charge many times over the years, generally following it up immediately with an assertion that this is bad news for religion and undermines faith.

What surprises me is how much I agree with the underlying principle. There ARE a lot of people who seem to think that truth is nothing more than opinion, and it is a serious problem for everyone who likes to deal with logical debate. Where I disagree with Josh is that I don't think the cause is atheism. On the contrary, subjective reality is fundamentally a faith based proposition.

The dictionary definition of "faith" in the religious sense is "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." The Bible declares that "faith is he substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Mark Twain, through the mouth of Pudd'nhead Wilson, said "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Any way you slice it, having faith means coming to a conclusion first, and then filtering the facts to match your expectations.

I argue on message boards a lot, and I notice a trend among certain types of people. Often I go to considerable trouble to research an argument, make sure there are no holes in my reasoning, and prove beyond all reasonable doubt that I am making a solid case. Yet hours of work are tossed aside with a single dismissive comment, such as, "Well, that's some pretty good research, but I still believe what I believe. You're welcome to your opinion, though."

Or, "You can't trust polls / mainstream news sites / that website, they're biased!"

That's depressing because there's no real response to it without getting into a whole metaphysical argument about what constitutes evidence, and whether there really is a difference between fact and opinion. I expect to have to deal with mistakes on my part. I expect to be taken to task for my own misinterpretation of the facts. At the very least I want some kind of canned response to refute my points. But instead, I get "thanks for sharing, that's just your opinion." Or as one of Josh McDowell's students might say, "That may be true for you, but it's not true for me."

Except these aren't liberals I argue with (most of the time). They're Christian conservatives. Hence, they've made up their mind, and even acknowledging any serious flaw in their argument would be tantamount to heresy or treason, depending on the subject.

I think this is an absolutely poisonous attitude that goes beyond some bandwidth wasted on a message board or blog; it's something that infests our national debate. One way that it manifests itself is in the way they attempt to undermine the perceived accuracy of any and all forms of media.

Sometimes even a relatively straightforward link to a reference site, such as Wikipedia will lead into a whole can of worms about how everything Wikipedia says is automatically wrong because it's "open source". Now, I think that every skeptical person should be at least aware of what Wikipedia is, and not take everything they say as gospel. It's important to be aware of the review process, and make sure to check out their secondary sources, and use your own critical judgment to recognize the difference between fact and opinion. But those are general concerns that everyone should have about every source: some are less reliable than others, do your homework.

That's not how this kind of person argues, though. They don't argue with the contents of a particular article, or explain why they find a particular claim to be likely untrue. They just dismiss the source outright, and refuse to read any further.

Now hang on just a second. I realize, of course, that NOTHING written by human beings is ever going to be 100% objective. That's a basic principle of scientific thought. But if everything in Wikipedia can be dismissed because there are multiple authors... and everything we read in newspapers can be dismissed because it's "liberal"... and (according to creationists) everything coming out of the "scientific establishment" can be dismissed because it's advancing the agenda of the scientists... what are we supposed to do?

Is it seriously the position of these people that there is NO WAY to know anything at all with even a tiny bit of confidence? Is it then absolutely impossible to arrive at something that we can refer to as "The Truth"? Is it a waste of time to even try?

This attitude comes pretty darn close to solipsism. Solipsism is defined as "The view or theory that self is the only object of real knowledge or the only thing really existent." I might call it weak solipsism, because they don't necessarily believe that the self is "the only thing really existent." But if you took their arguments seriously, it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that they think there is no truth or reality that extends beyond themselves.

Is that what they really believe? Well, probably not. I think that they believe in objective truth, or at least they believe that they believe it. What they really want is to overthrow research and investigation as a legitimate way of arriving at the truth. What does that leave? The answer can be summed up in a word: FAITH.

Faith in an ancient holy book. Faith in the administration. Faith in the fundamental and unshakable goodness of everyone whom they, personally, hold to be good and right. That is truth to them. Facts are fickle; they have this nasty habit of not supporting your most cherished opinions. But faith can never be undermined unless you want it to.

But, yikes! If there was EVER a method of knowledge that could be called subjective, it's faith. To judge the reality of the universe based on what you have decided is true, regardless of any sort of study or skepticism? Not only does that make no sense, but I would say that the odds are astronomically stacked against any pre-conceived belief system just happening to be the one that is in tune with reality.

What it does do is entrench power. If I can't hope to decide for myself what is real, then my only choice is to go down to my friendly neighborhood priest and ask him what to think. Then he'll be happy to open up his holy book, point to chapter and verse, and tell me that this sentence here is absolutely true and the answer to all your moral dilemmas. I can also go to the rabbi or mullah next door, and get a totally different answer that is also absolutely true. Ultimately, though, the sect with the most power will amplify itself and crush out the other absolute truths, until it's the only one left.

Unless we recognize the fact that there is such a thing as reality, which is not changed by our little beliefs. Unless we recognize that it is our job to FIGURE OUT and INTERPRET the available evidence, so that our beliefs might become more in tune with what's really out there beyond ourselves -- not rewrite the facts so that they better fit into what we believe.

Look, I know that all information-gathering organizations make mistakes, and many times even lie. The New York Times had their Jayson Blair incident. Dan Rather should have checked his sources better. But the solution to that is not to say "From now on, I shall never again believe anything that the New York Times or any other news source say, about ANYTHING AT ALL, just because they have printed it and they have been wrong." The solution is to treat each story with an appropriate level skepticism, try to cross-check and cross-reference their information, get as close to you can to the original sources, and accept that everything you know is tentative to a greater or lesser degree. But when all's said and done, you have to recognize that basing your beliefs on the evidence you can get is a better way of knowing things than basing your beliefs on your beliefs themselves.

In my opinion, the whole problem with our national discourse right now is how much people are buying into the idea that there are no facts that can be learned through observation; there are only opinions, and YOUR opinion is the one that matters. It cuts to the heart of the problem with batshit crazy fundamentalist types. It is on display every time we see another press conference in front of a pre-screened audience. It explains how people can hear about Terri Schiavo being brain dead and blind, and then immediately start off another quest to indict Michael instead of saying "Oh my God, we were wrong about her condition!!!" And it's why people hear reports of people being tortured by Americans, and they simultaneously say "That's not true" and "They deserve it!"

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Qualifications? Why?

I was watching Washington Journal on C-Span this morning as a series of "experts" breezed through to offer their opinions on the nomination of Harriet Miers.

I find myself growing more and more irritated with the people who are acting as apologists for Miers. Over and over again, I keep hearing this argument: "Well, so-and-so was never a judge before his appointment to the Supreme Court, and he was a great justice." Or "Nobody could have expected this historical guy to amount to anything, based on his qualifications. But look how important he turned out to be."

Great. That's all fine as far as it goes, in the sense that it proves that there exist at least N people who did better than their record would indicate.

But it's a stupid, fatuous argument when it is applied to any particular case. What ticks me off is that this isn't an argument for why MIERS is a particularly good pick to be on the Supreme Court. It's as if all the experts are saying "Well, there's no particular reason I can think of why she should be approved, but in a cosmic sense, why shouldn't ANYONE be on the Supreme Court? Why put up any barriers?"

It's rather like Intelligent Design advocates who say "What do you care if we publish our results in scientific journals or not? Scientific journals are overrated, and they're biased against our work anyway."

Or it's like the crackpot inventor who tries to convince the world that his perpetual motion machine, or his eternal life rings, have merit. He says "Well they all laugh at me. But they laughed at Edison too!" Fine. So you have that in common with Edison. But what you still don't have is evidence that your whatchamacallit is of any use at all. Or as Carl Sagan put it: "But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

And applying this to Supreme Court Justices: the fact that some brilliant legal minds had no credentials does not imply that all people without credentials have brilliant legal minds. Some people are just flat-out bad picks.

It's not about whether I personally think that Harriet Miers is a good pick or not. It's about the way all the people who defend her have nothing better to say than "You can't really tell anything at all about whether anyone is good, so you might as well just approve her and find out."

This sort of linguistic trick is nothing more than a kind of solipsism (I'll explain what I mean by that in more detail in a later post). It's not an argument, it's a concession. It's "I have no way to support what I say, but really we have no way of knowing anything at all. So you might as well admit that I'm right. I don't need a better reason."

You should always beware the kind of people who argue from solipsism. They may or may not know that they're wrong, but this argument stems from frustration that they can't figure out a better way to make their case.

In my opinion, Supreme Court nominees are not "innocent until proven guilty". There are far, far more people who *should not* be on the USSC than people who *should*. The burden of proof ought to be on Miers and her supporters to prove that she is one of the rare individuals who does have any business being on the highest court in the land.

But I can guarantee she won't meet that burden of proof. Just like John Roberts, we'll hear a lot of "I can't comment on this" and "That's not my problem". We'll get no substantial arguments at all. And she'll be waved through.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Argumentam ad nauseam

My sister observed that a lot of our conversations on the show go like this conversation we had yesterday.

This can work with any proposition P, so feel free to fill in anything you like for P, such as "The Bible is absolutely true" or "Pascal's Wager is legitimate" or "Green skittles have magical powers over your libido."

Theist: "I assert that P!"
Atheist: "Yes, but I don't believe P, because (off the cuff philosophical explanation of why P is invalid)."
Theist: "Yes, I see what you're saying, but I have to remind you: P!"
Atheist: "Okay, but I still don't agree with P. Let me explain my objection another way. (Another explanation from a different angle.)"
Theist: "Hmmm, that's an interesting point. Now I have a good point for you: P!"
Atheist: "Maybe you're not quite seeing my point. Let me give you an analogy. (There follows an extremely dumbed down and easily grasped analogy involving, for instance, the flying spaghetti monster.)"
Theist: "Well that is fun to speculate on, but it still doesn't address the basic point, which is: P!"
(Repeat 1-7 more times)
Atheist: "Thanks for calling."

Friday, September 16, 2005

Google Earth

Okay, this is the coolest thing I have seen on my computer in a very long time.

Go there, download it, run it. You'll be glad you did. Fast internet connection recommended; decent 3D capabilities on your computer required.

Once you've figured out how it works, here are some other cool things you can do with Google Earth:
  1. Turn on the "Borders" checkbox to see state lines when you look at the image map. Also turn on "Roads".
  2. In the "Layers" panel (lower left part of the interface), check the box that says "3D buildings" and then zoom in on New York or San Francisco.
  3. Also in Layers, check the box that says "Keyhole Community BBS". When you zoom in anywhere, you can see little "info" marks that tell you interesting (or not so interesting) facts about the places you're looking at.
  4. When you click on an info button, you can also click "more" to open a message board post giving more detail.
  5. You can also use this message board to find more interesting locations. For instance, I wanted to find Machu Picchu, but typing "Machu Picchu" in the "Fly To" bar did not work. Instead, I search for Machu Picchu on the keyhole message board. I find a post that's useful, and it has a link on top that says "Open this placemark." Click there, and you jump to the right spot on the map.
  6. The altitude is represented in 3D on the map. You can see this if you click on "Colorado River View" (of the grand canyon) or "Mount Saint Helens". Once you are close, you can tilt and rotate around your landmark using the interface on the bottom. I used this feature to look up the cliffs in La Jolla where I used to climb down to get to the beach.
  7. If you are near the area where you want to find something, you don't have to retype the city and state. You can type an address or a business name. While looking at San Diego, I typed "Cheese Shop" to find a little sandwich spot where I used to eat lunch almost every workday.
  8. Take a virtual trip across the US! Click "Directions" on the upper left. Type a starting destination and an ending destination. Then once the path is found, you can double-click on each waypoint. Your point of view will zoom to the location where you clicked, and you will be facing in the direction of the next leg of your journey. You can jump from spot to spot until you reach the end.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Cindy Sheehan

I live about an hour and a half from Crawford, TX. I heard about Cindy Sheehan and wanted to go down there on Saturday, but I couldn't make it because I was busy with the broadcast of my internet audio show, The Non-Prophets. I told my sister Keryn about it instead, and she went with her boyfriend and two other friends.

According to Keryn, there were about 200-300 people there supporting Cindy Sheehan, and about six counter-protestors on the other side of the road holding up pro-Bush signs. They met and hugged Cindy, and they also met Barry Crimmins who had been sent from The Randi Rhodes Show. They tell me that there was a huge pile of donated food and water, and everyone was free to go over there and take whatever they wanted. It was almost like a party.

The funniest part of their story was about the counter-protestors. They were organized by a local right wing radio station, but there were only a small handful of them. They held up signs saying things like "Don't the Iraqi people deserve their freedom?" It was a typical scorching hot day in Crawford. The people on the Cindy side of the road were jockeying for what little shade there was. The counter-protestors had no shade anywhere, and they hadn't brought any water either.

My sister's friend went across the street to them with bottles of water and said, "Here, would you like some of this?" They turned it down, saying, "The guys in Iraq aren't getting water."

Thursday, August 11, 2005

It's official: I have no life

This is stupid and of no interest to anybody. But as of last night, after nine months of playing, I have a level 60 character in World of Warcraft.

To fill in those who are not gigantic gaming nerds, World of Warcraft is a multiplayer online roleplaying game, and level 60 is the highest level you can achieve. It sort of means that you won the game, although not really, because you can still keep joining up with other level 60 players to engage in high level content, fight other players, and get more gold and stuff in the game that will never, ever improve your real life. In short, it is the pinnacle of loser-dom. :)

Some of my friends and guildmates from The Motley Fool message boards were on hand to help me break the level 60 barrier. You can see screenshots of the big event by going to the Warcraft Fools album.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Island: A "pro-life" action flick [movie, *** out of 5]

Ginny and I saw "The Island" last night. It was part futuristic dystopian sci-fi, part mindless computer generated action flick, and part ham handed political diatribe against abortion and/or stem cell research. If this seems like a weird combination to you, it did to us too. I'll get to the pro-life part later, but it will involve spoilers so I'll give a clear warning when they come.

The story centers around two characters played by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson.

Garth: "She's a babe."
Wayne: "She's a robo-babe. In Latin she would be called 'babia majora'."
Garth: "If she were a president she would be Baberaham Lincoln."

Anyway, Scarlett and Ewan play two cute little model citizens in a closed and tightly monitored society reminiscent of the one in Brave New World. Each day they are told by a smiling pretty face and by instant messages how lucky they are to be protected in their little bubble, away from the deadly poison that the earth's atmosphere has become. And if they win the lottery, which EVERYONE does eventually ("Your day will come!" chirp the cheerful ads) they'll be transported to The Island, the one outdoor area on earth that is somehow free of contamination, and they can frolic and cavort outside forever.

So I'm sure it will be no big shock to anybody who's picked up this sort of story in their lives, that the whole thing is based on a lie. I won't give away what the lie is just yet. I will say that I saw exactly what was happening a very long time before the reveal happened, partly based on a review I accidentally read which revealed the theme in the first couple of paragraphs, though not the particulars.

The special effects are kind of cool, the vision of a near-future LA (2019) was nicely rendered. The action sequences were fairly exciting until they got very, very, very stupid. I'll just give three examples from one chase scene that should tell you all you need to know.

Our Heroes are speeding away on some sort of motorcycle/hovercraft device. They fly through a skyscraper. The glass of the windows on the side of the building shatters completely as they pass through it. They emerge with maybe a minor scratch or two, even though they are not even in an enclosed vehicle.

On reaching the other side, they shoot out of the building and lose control of the vehicle. They both fall off, but luckily they happen to land on the corporate logo in the shape of a giant letter "R". A wide shot reveals that this logo takes up a teeny, tiny amount of the overall area on the side of the building.

In order to pull off this landing, I guess they should feel lucky that (1) they happened to be on THAT side of the building instead of one of the other three, and (2) they came out precisely in the center, rather than off to one side or the other, and (3) they were RIGHT ABOVE IT, so the short drop didn't kill them anyway, and (4) they didn't overshoot the very narrow logo and fly right over it, and (5) it wasn't the letter "A".

So after they land on this letter, the bad guys manage to detach it from the building and man, woman and letter plummet from a height of 40 stories or so. Do they snag a rope on the way down? Does a plane catch them? No. They fall all the way... and then they land in some netting. Not a fine mesh net, mind you, but a sort of tangle of rope. Even with the net there, I would think the impact would have killed them anyway if not actually sliced them to ribbons.

I'll get to the spoilers in a minute, but first I want to mention that Steve Buscemi is one of those people who can unfailingly appear in a bad movie and make it temporarily good by virtue of his presence. I love Steve Buscemi.

Warning: spoilers coming soon, but not quite yet.

The movie did contain an extremely blunt and badly mishandled pro-life argument. I wasn't the only one who thought this. Ginny and I came out of the movie and both started asking each other "Was it just me, or...?"

It doesn't deal specifically with abortion or stem cell research, but it hits you over the head with the message hard enough that you'd have to be pretty clueless not to catch it. Apparently a lot of reviewers are pretty clueless, because in skimming reviews, almost nobody mentions it, even at liberal sites like Salon and Slate. Exceptions: the New York Times reviewer saw an anti-abortion message, and the Onion AV Club saw anti-stem cell. They're both right.

Warning: Spoilers! Stop reading now unless you have already seen The Island or never plan to.

There is no island, and the earth is not ruined. These people are all clones, living in a bunker and surrounded by a holographic projection. Those who win the lottery are taken away to an operating room where they are killed and then harvested for organs, which are then given to the rich and powerful people from whom they were cloned. (The clones are around 2-5 years old but they are born as adults. Stupid adults.)

The bad guy is the company CEO, who says "Originally we planned to keep them in a persistent vegetative state" (SCHIAVO ALERT! WHOOP! WHOOP! Did you miss the subtle reference?) "but the organs don't survive that way, so we have to let them grow up and walk around."

They lie to the clients and investors, letting them believe that the clones aren't conscious.

In case you're still not getting the message, the villain makes some villainous speeches just to make sure you understand that he's with the pro-choice and pro-research establishment. "Come on!" he says. "We created them, we can destroy them! These clones don't have SOULS!" And, "In a few years we'll be able to cure leukemia with this project." Yeah, what are you, some kind of anti-medical nut?

So the doctor is this ghoulish SOB who only cares about the fame and money, and he feels free to research on clones and kill them, while telling himself that they're not really human. Doesn't this sound just like a pro-choice person?

Well uh, no. It sounds like a pro-life caricature of a pro-choice person.

I don't care if they have "souls" or not. The clones have active brains. They have personalities. They can communicate. Their nervous systems can feel pain. All of which, duh, is EXACTLY what most pro-choice people would agree is what separates a person from a fetus. Or a blastocyst. Or someone in PVS.

So, the doctor, who I guess is meant to be a stand-in for a guy who makes pro-choice arguments, is quite frankly a lunatic. I'm one of the most pro-choice people around, and I think he's a lunatic. And it's okay if you want me to believe that a lunatic is the head of his own company. Happens all the time. However, it is completely impossible for me to swallow the idea that with all the people who also know the secret -- doctors, scientists, technicians, and so on -- not one of them is really bothered by what they do all that much, and none of them feel like they should blab this to the press.

So obviously nobody feels like this what they're doing is really all that bad, and yet everybody agrees that it would be a complete PR disaster if the rest of the world found out, and they would be shut down. So if people are smart enough to see that this is a bad idea, why don't any of the grunts agree?

And then there's a scene where Ewan McGregor meets his sponsor, his other self, who is a filthy rich inventor. I will call the original EM and the clone EM2. At first EM and EM2 get along famously -- turns out that EM2 not only has EM's DNA, but also acquired some of his memory. (Horrible, horrible science. But we'll let it slide.) Then EM remembers he has only a year or two to live. So he decides he will turn EM2 over to the guys who are pursuing him, or even kill EM2 himself so he can get at all those yummy organs.

All this makes perfect sense in the fundamentalist worldview, where people are basically rotten and will do anything to survive. [fundie]Heck, women will even murder their own poor little babies so they don't have a little bit of inconvenience![/fundie]

Except that people don't act like that. Really. They don't. I don't know a single person who would act like that. Oh sure, we're willing to drop bombs on people half a country away, but we don't have to look them in the face and have a conversation first. Even our soldiers don't do THAT.

Excuse me, but did they bother to ask me? I'm pro-choice. Even if I have only two years to live, I don't kill the guy who's sipping chardonnay in my living room so I can get his organs. Clones or no clones. If the people in this world are willing to do that kind of thing without being troubled by the ethical issues, then why bother cloning anyone at all? Why not just grab people off the street and say "Congratulations, you won the lottery! Step into this helicopter, please..."

In the end, the anti-choice message is so blatant that it's hard to miss, but so badly handled that it's hard for me to imagine anyone seeing themselves in it.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Liars, truth tellers, and bias

My wife and I both argue politics on different message boards, and we both agree that there is a tendency for people to listen only to the sources they like and discount the sources they don't like. For instance, people who insist that "mainstream media" is automatically lying because of their "liberal bias", will in the next breath go on to confidently quote blatantly right wing sources such as Rush Limbaugh, NewsMax, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, etc.

Now, admittedly, Ginny and I get a lot of news from left wing sources. And I'm not talking about Time, the New York Times, CNN, etc... the places that conservatives pretend are liberal when they aren't. I'm talking about Air America Radio, Daily Kos, Media Matters, and so on. Sources that are really liberal, and don't fear to say so.

Ginny asks me sometimes, "Do you think we do the same thing, but reversed? Do we just listen to those sources and form our opinions based on that, while ignoring the other side?"

My answer is no. Sure I listen to my favorite liberals, and I occasionally catch myself repeating what they say without checking it out first. But most of the time, if I want a new "fact" to enter my mental library, I go and check it out with as unbiased a source as I can find. If it's about something Bush said, I look at the White House page. If it's about world news, I try to corroborate it with several unrelated sources. If it's about science, I look for peer-reviewed material, or at least direct references to peer-reviewed material. And whether the answer is what I want it to be or not, I accept the results of my best research efforts.

Al Franken likes to tell an anecdote about himself and Rush Limbaugh. He repeats it a lot, so if you listen to his show then you've almost certainly heard it. In case you haven't, I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I repeat it one more time. From an interview:
A few months ago, Rush was talking about the minimum wage. Conservatives like to portray it that no one has to raise a family on the minimum wage, the only people who get the minimum wage are teenagers who want to buy an i-Pod. So Rush says, "75 percent of all Americans on the minimum wage, my friends, are teenagers on their first job." And one of the researchers brings this to me, with a smile, and I say, "Well, can you look it up?" And they look it up, the researcher goes to something called the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 60.1 percent of Americans on minimum wage are twenty and above. 39.9 percent, then, are either teenagers or below twelve (laughs). I had several jobs as a teenager, so you figure, what, 13 percent might be teenagers in their first job. Not 75 percent. So where did Rush get his statistic? Well, he got it directly from his butt. It went out his butt, into his mouth, out the microphone, into the air, into the brains of dittoheads. And they believe this stuff.

So we get our labor statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He gets his from the Bureau of Rush's Butt. And that's the difference. We don't do that. That's one of the main differences.
That is a big difference in my book. It's not that I think Al Franken does flawless research; he's wrong sometimes. But the point is that he actually CARES whether his information is correct or not, he is willing to go to a credible source and not just use rhetoric. That very attitude sets him miles apart from Limbaugh.

Even so, I'm not sure that it is correct to say that Limbaugh is "lying" when he says something like "75 percent of all Americans on the minimum wage are teenagers on their first job." That is because in order to really be lying, you have to actually know whether what you're saying is true or not. If you don't know, then you're just mistaken.

I heard an anecdote -- almost certainly not true -- about an asylum inmate who was hooked up to a lie detector. He was then asked, "Are you Napoleon?" The inmate answered "No." The machine indicated that he was lying.

You can be right and still be lying, if you don't think that you are right. And you can be wrong without lying.

In that spirit, I don't know for sure that Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity ever lie. I think it is far more likely that they just don't care whether they say things that are true or not. There is a difference. They care whether they say things that agree with the construct they've made of the world, but they don't see a difference between lies and non-lies. That's why they tell you that the media is biased, that polls don't matter, that scientists all have a nefarious agenda, etc, etc. They want to rule out the possibility that anything could contradict them and still be accurate.

How American Are You?

I'm not very American, at least not according to the author of this quiz.

But then, the quiz ought to be called "How Conservative Are You?" Note that answering that your favorite president is Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter will both net you less points than Ronald Reagan, and answering that you like American music and movies actually hurts your American-ness. Where's the answer to the sports question for people who don't watch sports? And what is the guy's deal with cheese? Are sheets of yellow plastic the only other type of cheese besides brie and bleu? I think maybe they make some other kinds of cheese in Wisconsin, and they're Americans there.

The author, whether in jest or not, is buying into the myth that people who are religious, outdoorsy, macho, simple, and humble are true Americans; while people who are educated, cultured, complex, godless, and progressive are not.

Whether or not it's a joke, the myth is bullshit. I am an American. I like rock music and big summer action blockbusters. I like to read long non-fiction books and play video games in "hard" mode and solve puzzles on the internet. I like not having an official religion, or an official category of religions. I like it that minorities can vote and women can work, even though I am neither. I like speaking out against my government when they deserve it.

If "true Americans" can't accept that those things are part of what America is all about, then they should leave my country.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [movie, ****]

Warning: this review contains spoilers about the new movie, which you will not know from reading the book.

I'm not one of those people who worships the original movie. I liked it a lot; for years I would watch everything with Gene Wilder because I loved seeing Willy Wonka. That movie was the first opportunity I had to learn about special effects. I knew all the kids were actors, but I was convinced that Augustus really did go up from the pipe into the fudge room, and Violet really turned blew and blew up, etc. I asked my mom how they could do all those terrible things to the children, and she tried to come up with a plausible technical explanation for each one. That was cool, but I have no idea how I would begin explaining the new computer generated effects to my kid.

The Gene Wilder movie was good but not great. I found the music catchy but annoying. After I read the book, I was disappointed at many of the deviations, particularly the mundane nature of the Great Glass Elevator. But also, although Gene Wilder was adorable, he didn't quite capture the spirit of the character for me. He was just too darn tranquil most of the time. Violet is chewing gum, and book Wonka will scream "Stop! Spit it out!" while wringing his hands, but movie Wonka is practically yawning while muttering the same lines in a bored manner. Dahl's Wonka was easily excitable; Gene Wilder was relaxed and seemed really in control.

To Johnny Depp's credit, he captured the manic personality of Wonka much better, but he also added something totally different that I never would have expected. Clearly what Depp and Burton were thinking was, "Here's a guy who has spent 20 years secluded in a factory, with nobody to talk to except these freaky little guys. Genius or not, he's bound to be a little bit socially awkward. Actually Johnny Depp plays him as a tremendous nerd, who reads lines off of cue cards when he's lost for words, and can't even remember the names of the children. Throughout the movie he's always gesturing ineffectually at the kids saying "Uh, little girl, little girl..."

Now that doesn't fit with the image of Wonka that I had either. But it is a very interesting take that actually makes sense... AND he manages to combine it with that frantic energy that Gene Wilder didn't have.

As I've read, both movies sharply deviate from the book for the same key reason: The book has no moral center for Charlie. Basically he's not as atrocious as the other four, so he wins by default. Also he is assumed loveable because he's poor. In the Gene Wilder movie, they threw in a subplot with Slugworth tempting all the kids to spy for him, and Charlie refuses, proving his goodness. In the Johnny Depp version, Wonka tells Charlie he can only inherit the factory if he leaves his family. Charlie refuses, proving his goodness.

In order to get to that point, the movie throws in an extra-Dahlian subplot about Wonka's childhood with his father. It's okay. It is logically consistent with the Burton/Depp version of Wonka. I'm not sure it's necessary, and the flashbacks feel kind of crammed in there.

The real problem I had was that when Wonka demands that Charlie leaves his family... well... I just didn't buy it. In the book, the three of them crash through the ceiling of Charlie's house Wonka says "Come on, let's go! Wheel the bed in the elevator and let's head for the factory!" This new version makes Wonka more of a jerk, and I just didn't want him to be. It also forces a resolution with the "Wonka's dad" subplot, which I didn't think was all that important.

The real problem with the ending is that it doesn't jibe with the sequel. I've done some thinking about "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator," and I concluded that it just wouldn't make a very good movie. But let me fantasize, okay? Let's pretend that we can look forward to a Tim Burton version of Elevator, how does the ending of his movie jibe with the beginning of the next book? It really doesn't quite. In the beginning of the first book, Wonka has an element of surprise on his side. The other three grandparents are like "Who IS this nut job?" That doesn't really work if Wonka has already spent several days eating dinner and making nice with the family and learning what families are all about.

FYI, here's the second book in a nutshell: Wonka takes the family up in space with his elevator, where they are chased by shape-changing aliens and shot at by the president. The grandparents (except grandpa Joe) bicker constantly. Once they are back down to earth, Wonka tells them about his invention which makes people younger. They overdose on the substance, two of them turn into babies and the third takes so much that she disappears completely. Charlie and Wonka then take a terrifying trip down to "Minus-land", deep below the factory, to save her from negative age and horrible negative monsters.

Again, I can't see that plot making a good movie, but damn, wouldn't Tim Burton make it look cool?

Which reminds me to comment on the visual aspects. Very nice. Charlie's house was a brilliant design, loved it. Chocolate river and waterfall, miles beyond the original movie. Elevator, better than I imagined it. Special effects on the kids? Well, weird, and even more disturbing than the Wilder version. Actually less convincing in some ways, because they just LOOK so computerized. I'm mainly thinking of Violet here, although they show a parting shot of Mike Teavee after he was stretched, and that also looks silly.

Overall, I have to say that this was well worth seeing. It's just a bit better than the first movie, unless you consider the first movie perfect, in which case -- well, you're wrong -- but okay, you won't like the new movie more.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Were Bush's WMD claims enough to justify war?

There is an email that has been making the rounds since 2003, and it pops up from time to time on message boards whenever a Democrat says that we should never have gone to war due to the fact, now pretty well established, that Saddam didn't have any weapons of mass destruction and didn't pose a threat to the US. The mail cites a bunch of quotes by prominent Democrats -- such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Ted Kennedy -- saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons. The point of the message seems to be that even if Bush was mistaken or lying about WMD's as a sufficient reason to go to war, it wasn't his fault, because the Democrats thought the same thing.

The full text of the message can be read at, where it is classified as "true", but with some pretty serious reservations about how the quotes were taken out of context. While snopes does a pretty good job of examining each quote, I haven't seen a really good response to the overall point of the message, which is that Democrats and Republicans alike supported the war because they believed that Saddam Hussein posed a nuclear threat to the United States.

The facts are not nearly as cut and dried. I'm not going to rewrite the entire snopes link, which you should read for yourself before continuing with this entry. But I would like to single out one of them as a representative example.

Hillary Clinton said:
In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members, though there is apparently no evidence of his involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

As the link points out, the rest of the speech is left out. She went on to say:

Some people favor attacking Saddam Hussein now... However, this course is fraught with danger. We and our NATO allies did not depose Mr. Milosevic, who was responsible for more than a quarter of a million people being killed in the 1990s. Instead, by stopping his aggression in Bosnia and Kosovo, and keeping on the tough sanctions, we created the conditions in which his own people threw him out and led to his being in the dock being tried for war crimes as we speak.

If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us. In recent days, Russia has talked of an invasion of Georgia [obviously the one in the Former Soviet Union, not the US] to attack Chechen rebels. India has mentioned the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Pakistan. And what if China were to perceive a threat from Taiwan?

I need to point that out, because it strongly highlights the difference between the approach that Democrats were urging Bush to take, and the approach that he actually took. While many Democrats such as Hillary Clinton recognized the possibility that Iraq had or was developing some weapons, they also stated at the time that there was not enough solid evidence to launch a full out war on them. Bombing a country, or combatting an invasion like in Kuwait is one thing. But starting a war and occupying the place, and trying to fill a void by toppling their entire government, is something else entirely. In fact, Bush's dad made this very clear when he explained why he didn't depose Saddam after dealing with Kuwait in 1991.

Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the U.N.'s mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different--and perhaps barren--outcome.

--George Bush Sr. and Brent Scowcroft
Time (2 March 1998)

Pretty uncanny how accurate George H. W. Bush's predictions turned out to be.

Of course, we know that Saddam Hussein had WMD's at one time. That's because the United States sold them to him during the Reagan administration. In case you've forgotten about that little detail, here is Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam, during a trip intended to set up friendly relations with Iraq. But Saddam was ordered to disarm after he lost the first Gulf War, and all evidence right now indicates that he did. Yes, Hussein kicked out the inspectors in 1998, and it's likely that he wanted to rebuild. But "wanting to" and "doing it" are not the same thing. Bill Clinton's response was immediate. He launched Operation Desert Fox, bombing suspected weapon sites but not endangering any American troops.

In other words, he pursued a policy of containment and responses to actions, not "pre-emption" against actions that hadn't happened yet. At this point I should remind you that the policy seemingly WORKED, based on the fact that no WMD's were found in Iraq in 2003. This is something that even Bush administration officials have acknowledged at this point.

For all these quotes about how Saddam Hussein kicked out the weapons inspectors and wouldn't let them back in, it's funny how none of them date after late 2002. Guess why? Because in early 2003, Saddam Hussein let the weapons inspectors back in. And they didn't find any weapons.

You remember that too, right? UN Weapons Inspectors, headed by Hans Blix, were on the ground in Iraq for three months. Their conclusion? No WMD's found, although they didn't rule out the possibility that they might find some. But immediately Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Miller, Larry Elder, and every other budding Republican comedian started repeating the joke, over and over again, that Blix was weapons inspector Clouseau. He couldn't even find the weapons in Iraq! And it just kept getting funnier every time. :)

Of course, the reason poor Inspector Clouseau couldn't even find any weapons in Iraq was because there weren't any. Remember, even Bush officials agree. We couldn't have known that at the time, but Blix's point was that more time was needed to gather evidence. They didn't get it. It wasn't Saddam who kicked them out. It was America, who said, in effect "We don't care what the evidence is, we are commencing the attack."

Let's also not forget that it's completely bogus to say that Bush was misled into attacking Iraq by bad intelligence. The administration was making plans to attack Iraq within hours of the September 11. Richard Clarke, former White House counter-terrorism czar, reported that Bush was pressuring the CIA to justify an attack on Iraq, not the other way around.
"The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this.

"I said, 'Mr. President. We've done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There's no connection.'

"He came back at me and said, "Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer.
Colin Powell, who later testified so skillfully before the UN, said in 2001 that Saddam "has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."

It was because his own intelligence wasn't giving the answer he wanted, that Bush formed the Office of Special Plans as an alternate intelligence agency to come up with the answers they wanted.,2763,999737,00.html

Much of the faulty information that "misled" Bush into war came from this office that he set up for the express purpose of doing whatever they could to make a case for going to war.

It's true, of course, that some (not all, or apparently even most) of the Democrats on the list spoke persuasively about Saddam's WMD's as a justification to go to war. Those Democrats absolutely share responsibility with Bush for the situation we find ourselves in now. However, it can't be overemphasized that the White House was pushing hard for war, before the dust from the World Trade Center had settled, and that they presented their case to Congress based on faulty intelligence that they had engineered by way of the Office of Special Plans, and against the judgment of many of the standard channels of intelligence gathering.

In other words, many people were misled into supporting the war by the president, and their primary mistake was trusting that what the president said was accurate.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Do you believe in miracles?

I haven't mentioned it here yet, but I've been hosting The Atheist Experience for almost a month now, and I am really enjoying it. If you haven't heard it before, I invite you to follow the link and listen to the audio archive. I have been involved with the show in many different capacities, and I thought I'd really like to see what hosting is like. I expect to stick around for about six months, at which time I'll pass the torch on to Matt Dillahunty. (Those of you who checked out based on my recent post might already be familiar with things that Matt has written.)

On the show yesterday, my sister Keryn was co-hosting, and we got into a discussion with a woman who wanted to prove that God exists based on her unusual experiences. This is an abridged transcript that I copied by listening to the show's audio.

Denise (caller): I had a couple of brain surgeries and I had to be on hydrocortisol , and my brain was on like 0.2 mg of cortisol, and the doctor gave me a year's prescription and said you're gonna need it, and if it was gonna change or there was any evidence of that we would have seen it by now, and...
Russell (me): So your doctor was wrong. He made a mistake, he was human. That doesn't prove the existence of...
Denise: No, when you need hydrocortisol you know you need it. Because you have symptoms of being low on that hormone. I went and visited my sister when I got into town that night, and... [begins telling story about how sister took her to a faith healer]
Russell (interrupting): One of the things I'd like to ask is if you've researched the condition you had to the point where you can confidently say that nobody else who has ever had that condition has ever simply stopped having it before. Even if it's like 1% that is still pretty significant.
Denise: Yeah. There is actually no percentage.
Russell: So you have been through all the medical journals and stuff.
Denise: That's right. I have.
Russell: I'm sorry, but I don't believe you.
Denise: Well when I went back, the doctor said my levels were totally normal... and they said I wouldn't be able to have any kids, and if I did they'd be abnormal... I have four healthy children, and I know for a fact that God was there. [blah blah statement of faith.]

[Skipping some good input from my sister Keryn, basically pointing out that some people survive terrible diseases and credit God, but many more people don't survive, but we don't talk about them or their faith. Picking up again later...]

Denise: I was probably born with that tumor, until I was 27 that was my whole life. I couldn't work, I couldn't do many things. I honestly thought I was going to die. And I thought if I AM gonna die, I should probably better be sure about this thing.
Russell: What it really comes down to though is, even if you are the only person who has ever survived this kind of disease, it doesn't point to the existence of a god. As Keryn said, if you ARE the only person who ever survived this, that means everyone else didn't survive. And I'd be surprised if some of them didn't have as much faith as you.
Denise: It's not they didn't survive, they survived but they have to take hydrocortisol for their whole life.
Russell: Wait, so it wasn't deadly, it just meant that you would have had to take a lot of medicine?
Denise: That's right.
Russell: As miracles go, that's pretty small potatoes.
I shouldn't have made light of her condition, I think. I understand from her description that her problem (which I, as a non-doctor, do not understand) must have been very stressful, and it was a relief to get over it. But I feel pretty confident that it wasn't a miracle.

Sometimes it seems like the worse an event is, the more likely it is that people will chalk one up for God, as long as it could have been even worse. You read a story saying "20 people died in a bus crash, but one survived. A miracle!" Wait a minute. Wouldn't the miracle have been if there was no bus crash?

The reason it's so easy to get away with this is that "miracle" is just not well defined. Responding to this story, a Christian told me that a miracle is, by definition, something so rare it as to be statistically impossible. Well in the first place, to be pedantic, there is no such thing as "so rare as to be statistically impossible". If something happens, then by definition it's not impossible. In the second place, if a miracle is just something really, really rare, then those happen all the time. The classical example is a shuffled deck of cards. The odds of the cards being in EXACTLY THE ORDER that they are in, is 1 in 10^(a lot), but they are in that order anyway.

One problem with calling something a miracle is that we are already very aware that human knowledge is not perfect, so considering something unexplainable isn't really all that unusual. Say there are 999,999 recorded cases of disease X, and no one has ever recovered from it, and they all died from it. Then that disease is guaranteed lethal, as far as we know. But now suppose one person survives it, what do we make of that? Well then the evidence has just changed. Now the chance of survival is one in a million.

Is it a miracle? I argue that you just can't tell, because there's no defined way of distinguishing a miracle from a garden variety "very unlikely event". If a person who has faith goes through something unusual, they'll call it a miracle, and their story will go out all over the internet within days. If the same person doesn't have faith, they'll just think they're lucky, and the story will quietly go away except in medical journals.

Then, of course, some people go to the other extreme. When my son was born, some of my religious in-laws said that that was a miracle. Well, it was a deeply moving event for me. But is it really proper to put that label on an event that happens all over the world, about three times every second? If something that happens all the time is a miracle, then what does the word really mean anyway?

Getting back to rare events. I'm not saying that natural explanations are all that I'll ever accept, but I will say I think that pretty heroic measures should be taken to rule out all natural causes before jumping to call something a miracle. That should be common sense even if you really believe in miracles. If miracles are supposed to be incredibly rare, then why make the miracle explanation the FIRST thing you turn to? You might belittle the true miracles of other people, or if you're Catholic, maybe even canonize someone who didn't deserve it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Why you should care about Terri Schiavo

So Terri Schiavo's autopsy was released. Not only was she in a persistent vegetative state, not only was her brain half the size of a normal brain, not only were there no signs of the "abuse" that her husband supposedly subjected her to, but SHE WAS BLIND.

Which is just fascinating, considering how everybody insisted that she could follow a balloon around with her eyes and everything.

Now, many people might say that this is a subject best left for the cable news talking heads to screech about, and normally I'd agree wholeheartedly. Back when the Schiavo case was considered real news, I managed to totally ignore it until it was almost over. Same way I mostly ignored the Michael Jackson trial, the OJ Simpson trial, the Peterson case, and all the other stuff that passes for news nowadays. Because really, who gives a damn about so much irrelevant pulp?

But the religious right MADE it real news by virtue of their interference. Those bastards saw the opportunity to use the Schiavo case as a launching point to rant about the "culture of death" and "activist judges" and Uncle Jeb decided it would be a swell move to conradict everything the doctors and the courts said by "saving" a life that had already been gone for many years. And they were willing to tell any number of lies about her husband. According to them, Michael was an immoral prick for living with another woman, and he was scheming to kill his perfectly healthy wife who could talk and sing and plead for her life, and any minute she was liable to leap out of her hospital bed and dance a jig.

I don't belong to a culture of death. I belong to a culture of evidence.

What sickens me about the news these days is this pervasive attitude that if one side says one thing, and the other side says something else, why then they're both opinions and who's to say what is true? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. So let's let the doctors who examined her have their say, and let's let this nice nurse offer her own personal testimony that Terri is in perfect health while Michael is a monster, and then we've done our jobs by presenting both sides.

Sometimes the truth lies with the preponderance of evidence. It's a crazy idea, I know. Sometimes "faith" just ain't good enough to contradict reality. Sometimes when two sides say opposite things, one side is telling the truth based on the best information they could acquire, and the other side is just making crap up because it sounds good.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Godless America

Many people contacted me to let me know that there was an outstanding episode of "This American Life" this weekend. The subject was "Godless America". In the first half, they debunked the myth of American as a Christian nation. In the second half, they played a segment of Julia Sweeney reading from her play, Letting Go of God.

It was fantastic. If you have not heard it yet, do yourself a favor and follow this link to hear the archived show for free.

I sent this message to Ms. Sweeney:

Dear Julia,

I want to thank you so much for sharing your story on "This American Life" last weekend. I have not read your books or seen your shows, but "God Said Ha" has been on my Amazon wish list for quite a while now, and I greatly enjoyed your appearance on "Politically Incorrect" several years ago when you beat up on poor Victoria Jackson.

Stories like yours have always been very interesting to me. You see, I was raised an atheist, by two atheist parents. I'm a fourth generation atheist on my father's side, and my three year old son will probably be the fifth generation. I never had to go through the uncertainty and soul searching of wondering "What if there is no God?" -- although I did once wrestle with the question of "What if there is?"

I thought it was interesting that your first question after you decided there is no God was, "You mean Hitler just DIED? He didn't go to hell?" I have always approached this question a little differently, since I wasn't brought up a Catholic. According to many Protestants, everyone is equally a sinner, and we are saved only through faith. I like to ask them, "What if Hitler accepted Jesus before he died? Isn't it possible that he's in heaven now, while many of his Jewish victims are in hell?"

I am an active member of the Atheist Community of Austin, where we have a weekly TV show ( and internet radio show ( If you're ever in Austin and don't mind doing a little charity appearance, we'd love to have you drop by.

Russell Glasser

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Continuing discussion with Skip

In the continuing theist/atheist discussion, the latest post by Mr. "Skip Toomaloo" is here, and my response is here.

Also, my friend Matt Dillahunty wrote another response to him.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Atheists, God love em (or not)

Some guy posted a an article about atheists couple of days ago at the aptly named The site appears to be a soapbox for anybody who wants to write in.

They also posted my reply, which you can see here. I'm sure they'll enjoy the publicity.

Funny picture

"Hydra", a fan of the Non-Prophets did a Photoshop image for us. I think it's pretty hilarious.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The hacksaw strategy

Intelligent designers at the Discovery Institute have made a $16,000 donation to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural Science to have the premier showing of their ID film "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe" held there on June 23rd. The invitation-only event is being billed as "co-sponsored" by the Smithsonian.

Pro-science websites and bloggers are asking readers to make protest calls and send protest e-mails to Randall Kremer, National Museum of Natural History Director of Public Affairs 202-633-2950 or
Read more at Red State Rabble and Panda's Thumb.

I wonder if the wedge strategy is all just a skillful bit of misdirection.

The "wedge" is a metaphor for taking a wedge to the "rotten tree" of evolution (as they see it) and chipping away at the trunk a bit at a time until the whole thing falls over. That's the image they want you to have. Personally, I've always had a funnier picture in my head -- an image of Phillip Johnson charging at a granite cliff with a plastic spork, going "Hah! (poke poke) It will collapse any minute now! (poke poke) Take that, evolution!"

For the metaphor of chopping a tree to really work, I think they would need to go after the scientific FOUNDATIONS of evolution, and make a scientific case against it. This, of course, they have not done.

Instead, what they are doing might more accurately be termed the "pruning shears strategy" or the "hacksaw strategy" if you will. After poking at the trunk for years, they have to resort to going after the extended branches of the tree. A school district here. A museum there. An obscure scientific journal over there. The SYMPTOMS of being an accepted mainstream science are evolution's wide dispersal through all the normal channels of science education. It seems that DI's real strategy is to attack those symptoms and make it appear as if evolution has no support in school, museums, etc., while declining to bother with the scientific trunk of the tree.

There was a wonderful story once by Raymond Smullyan, called Planet Without Laughter. A dwindling number of people on this planet still have a sense of humor, and humor is treated as an almost mystical or supernatural phenomenon. One character gives a sermon on humor, trying to make the humorless people understand that they can't "get" humor just by imitating it.
"Another way you try to learn by mere imitation is by this ridiculous practice of memorizing jokes. In a perfectly laborious and mechanical fashion you commit to memory thousands upon thousands of jokes and you think you are thereby acquiring a sense of humor! You call this activity 'studying' -- you say you are 'studying to acquire a sense of humor.' But these jokes are absolutely pointless for you to learn until after you have acquired a sense of humor. Without this inner sense, you cannot possibly see the real point of these jokes. True, even without this sense, you can understand the situations these jokes describe, but these situations themselves are totally uninteresting unless you can perceive the humor in them."
That's a great analogy to what the Intelligent Design movement is about: imitating science. They put on their white lab coats and write mathematical equations on their blackboards and come up with impressive sounding vocabulary words like "Irreducible Complexity," but they don't actually do science. They demand to be taken seriously in schools and museums and journals, but even if they succed, all they've done is memorized some jokes, not learned to be funny.

I'm no botanist, but I have been informed that you can kill some trees by hacking off all the branches while leaving the roots and the trunk intact. Trees use their branches and leaves to synthesize their food using sunlight, so killing all the branches cuts off their nourishment. However, if you did this then that wouldn't prove the tree was rotten in the first place, only that if you abuse anything enough then it dies.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


I received this email from my dad this morning:


I find the "agreement" reached by Senate "moderates" disgusting. The Democrats gave up everything they were fighting for in return for a promise by the Republicans not to invoke the nuclear option this time. The Republicans reserve the right to invoke it the next time they feel like it.

The closest parallel I can think of is Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich on September 30, 1938, waving a piece of paper signed by Hitler and proclaiming "Peace in our time." Chamberlain and Daladier had given Hitler half of Czechoslovakia in return for a promise not to demand more. 6 months later he took the rest of Czechoslovakia, and 6 months after that he invaded Poland, starting WWII.


Disregarding the fact that my dad has already invoked Godwin's Law, I'm torn about this subject. On the one hand, compromise is good. It's what reasonable people do. On the other hand, the judges who were waved through are all major assholes.

For instance, let me remind you who Bill Pryor is:
"The American experiment is not a theocracy. It does not establish an official religion," Pryor stated. "But the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are rooted in a Christian perspective of the nature of government and the nature of man.

"The challenge of the next millennium," Pryor continued, "will be to preserve the American experiment by restoring its Christian perspective."

Schumer castigated Pryor for his characterization of the Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion-on-demand during all nine months of pregnancy, as "the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law."

The problem with compromise is it works well only if both parties believe in compromise. It reminds me of a favorite joke:

Two street urchins find a cake in a dumpster and argue about how to divide it up. One of them demands to have the whole cake, while the other says, "That's not fair, we should cut it in half and each get half."

As they argue, a mathematician wanders by and asks if he can help. When they explain the situation, the mathematician says "Gentlemen, the answer to your problem is compromise! I know exactly what you should do: give this one three quarters of the cake."

I know the right wing bloggers were griping loudly this morning about how betrayed they feel, but this is complaining by the kid who got only three quarters of the cake when he wanted the whole thing.

Paradox: the only way to have a fair society is to make sure that everyone can be reasonable. But when a reasonable person meets an unreasonable person, the reasonable one often gets the worse end of the deal.

Another paradox: in a free society, people are even free to support political agendas that go against other people's freedom. When you have a group that is determined to strip other people of rights, the only way to stop them is to limit their right to impose their agenda. I wonder, is "freedom" inherently a self-destroying concept?

Finally, I'm reminded of a great bit of dialogue from Life, The Universe, and Everything. I'm snipping out some really funny lines, so go read the whole chapter.

In this book, there are a bunch of insane religious fanatics who decide that their ultimate mission in life is to obliterate all other life in the universe. Slartibartfast wants to save the universe, whereas Ford is much more interested in going to a party and getting drunk. Slartibartfast asks Ford, haven't you understood the stakes?

"Yes," said Ford, with a sudden and unexpected fierceness, "I've understood it all perfectly well. That's why I want to have as many drinks and dance with as many girls as possible while there are still any left. If everything you've shown us is true ..."

"True? Of course it's true."

"... then we don't stand a chance. The point is that people like you and me, Slartibartfast, and Arthur - particularly and especially Arthur - are just dilletantes, eccentrics, layabouts, fartarounds if you like."

Slartibartfast frowned, partly in puzzlement and partly in umbrage. He started to speak.

"- ..." is as far as he got.

"We're not obsessed by anything, you see," insisted Ford.


"And that's the deciding factor. We can't win against obsession. They care, we don't. They win."

"I care about lots of things," said Slartibartfast, his voice trembling partly with annoyance, but partly also with uncertainty.

"Such as?"

"Well," said the old man, "life, the Universe. Everything, really. Fjords."

"Would you die for them?"

"Fjords?" blinked Slartibartfast in surprise. "No."

"Well then."

"Wouldn't see the point, to be honest."
While I disagree with Ford's philosophy, it's hard to deny that there's a major problem with the fact that they're fanatics and we aren't. We don't WANT to be fanatics, that would make us just as evil as they are. But fanatics hold the upper hand, it seems.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Recent additions

I've wasted a lot of my life on message boards for the past few years, and some of the motivation for starting this blog is so I can collect all my favorite things I've written. Since I'm sticking old material in this blog as I find it, posts appear to go back to 2002 even though I started it in May 2005.

In order to keep track of what I've added recently, I'm creating this floating post, which will always be near the top of the blog and will link to old articles that I've added most recently.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

"Kazim"? What does that mean?

I just want to clear up a couple of things about the title of this blog, so I'm putting this in a sticky post on the front page.

I wish I could tell you a fascinating story about how deeply significant the word "Kazim" is to me, but the fact is I made it up as the name of a character in a video game. The character looked somewhat Middle Eastern, so I stuck some syllables together that sounded good. Since the character wound up very powerful, I started re-using the name. So there you go.

It was only later that I found out that "Kazim" is a real Arabic name which means "restrainer of anger". Now I didn't plan that, but I kind of like it. I'm often worked up and filled with righteous indignation when I write, but I think that being angry is usually counter-productive and clouds your judgment. People tell me I am very laid back, and I often play the role of peacemaker among friends and family.

As for the Arabic origin, let me say that I am just about as white as they come. The picture that I used to use for my avatar made me look a bit more exotic than I do in person -- it was me as drawn by my first wife in charcoal. I'm also not usually that sinister.

Muslims today have a perceived reputation of being the violent extremist religious thugs of the world -- not surprising, considering that bit of unpleasantness in 2001. However, to my mind the thing that makes religion dangerous is not the particular kinds of invisible beings you believe in, but how fanatically devoted to the cause you are. There are plenty of moderate, liberal Muslims, and I consider them to be far, far less scary than your average Christian fundamentalist. And let's not forget that for a while, the Islamic world was a major center of culture and enlightenment.

I'm an atheist. I am not speaking in favor of Islam; I personally think that religions are fairy tales. My point is, it's a huge mistake to believe that the country, culture or religion that happens to be on top at the moment is destined to stay on top forever, which is why it's important to continue to use logic and reason, prop up elements of your culture that are good, and try to change things which are not so good. And if you can do all this while restraining your anger, so much the better.

I am Kazim.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Creationism in Kansas

This is my topic on The Atheist Experience today.

When I heard the news that evolution scientists were not going to bother testifying in Kansas, I immediately said "Good!" Since there is NO theory of Intelligent Design, the only thing they can resort to is throwing darts at evolution and hoping that if they raise enough "doubts" about the established scientific theory, the bureaucrats will eventually assume that ID should be substituted as "science".

William Dembski (author of "The Design Inference" and other arguments by mathematical handwaving) and his friends at the Discovery Institute claim that ID is scientific, but when they came to Texas, they refused to talk about ID. Instead, they said "All we want to do is 'teach the controversy.' We don't want to talk about ID at all, no not us, not today." And then they batted their eyelashes alluringly. :)

So while some of my friends said "Those scientists are just giving up by refusing to testify" I said it was a great idea. Force the ID people to talk about THEIR plans, and don't bother turning the hearings into a science class, because that's really not what it's about.

Dembski apparently agrees with me that this was a good move on their part, because he is now hopping mad about the hearings, as he indicated in this post on his blog. Now he wishes they could have FORCED the evolutionists to come in and testify. Proving, of course, that this whole Kansas spectacle really is just about grandstanding. Check out the picture on the site, it's adorable.

Here's some more commentary about Dembski's blog from Panda's Thumb.

Of course, as usual, this isn't about science at all. The creationists say all they want to do is "teach the controversy," but they are lying. What they really want to do is undermine evolution and, by extension, all of "naturalistic" science, as everybody knows who has read "The Wedge Strategy." The way the try to accomplish this is to stay on the offensive at all times and promote "doubts" about evolution. By boycotting the testimony, the science groups declared that they refuse to play the game, and I say that's a great move. Make the Intelligent Design guys defend THEIR complete theory (or rather, their complete lack of a theory). Make THEM prove that they have any alternative to offer.

The clearest indication that this has nothing to do with science is to listen to how aggressively the ID campaign is pushing memes out into the rank and file Christian soldiers. I heard a great comment on the radio this week. A creationist called in to the morning show on Air America and said "These evolutionists want you to think that 'I was a monkey swingin' from a tree now I'm a doctor with a PhD.'" (The guy said he was a trucker, but just listening to him I didn't have to be told that he didn't have a Ph.D.) Elsewhere, the phrase that evolution means "From goo to you by way of the zoo" has been all over the place. I've heard it on Christian talk shows, seen it on message boards. These cute little rhyming catch-phrases serve as a stand-in for actual thinking.

And the people on the board who are supposed to be making the decisions clearly aren't paying as much attention to the scientific substance as much as they are the political maneuvering, as revealed by the fact that so many just hadn't read the science standards.

According to Panda's Thumb, a man got a round of applause for stating in his testimony:

[Darwin’s theory] is not scientific. Why do you waste time teaching something in the science class that is not scientific? We must, by no means, get rid of science. I don’t think the argument is between maintaining scientific approach and inquiry and study and not doing so, but I think truth needs to get a hearing, along with scientific theory. In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. Thank you.

Remember that. This is what the ID movement is really all about. The typical citizens of Kansas who were at the hearings knew that, they just didn't have enough sense to keep their mouths shut about the real agenda. Dembski tries to pretend that this is about science education being "fair", but don't believe him. Believe the guy quoted above: the objections are religious in nature, pure and simple.

Some great links:

Previously reported on this blog:

My report and testimony from the Texas school board hearings in 2003.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

For my mom on Mother's Day

Memories of growing up with my mother, Sheryl Glasser

I think most of my earliest memories of my mother involve co-counselling. Of course I had no idea what co-counselling meant at the time; I just remember going to a lot of weekend retreats and spending time with unusual people talking about their problems to one another and screaming into pillows. There were also some kind of off the wall games and activities involved; I dimly remember what seemed like jumping off the roof of a house onto a mattress and having tons of fun. Although since I was very young at the time, it was probably a much shorter jump than I'm picturing right now.

Mom never really stopped being a hippie. Sheryl Glasser has always been the dreamer, the entertainer, and the diplomat of the family. She's into new-age religious practices that many of my family find silly, but she has an enormous heart. For one thing, she has this incredible ability to empathize with other people. She always taught me that the most important thing, when you disagree with somebody, is to be able to understand their point of view so well that you can say it to them in their own words and have them agree that what you just said is fair.

Another of my earliest memories is that we used to watch "The Incredible Hulk" TV series together on our old black and white TV. In fact, it was years before I realized that the Hulk was supposed to be green. But mom loved superheroes, and she was extremely patient when I would run around outside with her and pretend to be turning into the Hulk. I couldn't rip out of my own shirt, of course, so I would wear one of dad's button-up shirts and then slowly and carefully undo each button, one at a time, all the while roaring ferociously. This must have required mountains of patience for her.

(Ben loves playing the Hulk too. But he's still too young to see the TV show or recent movie, so he doesn't do the whole shirt ripping thing. His version of the Hulk is stomping around the house yelling "Rarrrr!" and scaring the heck out of the cats.)

That's the thing about mom, she loves to do things with other people just for a chance to participate in something that THEY like to do. It doesn't matter if that's not what she'd be doing on her own, she can enjoy it just for the vicarious pleasure of being a part of your life.

I was into text adventure games on the computer, and so she would listen to me babble about them. She even tried them with me every once in a while. I remember being a young adult and playing a game called Spellcasting 101. There was a sequence where you have to look at a series of about 100 strange objects and guess what their names might be, and they were all bad puns. A pack of canines were called "Wolfgang." A couple of British toilets turned out to be named "Lulu." A bunch of uncooked bread smeared on the room's vertical surfaces? "Waldo." I remember that puzzle in great detail because Mom was there with me, trying to guess what all the crazy puns could be.

One year when I was 11, we travelled to Mexico to visit a colleague of dad's. One afternoon after we'd all had our fill of wandering around Mexico City with people trying to sell stuff to us, she decided to take me and my sister out to see a movie. We found out that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II was playing at the local theater, probably billed as "Los Ninjas Tortugas" or something like that. Now I'm sure she would NEVER have chosen to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II on her own, but she wanted us to have a good time and we reasoned that this would be the easiest to follow in Spanish. Then it turned out that the movie was in English, with Spanish subtitles. So we were all laughing at the lame jokes about a second before the rest of the theater would finish reading.

But Mom wasn't always watching shows and movies just because she wanted to share the experience; she really was a serious entertainment buff. She was a Trekkie from a long time back, and she was always willing to watch a new series about sci-fi, fantasy, or superheroes whenever I recommended it to her. In my college years, we both regularly watched Lois & Clark and Quantum Leap, and we'd sometimes call each other to talk about the episodes.

I'm pretty sure she was also mostly responsible for getting us to see a stage melodrama every year in Colorado. It became a family tradition that after they picked me and Keryn up from the Ranch Camp, we would go to a Gilbert and Sullivan festival and then a melodrama. The melodramas were big overproduced comedies in which the audience was encourage to cheer for the hero, sigh and say "Awwww" for the heroine, and boo and throw popcorn at the villain. A few years ago, mom paid for Ginny, the kids and me to fly to Colorado so we could do that one more time.

She was also a big Disneyland aficionado. Since her family lives in California, we had a lot of excuses to go out there for several years. And when Keryn graduated high school the same year I graduated college, the three of us took a special vacation to Florida so we could spend most of a week hitting the various Disneyworld parks, as well as Universal Studios.

She tells me that when I was a little kid, a friend asked her what it was like to be a mom. She replied, "He jumps on the bed and tells me about his dreams." That is the kind of thing that would sum up the experience of motherhood for her: being entertained by listening to other people's experiences.

Although I grew up in a family of atheists or (in mom's case) near-atheists, mom still insisted that we never lose track of our Jewish heritage. It was completely because of her that we attended Temple every once in a while; observed and celebrated all major Jewish holidays; and had semi-regular fancy dinners on Shabbat (Friday nights), where we all said prayers in Hebrew (including the kids, as soon as we were able). It was also probably because of her influence that I stayed in Saturday school at temple, had a bar mitzvah, and went to a Jewish summer camp called "The Ranch Camp" for two years. I have nothing but good memories about these for the most part, although studying for the bar mitzvah got tedious at times. When I wanted to slack off from studying my Torah portions, mom was right there helping me slack well. And when I was actually working on it, she was there encouraging me.

The bar mitzvah itself was great. It was managed by a wacky feminist Rabbi named Lynn Gottlieb, and it makes perfect sense to me that mom picked her -- although some of the people in her family who took Judaism more seriously referred to the event as "an abomination." I had my Torah portions down pat, even using a built-in musical scheme to sing the passage. It was a section on justice in the ancient world, including the overused and abused phrase "eye for an eye." And I got carried around on a chair, which was great.

One part I remember from Hebrew school was having a part in the Purim play. I got to be Haman, the bad guy in the story. I didn't want to be the bad guy, but mom convinced me that it would be the most fun part. She was right. And she made my costume, including a big beard out of brown cordoury. I remember shouting angrily as I got dragged away by two kids playing guards, and having the time of my life.

Mom was also the den mother in my cub scout troop. I don't remember cub scouts all that well, but I do remember fighting the other scouts with the wooden sword she had made me.

My Mom was also an accomplished musician. She played cello and piano, and loved to sing. I remember her programming our first computer to play Bach music using a series of beeps. She came into my grade school one year and taught the class about music. She taught everyone about Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and Haydn's Surprise Symphony. She told a story about each piece and played the music for us. It must have been quite a job keeping a room full of kids that age interested in classical music. I think she pulled it off.

When we lived in Alabama, mom remotely worked for a company in Paris, France. When I was eight we all took a trip to Paris, I think (I hope) at company expense. I have strong memories of visiting the Louvre and other museums, eating in French restaurants and cafes, and trying to cross the street against scary French traffic. Keryn says her only memory of the place was climbing a lot of stairs. (We walked up Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, as well as much of the way up the Eiffel Tower.)

Another thing mom did exceptionally well was cook. I remember some of my favorite meals when I lived with her were corned beef with cabbage and leg of lamb. When we moved to Santa Fe she learned to cook posole and carne adovada. After our trip to Paris, she started making canard a l'orange (duck with orange sauce).

Whenever I was having trouble in school, mom was always the one who had the patience to sit down with me and work it out. I remember pulling an all nighter side by side with her in freshman year, working on a huge packet of biology homework that I should have spent the entire weekend. She said, "Russell, it's about time you started to like coffee." We ground through hours of material, and she always kept me focused even when my attention started to drift and I was trying to procrastinate. The reason I remember the words "Endoplasmic reticulum" to this day is because she kept drilling me on it.

She did the same thing for me on my SAT vocabulary a few years later, and I think I got a 710 on the verbal in the end.

Another thing my mom has always been good at is playing the diplomat. Whenever I've had to deal with any kind of crisis or family conflict, mom is always the first person I call. Even when she's busy, she's nearly always willing to set some time aside and talk about things and give me suggestions about the best path of action that will make everyone happy. I have called on this kind of insight many times over the years, especially at times when my wife and sister -- both extremely strong-willed individuals -- were fighting with each other. Somehow she seems to always know how to defuse a situation.

She also knew how to talk sense into me during times when I was determined to be a jerk to others myself. There was a time, during my surly teenager years, when I was fighting with a particular teacher all the time. When I told her how I told off this teacher, she said "Russell, that's a terrible way to behave. You should apologize to her." I said, "But mom, she's an awful teacher and she's being unfair to me." She said "It doesn't matter. It NEVER hurts you to be the first one to apologize, and she might treat you better if you do. You don't have to think you really mean it, but you need to say it to her so you can make the first move." This advice turned out to be exactly right, and it has served me well throughout the years. Sometimes she has had to repeat it during fights with my wife, which is another time when I always call her.

There was also the time when I was 18 and discovered the big world of online message boards for the first time. Mom had signed us up for the Prodigy network and I basically barged into a board for religious (and un-religious) teens and acted like an idiot for a while. Everybody turned on me, including a bunch of the atheists who might otherwise have been on my side. When I told her on the phone how good I was at telling them all off, she said "Russell, why do you enjoy making people angry at you? I don't understand." That was another time when I discovered the value of a sincere apology. Within a few more weeks, I had made a lot of those people into online friends.

Finally, mom has been a wonderful grandmother. She can't get enough of her grandson, Ben. Whereas Ben has often had a hard time warming up to people and tends to get scared of those who come on too strong, he loved his grandma right away. Every time we visit, I worry a little bit that he won't remember her. But as soon as he catches sight of her, he gets a huge smile on his face and yells "Hi gramma!" Or when he was smaller, "geema".

What I've learned from my mom:
  • That the first way to get people to like you is to understand them.
  • That it's much better to "lose face" and apologize than carry a grudge forever.
  • That entertainment is often the best bonding experience.
  • That other people are entitled to their beliefs, even if you think they are silly, and there is even something beautiful about other people's silly beliefs.
  • That it's okay to talk about your feelings, and talking can help you get over them.
  • That it's okay to relax and enjoy yourself, as long as you always keep sight of your important goals.
  • That imagination is cool.
  • That a large part of how happy you are in your relationships depends on how you communicate with the people who come into your life.
This essay is my own little communication with my mom, because she's still with me, and will be for a long time, and I want her to feel good about herself today.

Happy Mother's Day.