Saturday, December 23, 2006

Letters from high school

Every year since my senior year in high school (about 14 years) my father has spent a day with the Humanities classes at Los Alamos High School. During the course of the year they bring in representatives from a variety of religious perspectives -- fundamentalist Christian, orthodox Jew, Unitarian, etc. My dad is their token atheist speaker.

The students are required to send letters to him expressing their thoughts about the talk, and he forwarded these letters to me. They are handwritten, so it would be a lot of work to copy them all, but here are a few choice comments.

"Everything you said made complete sense to me. I really liked how you asked us to challenge you. It seemed like you really wanted to know what we thought. You answered all our questions in depth and really thought about them. Thanks so much for all the information you gave us. It was fascinating!"

"It is a common misconception that atheists are immoral people. We are glad that you could show our class that. We liked how you explained that morality can come from human nature not just the supposed word of God."

"Even though I am a Christian, I was glad that you accepted everyone's beliefs and you explained your view on sensitive subjects like abortion and homosexuality. Overall I believe that your presentation, though not as flashy as the others, was the best one our Humanities classes had visit them."

"Our class seemed to greatly enjoy your presentation as many other speakers had Q&A but yours by far had the least empty space."

"Dear Dr. Glasser,
You have changed my life for the best. I will always look at religion and life in different ways."

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction (movie, ****)

I think it's time for me to just grit my teeth and declare that I am a Will Ferrell fan. I hated him with a passion when he was a hyper cheerleader on SNL. But I just have to say that everything he's done recently has been getting consistently better and better.

Stranger Than Fiction is very funny. Also extremely different from his last movie, Talladega Nights, which was also very funny. Whereas Ricky Bobby went for broad, obvious, Mel Brooks-style satire, STF is a very witty romantic comedy you just watch with kind of a goofy grin on your face most of the way through.

I love movies and books that screw with the narrative structure. It's one of the main reasons why Memento is among my favorites. I also very much enjoy stories which have characters who become aware of the story they are in. I admit to loving Last Action Hero as a guilty pleasure, and I've re-read The Neverending Story (enormously superior to the movie version) many times.

Most everything in the movie just worked for me. The reactions of all the characters to Will's narrator. The chemistry between Will and Maggie Gyllenhaal. (She is a major hottie, but who the hell knew that Ferrell could play a successful romantic lead?) The cleverly placed computer graphics that highlight the tedium of Will's life. The fake-out scenes that take place in the author's imagination. The fake literary analysis.

I can't remember where, but I recently heard a critic say that comic actors make successful transitions to drama far more often than serious actors make successful transitions to comedy, because doing comedy is harder. I would not call Stranger Than Fiction a drama by any means, but it is a thoughtful comedy different in nature from anything I've seen Ferrell do before, and it bodes well for his future career.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Odd feed behavior

By the way, I noticed that my blog feed was exhibiting odd behavior and showing very old posts as if they were new. The reason for this is because I've been going back and re-editing all of my old posts. Blogger just installed this nifty new feature where each post can be assigned to one or more categories, and if you click a category at the bottom of the post, you can see all posts in that category. So if you want to see everything I've recently blogged about, say, atheism, or grad school, just click the label and it's all neatly sorted. I like it.

Actually, more like a war on Hannukah

We celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah fairly loosely. Ginny laid out both a tree and a menorah, but didn't bother buying candles. On the fourth night (Monday), I decided I ought to go get some. I went to the nearest grocery store, combed the candle aisle thoroughly, but couldn't find any that were clearly labeled for menorahs. Since I'm typically an extremely unobservant Jew, I figured I should call my sister, who is up on these things.

Me: "Hey, do you know where I'd find Hannukah candles?"
Keryn: "Check the kosher market on so-and-so street, that's where I got mine."
Me: "I'm in a grocery store, I figured they'd just have them there. Am I crazy?"
Keryn: "In past years I found them easily. This year I couldn't find any in grocery stores at all."
Me: "Huh. What happened?"
Keryn: "I think it's part of this backlash against the war on Christmas. You know, Wal-Mart greeters are actually being told this year that they HAVE TO say Merry Christmas to people. In previous years there were smaller displays devoted to Hannukah and other holidays. No one says happy holidays now and you can't get Hannukah stuff."

You know, if I didn't know better, I might think that this anti-war-on-Christmas stuff is actually a thinly veiled "fuck you" to the other holidays that millions of people celebrate in this country.

Of course, as PZ Myers says, the best way to conduct the war on Christmas is to celebrate it.

My personal war on Christmas is fought in a way the Bill O'Reillys of the world don't even recognize: I blithely wish people a Merry Christmas without so much as a germ of religious reverence anywhere in my body. I take this holiday and turn it into a purely secular event, with family and friends and food and presents. I celebrate the season without thought of Jesus or any of the other myths so precious to the pious idiots who get upset when a Walmart gives them a cheery "Happy Holidays!".

Of course, it's easier for an atheist Christian than an atheist Jew to appreciate the Christmas traditions in their own right. I'm somewhat lukewarm on the notion, and Keryn doesn't like Christmas at all. She says that the only people who dislike Christmas as much as she does are devout Christians who are mad about the commercialization of "their" holiday. Scrooginess makes strange bedfellows, no?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Worst part of being back in school? The nightmares

For many years after I got my Bachelor's degree from UCSD, I had nightmares about being back in school. But I haven't had them for a while... until this weekend. Now they seem to be back with a vengeance. Oh joy.

So I'm in class taking a final exam. The final exam has a very weird format: there are two questions, and you get ten minutes for each of them. Not twenty minutes for the test, but you actually are given one question, then you turn it in at the ten minute mark, then you are given the other question. Furthermore, the questions themselves are pretty ugly. You have to write code, on your paper, without a computer, and it has to compile and run correctly when the professor types it in later. For you non-coders, I should mention that writing code that runs perfectly with no testing is not a skill many normal people have, even very experienced programmers. It is often largely a matter of luck.

A few minutes into the test, I have written one line, and suddenly I lose a contact lens. I go to the bathroom, and for some reason I cannot get it back in for a long time. When I get back, the test is over.

I plead with the professor: come on! This was beyond my control! I need more time to finish! The professor finally says, "All right, you can have four more minutes to finish both questions."

One minute in, I wake up. I immediately panic: No! I can't leave the classroom! I have to go back to sleep and finish the test! It takes me several more minutes to calm myself down and convince myself that the test was not, in fact, real.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Pre-post-mortem on Fall 2006 semester

I'm sitting in Mobile Computing with one hour to go before my first year of grad school officially ends. I realize I am being unkind to my fellow students by blogging while they give their extremely important presentations that they worked on so hard. Well, sorry students. I want to go home, spend time with my family, watch some movies, and then maybe gird my loins for some early Christmas/Hannukah/Solstice/whatever shopping.

In my humble estimation, my class projects both turned out pretty well. As in Spring, I'll post the term papers on my web site in a few days or so. One of my projects was about writing a distributed program to calculate whether very large numbers are prime. (For more information, the basis of our project is I wrote an entire peer-to-peer application from the ground up in Java, which is a very cool thing to know how to do. My other project was a neat little graphics program -- I often miss writing graphics -- which simulated a network of sensors that can detect when a car drives past it. Since the sensor network is fun to play with, I would like to turn it into a Java applet and post it on my project page, but that will take a little work to convert.

I was quite proud of my 4.0 average through the summer, but I predicted that it wouldn't last and I think I'm ready for my prediction to come true now. I won't be completely shocked if I pull an A in either of these classes, but if I do then it will be by the skin of my teeth. Distributed systems was HARD, and while I studied for the final as much as I could, I know there was one question that I completely botched, and a few others that I struggled with. As for Mobile Computing, about 40% of my grade hangs on my performance in three quizzes. I screwed up the first one badly, did well on the second, and mediocre on the third. So I think my performance there is a bit below average. I'm going to guess that I'm getting both B's, and I'll be happy with it. I've honestly never been a straight A student, and I think I'm just satisfied with the fact that I got in here and am lasting.

Next year will be tougher, because I have to write a Master's Thesis while still taking the same full course load that I did this year. Fortunately, there are two classes which I've deliberately lined up, one per semester, which people tell me are easy.

The last day of class is always excruciating, because I've finished a grueling month of work and I frankly don't care that much about other people's projects. Unfair, maybe, but they probably don't care about mine. Some of them are somewhat interesting as explorations of side topics we covered in class, but the problem is that they're explained by computer science grad students who, as a whole, are not known for their public speaking abilities.

There are a few happy exceptions, and I like to believe that I am one. I try to begin or end on a good joke and scatter in some pop culture references, and I often throw in some wacky things in my slides just to keep people awake. I know they'd rather not be there, but I try to make it as painless as possible. Video game references are often a winner in this crowd.

Oh, while I'm on the subject of slides, let me say a few words about Powerpoint presentations. I'm pretty much a Powerpoint novice, but in the last year I've worked on four presentations and observed way too many presentations by others. Here are my words of wisdom, limited in experience as they are:
  1. Please oh please don't include large amounts of text on your slides. I don't want to hear you recite things straight off the slide. The bullet points in your slides need to be short, punchy, and highlight what you are saying, rather than repeat it. See, the thing is, I am not reading your slides. I am glancing at them to see if they say anything I need to know beyond what you are telling me.
  2. Give me pictures! We're writing computer programs; if you can't show me how your program , I want to see screenshots. Or diagrams. A picture is worth a thousand words, you know, and if I can visualize what you're talking about then I might be more eager to know how you did it.
  3. If your slides get your point across enough, you don't have to switch slides every 30 seconds. If your going to be talking about one major theme for three minutes, one slide that captures the central issue and hits the big topics can sit on screen for three minutes. Unless you want to break it up with a picture. Did I mention pictures are good?
Anyway, I have no plans tonight except to go home and relax. I have about six weeks till my next class starts. Yay! Six weeks of NOT thinking "Can't relax... must do homework..." Going to the office is going to be a piece of cake without school hanging over me.

By the way, this last guy who is talking is doing everything right. He has pictures, he's explaining what they're for, he includes minimal terminology on screen to identify the important development issues, and he even made a silly analogy to explain the issue he tackled.

Ten minutes now! Freedoooooooommmmmmm!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I'm a follower

Can't help myself... must resist peer pressure...

Oh, what the heck, I will link this extremely important scientific study. And so will YOU, if you have a blog. It's about testing the speed of memes, and you must participate. For science. And stuff.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Divided we stand?

I posted this over in a comment at The Atheist Experience blog, but I think it bears repeating.

There is an argument I keep hearing from well-meaning Libertarian atheists after the show. The argument goes: This has been a bad administration only because one party is controlling everything. If Democrats were controlling all three branches, they would be just as bad. Divided government is always best, because a government that accomplishes things will always be bad, and the only way we can be successful is to always have gridlock and prevent anyone from doing anything. Frankly, I think that is a vacuous argument with no evidence to back it up.

I don't want a government that is incapable of getting anything done; I want a government that is interested in doing the right things. The horrifically bad response to Hurricane Katrina last year really should highlight exactly what the consequences are of a government that can't get anything done.

Yes, a Republican administration with a Republican-controlled house and Senate has been pretty much an unmitigated disaster. That doesn't in any way support the notion that every party would be an unmitigated disaster; that's a hasty generalization fallacy. The simple fact is, Republicans have a lot of really bad ideas.

Does that mean I think Democrats are perfect? Of course not; there are bad Democrats and there are good Republicans. But if you believe that proves that both sides are equally bad, then you are falling for the same fallacy that many creationists do. You know -- "We collected 500 signatures of scientists who support creationism, so what we have here is a genuine scientific controversy." No we don't. We have a tiny, tiny anomaly among scientists.

The point being, just because there are two sides to an issue doesn't mean that the sides have equal merit and equal credibility. By and large, it isn't Democrats who are in the pockets of the religious right. It isn't Democrats who pushed this stupid, stupid war. The Republican controlled legislative branch hasn't merely been conventionally corrupt, in the ways people say that all politicians are corrupt. By many accounts they have been the most corrupt Congress in history.

I don't mindlessly vote a straight party ticket, IF there are worthy individuals from other parties who are running. However, I do to a very large extent favor Democrats over Libertarians and Libertarians over Republicans. I really don't buy this argument that just because there are two types of candidates available, they should be installed in government in equal amounts. If, for example there are "Christian nation" fundamentalists running, I will vote against them every single time. I do not believe there need to be a certain number of fundamentalists in Congress to keep a check on the non-fundamentalists.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Rumsfeld flip-flop

LMAO at seeing these two stories side by side.

Reuters, 10:50 AM:

Democrats' win alone won't drive Rumsfeld out

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the face of U.S. war policy and a lightning rod for critics worldwide, will not be forced out just because he faces a tougher time from resurgent Democrats.

"He's not resigning," said one of those officials. "He's best when he's criticized."

Bloomberg, 1:02 PM:

Rumsfeld Resigns as Defense Secretary, Official Says

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Intelligent Design point/counterpoint

For those who love reading intelligent design news, Red State Rabble gloats over what he perceives as the demise of ID.

PZ Myers disagrees -- it's just a flesh wound!

Both are well worth reading.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Idiocracy [Movie, ****]

If you haven't heard of this movie, I can't blame you, because it's received essentially no marketing at all. There isn't so much as an online trailer in existence.

I'm talking about Idiocracy, the new Mike Judge movie that has been in some markets for a month. Mike Judge is, of course, the director of Office Space, which I don't need to point out has a huge cult following, and also the creator (and voice) of "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill". I'm aware that some people really like him and some don't.

Here's the high concept in a nutshell. At the beginning of the movie, a narrator explains that evolution doesn't necessarily favor intelligence; it simply favors those who produce the most children. In fact, in recent times, there's an evolutionary drawback to intelligence, which is that smart people carefully plan their families and have few children, while the dumb ones breed like bunnies.

Then Joe (Luke Wilson) shows up, representing "everyman" so precisely that he is shown to be the most perfectly average person ever known. He's not exceptionally bright or stupid; he's not a particularly hard worker; he's just trying to hang on to his menial army job until he can collect a pension. The army decides to use him in a year-long cryogenesis experiment, which Luke would never have agreed to if he'd ever watched "Futurama." Naturally, he wakes up 500 years later to discover a world where evolutionary pressures have gradually dumbed down the population to the point where Joe is now hands-down the smartest person on earth.

Now, nobody knows how to write stupid like Mike Judge. I remember an old interview Judge once gave, where he said that he envisioned Beavis and Butthead as two characters who were so dumb that nobody in the audience could possibly identify with them. He pointed out with amusement that this turned out not to be true in reality; one day he realized that people were laughing with B&B when he intended people to laugh at them.

If Judge's ambition was to make characters that dumb, I really hope he has succeeded this time. When Joe speaks with a typical 21st century accent and vocabulary, the citizens keep making fun of him for "talking like a fag." In Judge's future -- which is equal parts "hilarious" and "depressingly bleak" -- enormous consolidated mega-corporations run America. Carl's Jr. sponsors nearly everything, under the catchy slogan "Fuck you, I'm eating." One guy even says "Brought to you by Carl's Jr." after every sentence in casual conversation, because he gets advertising dollars for it. A future version of the Gatorade corporation employs half of America and water is something that is only recognized as "that stuff that comes out of the toilet." The most popular show on TV is called "Ow, My Balls!" and seems to be an entire half hour of one poor guy... well, you can guess what happens to him. However, Fox News still exists and seems to be more or less unchanged.

Judge's future is bleak in the same way that the corporation in Office Space is bleak, only ten times more so. There are some really terrific special effect shots, which I hear were donated by (Spy Kids director) Robert Rodriguez. In panoramic shots of the city, you see vast mountains of garbage towering over inhabited areas; crumbling buildings tied together with giant rope; and a CostCo that spans several counties at least. ("Where's the electronics section?" "Uh, it's about an hour from here.")

This is both a very clever satire, and a completely unsubtle farce. What you have is Mike Judge clubbing you over the head with the message "No! Beavis and Butthead are not the guys you're supposed to imitate! THIS is what happens!" It's hard to say whether Judge himself has been partly to blame for the ongoing idiocratization of kids, or whether B&B were merely comically accurate exaggerations of what he already saw out there.

But I do think that Idiocracy is worth seeing, especially if you already like Mike Judge's past work. If you're not into Mike Judge (and I know some aren't, and that's okay) then you should bear in mind the fact that this is more of Judge's humor ratcheted up to an even more absurd degree. Bonus: the movie also features a cameo by Stephen Root with a Wolverine haircut. Root is a guy who now just has to appear on screen and my Pavlovian reaction will immediately force me to start laughing before a word is said.

My rating: **** out of 5

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Jesus Camp review

I've written a blog entry, but it's not here... it's at the Atheist Experience blog.

I went on Friday with about ten fellow Atheist Community members to see Jesus Camp, but I hadn't gotten around to posting my review until now. This has already been discussed on both The Non-Prophets and The Atheist Experience, but I'm offering up a written version for your perusal.

First of all, this is not a pleasant movie in most respects. What it is boils down to watching an hour and a half of child abuse, at least from my perspective. If you experience the sort of morbid fascination that comes from watching a bleak horror movie, you may get the same sort of feeling from this movie: you're not having fun while you watch it, but you may feel like you got something out of the experience of having watched it.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Kingdom of Loathing

The Kingdom of Loathing is the stupidest game that I've ever been unable to stop playing. It's now been over a year since I joined the kingdom, and I decided that it is time for me to confess my shameful enjoyment of this diversion.

So you're this... stick figure, right? The good king Ralph has been kidnapped from the kingdom by the Naughty Sorceress, and it's up to you to save him. It's kind of a role-playing game, but your character classes have names like "Seal Clubber" and "Pastamancer". On the way to save the king, you'll fight a bunch of badly drawn monsters. Like you'll visit "The Misspelled Cemetary" where you take on "ghuols" and "skeltons." Or you'll go to the Hippy Camp on the Mysterious Island of Mystery, so you can fight filthy hippies and steal their filthy overalls. And at one point, the game temporarily turns into a parody of an old-school text adventure.

The game is riddled with pop culture references -- nearly everything you do will result in 2-4 inside jokes and you'll get maybe half of them. And also, you'll get drunk. You'll get drunk a LOT. In fact, if you are not making your character absolutely as drunk as you possibly can every day, then you're not playing the game to its full potential. Trust me on this one, you'll figure it out eventually.

In the year that I've been playing, I've gone through 19 incarnations of my character, accumulated approximately 1.7 million meat (the Kingdom's unit of currency), and acquired four out of six pieces of rare stainless steel armor as well as one out of six ultra-rare plexiglass items.

What's fun about it is that even though it's the stupidest game you've ever seen in the beginning, it's surprisingly deep because it has multiple levels of gameplay. As you play through the first time, you'll be focused on levelling up your character and experiencing all the wacky things that happen to you for the first time. At the end, you'll fight the epic battle against the sorceress, where you will die a lot but eventually "win". And then you get to ascend to a higher plane of existence, for a short time, before you voluntarily decided to return to the Kingdom and do it all over again.

Once you start getting into ascensions, you get to hold on to all of your items from previous lives as well as permanently save your favorite aspects of each character. You start to appreciate the power to combine skills like Transcendental Noodlecrafting with Saucemastery, while playing Ur-kel's Aria of Annoyance on your stolen accordion and infusing your pets with Empathy of the Newt.

The best part is, it's free! Sign up for a while to try it out. Just one piece of advice though, and I speak from experience. When a shady stranger offers you something in a dark alley, don't take it. You'll be really sorry.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Republican hides behind children

Facing a press conference with embarrassing questions about his cover-up of the Mark Foley child-buggering scandal, Republican campaign chairman Tom Reynolds decided on a bold strategy. He surrounded himself with little children, then refused to make them leave the room when questions of an adult nature came up.

The video is here.

This reminds me of a scene in the first Burton Batman movie. While being beaten up by Batman, the Joker reaches into his pocket, whips out a pair of glasses, and puts them on. Then he says, "You wouldn't hit a guy with glasses, would you?" (Note: Greg Kuperberg reminds me that Bugs Bunny did that joke first.)

Also, doesn't this remind anybody of a certain OTHER organization that is well-known for internally covering up evidence that high ranking officials were taking sexual advantage of little kids?...

Friday, September 22, 2006

Grad school sucks

In case you wondered why I haven't been blogging lately, here is my to-do list by October 13:

Distributed Systems
  1. Do big bank program
  2. Do other homework (3 questions)
  3. Create study guide for midterm (covers chapters 5-10)
  4. Prepare interim project report with partner
Mobile Computing
  1. Do all Friday reading, including extra Friday papers (64 pages)
    1. Partitionable Group Membership in Ad Hoc Networks
    2. A mobile transaction model
      EXTRA FOR THIS MONTH (discussion leader)
    3. Pilot system for ad hoc networks
    4. High Commit Mobile Transactions
  2. Write reading discussion for Friday
  3. Do Saturday reading (or put some off till Friday after tests) (59 pages)
    1. Mobile Computing Middleware
    2. Lime: A Middleware for Physical and Logical Mobility
    3. Scalable Service Discovery for MANET
  4. Create study guide for 45 minute "quiz"
  5. Agree on term paper topic with partners

Monday, August 28, 2006

God-given morality

Martin Wagner had the bright idea of creating a new atheist blog that will include, as members, all current and former hosts and cohosts for The Atheist Experience. Set your bookmarks and your feed readers to check it out. So far there are four members, but only Martin contributed any original posts.

I decided to make my mark by adapting an email exchange I've been involved in. You can read the resulting post here.

I don't want to redirect too many of my original thoughts to some other blog, so I'll still update this blog about as often as I did already. However, when I have a juicy topic for the TV show, I'll try to make an effort to post some discussion there and link it from here.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Here we go again

Sitting in my Distributed Systems class today. Pretty interesting so far... to me, not many of you. :) I actually like sitting in a classroom much more than sitting around reading stuff at home, which is what I had to do this summer.

I also did something pretty insane... I auditioned for Chorus Austin last weekend and got in easily. Tenors are always in extremely short supply that they were extremely excited to see me, so now I'm committed to rehearsals every Monday night is, as well as several extra rehearsals and some performances in November. I hope I'm not making a mistake, because I was already juggling school, work, family, and my video game habits. Now I've just got something new in the mix, but this is something I would consider a recreational activity, which hopefully won't require TOO much time outside of rehearsals.

The music is all very religious in nature. First we're doing Bach's B-Minor Mass, then Handel's Messiah around Christmas. You might think that, as an atheist, this would bother me, but it doesn't. I love Baroque music, especially Bach and Handel, and I recognize that religion was a big patron of the arts at that time.

Since so much art is religiously based, I think I've come up with a good topic for my next appearance on "The Atheist Experience." I'm going to talk about religion in schools. There are ways in which we DO consider it acceptable to teach about religion on government money, and I'd like to explore those particulars. That will include some discussion of religion in art, history, and philosophy, as well as non-organized school prayer.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Papers from Spring 2006

Some time ago, I said that I intended to post the final projects I did for my first semester in grad school. I posted them, but forgot to link them. Here they are:

Implementing Natural Language (Software Validation and Verification), written with Kevin Driver, Louis Helm, and Oswin Housty.

Guns and Crime (Data Mining), written with Chip Killmar

I can imagine very few people who would find these papers a thrilling read, but you might like to know what I was so busy with through the months of April and May. And they did help me get my A's in the class.

Speaking of which, it's not official yet, but early feedback indicates I almost definitely have another A for my latest class (The Practice of Programming).

Starting in two weeks, I will be taking two new classes: Wireless Computing, and Distributed Systems.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Iron Chariots

If you haven't heard about it already, please go take a look at my new counter-apologetics site, Iron Chariots. Iron Chariots is an atheist wiki, meaning it is a resource that anyone can edit once they have a membership. We've announced it on The Non-Prophets, and I posted a link on the atheist board at The Motley Fool. So far the site is off to a great start, with 17 editing members and 134 pages of content. We need more! Browse the wiki and become a contributor today.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

30 Days

Morgan Spurlock's TV show, 30 Days, has just started its second season. On an upcoming episode, airing August 9 at 10 PM on the FX channel, an atheist will move in with a Christian family for 30 days.

I actually heard about this episode last year through the ACA and sent an audition tape, but didn't get the part. They wanted an atheist to go live with a Christian family for 30 days. The money sounded pretty good. However -- and here's my sour grapes rationale -- it would also have been my first semester of college, so I don't know how difficult it would have been for me to keep up with my first couple of months of classes.

I know atheists are probably feeling burned by reality TV after the Infidel Guy episode of WifeSwap, but I got a pretty good vibe from the producers of this show. I did, however, question their motive in having an atheist live with a Christian family rather than the other way around. It seemed to me from the episode I watched on the DVD they sent (a straight, uptight Christian lived with a gay San Franciscan for 30 days) that the show usually puts "normal" people in unusual living arrangements.

They assured me that they weren't looking for an atheist revelation and conversion, and they were hoping to get a very insulated fundamentalist family and give a wider perspective. I think part of the reason they didn't reverse the situation was because they didn't think they would be able to showcase a "typical" atheist lifestyle.

In the meantime, I watched the season premiere on Thursday. It was only the second episode I've ever seen, but I'm now officially hooked.

In this episode, a Cuban-American, anti-immigration Minuteman volunteer went to live with an undocumented Mexican family in Los Angeles for 30 days. When he arrived, there was a definite undercurrent of hostility, and they got into some real table-pounding arguments. By the end of the month, he had truly come to think of them as some of his best friends. He actually visited their former home in Mexico and brought back videos of their family, whom they could not visit themselves, because they would not be able to return. Some of their kids were young enough that they had never met their own grandparents.

As a general rule, I don't like reality TV. Wait, let me qualify that. I like the first month or so of American Idol, when Simon Cowell is eloquently crushing the dreams of talentless hacks. But it's a guilty pleasure. Those shows don't uplift. Shows like Wife Swap are usually a freak show: we took one insane family and switched them around with another insane family, now let's watch the sparks fly! It reminds me of how Jerry Springer the radio host often says of Jerry Springer the TV show: "Don't watch my show. It's garbage."

But 30 Days seems different to me. They didn't dehumanize either the family or the minuteman. In fact, the minuteman got plenty of chances to air his opinions, and they weren't completely crazy. Immigration is one issue where I'm very ambiguous; I understand both sides. I do think, however, that tramping around the border toting guns is more about feeling manly than about accomplishing anything constructive.

But with this guy -- they put him in a new situation, and he learned something. They couldn't have given him a better character arc if it was scripted. The family came off as very sympathetic. They understand his arguments against immigration, although he angers them. But they don't feel like they have a choice, and this feeling is strongly backed up when you see what are the living conditions that they left in Mexico. There is also a side story about the teenage daughter trying to be the first in the family to go to college. The end of the show implies that she got accepted, but she'll have a hard time figuring out where the money will come from.

When I sent in an audition tape, I seem to remember that they were going to pay $15,000 to whomever they selected. That should help.

The show was very uplifting in the end, which is something I can't say about very many reality shows.

I'm still very anxious to see how the atheist episode plays. So far, in both shows that I've seen, the person who moves out of his own environment is the one who is the most sheltered and closed minded. I REALLY hope this isn't what they're trying to get from an atheist living with Christians.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jesus the Judge

There is an analogy that I have heard for Christianity which I think bears discussing. I heard it a few times on radio sermons, and I recently had it presented directly to me in an email exchange that I had with a Christian acquaintance.

It goes like this: Imagine an honest judge in a state with a "3 strikes" law, who has his daughter come before him for the 3rd time (ignoring that he'd have to recuse himself from the case). His beloved daughter has had warnings to change, but she ignored them. Though he loves her, he has no choice but to sentence her, and apply the "wrath" of the state to repeat offenders.

But wait! Then the judge finds a way out: "I must sentence my daughter to prison, but I don't want her to go because I love her. The law demands that the sentence be carried out. Therefore I will go to jail in her place."

The point of the story is that you are the criminal, and God is the judge. By law, you deserve death for your sins, but Jesus came down to carry out the sentence in your place.

This story also tries to deal with the common question, "Why would a loving God send people to hell?" With God cast in the role of a just but sympathetic judge whose hands are tied, the "angry god" image is softened a little.

The story about the judge and his daughter is very cute and heart warming, except for one little thing. Once you stop to think about it, it doesn't make an ounce of sense.

In the first place, the law -- and I'm talking about real world, American law -- doesn't recognize the validity of one person being punished in another person's place. And it's a good thing, too! Just imagine if a serial murderer was brought to trial, and the judge sentenced him to five consecutive lifetimes in jail. But then the murderer's mother steps forward and says "Hold on! Don't put my boy in jail! I'll serve the sentence for him!" The judge would have to be COMPLETELY INSANE to allow that sort of thing to happen. Suppose the guy goes and kills again, then how good an idea was it to put the mother in jail? In principle, we don't punish crimes just because we believe in "eye for an eye" retribution. We put people in jail because it stops them from committing more crimes, and deters others from committing crimes as well.

Which brings me to the second point: Once the daughter is set free, there is no purpose for the judge going to jail, other than symbolism. Who is benefitted by having the judge locked up? Certainly not the judge. Not the daughter. Not the victims of the crime.

No, part of what makes the story sound superficially reasonable is it uses an unjust law as the example. Let's face it, "three strikes" is ridiculous. A kid who is caught possessing marijuana for her third offense has no business going to jail for the rest of her life. Whereas if the crime had been murder, or grand theft auto, the story would make you go "Hey, waaaaaait a minute..."

So if the judge decided that the law was unjust, then there are a few simple solutions: Just let her go! Strike that law from the books! Get her off on a technicality! Find her guilty and then help her appeal to the Supreme Court, hoping they'll rule the law unconstitutional! But the judge actually serving in her place? That's not noble, it's silly.

The bigger problem is that when you apply the analogy to God, you realize that the judge also created the law. Then it makes even less sense. Why does the judge "have no choice but to sentence her"? If the law has a really good reason behind it, then she should fulfill her own sentence. If she girl shouldn't be serving the sentence after all, then maybe it's time to rethink the law.

I'm reminded of Iolanthe, a comic play by Gilbert and Sullivan. In this play, a fairy falls in love with a human judge and marries him. According to fairy laws, the penalty for marrying a mortal is death. There is a dramatic scene in the end, where the fairy queen agonizes over her decision because she loves Iolanthe and doesn't want to kill her. But Iolanthe's husband, bragging about his legal expertise, has a brilliant solution: Why don't they just add a word to the law, so it says: "Let it stand that every fairy shall die who DOESN'T marry a mortal"? So the law is changed, and all the fairies scramble around to find husbands and live happily ever after.

Now that's a hilarious story. But it doesn't seem any more hilarious to me than an all-powerful being who decides that he has to subject himself torture in order to avoid carrying out a law that he wrote himself.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An atheist goes to church

This past Sunday, I went with my friend Matt and my wife Ginny to attend a late morning church service.

It was Matt's idea; I just went based on a whim. Matt was looking for new material for The Atheist Experience, so he called me on Saturday afternoon and told me he was thinking about going to church. I immediately said "I'll go!" The truth is, I've been thinking about giving it a try for years now - just walking in on a service to see what it was all about. I don't think I've ever just "gone to church" before. Being of Jewish heritage, I've been to plenty of temple services. I've sat through Christian weddings in church, and sung with various choirs in cathedrals that have some great acoustics. But I've never actually sat in on a Sunday preachin' session.

So really, I was ready to go and all I needed was an excuse. Having Matt along made it sound that much more fun; if it was boring, I wouldn't be bored by myself. Ginny wasn't going to go originally, because she goes hiking with a friend every Sunday. But the hike was rained out, so she drove back from whatever remote location she'd picked and showed up just in time for us all to get seats together.

Matt already talked about the experience on the 7/2/06 episode, and if you already saw or listened to that episode then much of this will be simply a retread. But I like to write things down.

Matt decided we were going to the Gateway Church, a location Matt picked primarily on the basis of a massive advertising blitz wherein they presented themselves as a very laid back, hip, young people kind of church. There's one billboard featuring a blue jean-clad pair of legs, with an electric guitar next to them, and next to that is one of their slogans like "Come as you are." For the sake of getting the FULL experience, I might have preferred a full on fire-and-brimstone Baptist church, but this is what Matt decided on this week.

The church was a great big auditorium with stadium seating. There was a big jumbotron type screen overhead, and before things got started, there was a countdown to worship time. There were three cameras to capture all the action. The show opened with a live band, and then there was a rock hymn with the lyrics displayed on the overhead screens, karaoke style.

Then IMMEDIATELY after the opening music, the collection plates came out. The lights went dim and some guy started playing a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his bass guitar. He was a good guitarist, or at least Ginny thought so. I was a little too distracted by the blatant manipulation of patriotic fervor while they were collecting money. In addition to the song selection, the screens were displaying a big ring of stars on a blue background, superimposed on a waving flag. Needless to say, we didn't contribute any money.

The lights came up and a skit started. The skit involved a cranky, bitter young woman who feels that her life is empty. She comes home and talks to herself. It seems that she's got everything she wanted when she was young: marriage, kids, a good job, a nice apartment... so why does she feel so empty??? She doesn't feel satisfied with her life, and she makes herself depressed by looking at women in magazines whose body she'll never have, and she doesn't feel satisfied with the fact that she achieved some goals.

Then some more music played. Part of the conceit of the skit was that the woman lives next door to one of the guitarists and yells through the walls about how much her life sucks, so he soothes her with pretty music.

Then finally we got the pastor. The pastor was a young man in his twenties. He was casually (but hiply) dressed and his arms were covered with tattoos. He had a good crowd voice and generally came across with the air of an accomplished motivational speaker.

The theme of the sermon was "sand castles." It's based on a Bible verse that says, in a nutshell: "Build your life on a foundation of Jesus. Because if you build it on anything else, it's like building a castle on sand." ("The other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show 'em! It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So, I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up!")

So the pastor started by telling an anecdote about building sand castles when he was a little kid. The ocean washed it away, so he built the next one on the hood of the car. But at the end of the day, they had to drive away and that castle fell down too. The way he told it was very cute and entertaining, but the whole story was so contrived that I had a strong suspicion that it didn't really happen to him, even though he told it very earnestly in the first person. It seems more likely to me that there are books of these sermons that pastors are supposed to "borrow" but personalize.

Anyway, the sermon continues the theme of the whiny woman in the apartment: all your accomplishments are irrelevant, because life sucks without Jesus. To drive the point home, the pastor went through a checklist of some things from which people might derive pleasure and satisfaction, and proceeded to knock them down and ridicule them. "What should you build your life on? The approval of OTHER PEOPLE? Huh? Well guess what, other people aren't always gonna approve of what you do. My wife doesn't even approve of me all the time! But God will always approve of you!"

Wait a minute. Now I may not be up on my salvation lingo, but I thought the whole point of the Jesus story is that God DOESN'T approve of you. God FORGIVES you, because Jesus covers your sins through his sacrifice, but you're still a sinner, and that still pisses God off.

And no, as an atheist, I don't seek approval from all people all the time. However, I do find it consistently more rewarding to be on good terms with most people, some of them being close friends, most of them maintaining a basic level of civility, and nearly all of them just agreeing not to kill me thanks to social order.

To continue: "What are you gonna build your life on? Your ACCOMPLISHMENTS? Huh? Well I've got news for you, your accomplishments are a waste of time. You think you'll be happy if you get that promotion, or buy that big TV, or lose that weight. But you won't! Because when you accomplish something, you're left with an empty feeling... you mean that's ALL?"

Again: that's not my experience. The problem is that this mentality assumes that there is an endpoint to happiness. There will be a certain pinnacle you reach where you are absolutely happy, and then there's no need to strive for any accomplishments ever again. This makes no sense. Striving to accomplish things is part of what makes life fun. When you reach a goal, you search around to find a new goal for yourself. I enjoy getting a new goal. I enjoy working towards that goal. And I enjoy the satisfaction of looking back and seeing that goal completed.

Just because I'm pleased with what I'm done, doesn't mean I'm in some state of ultimate, final happiness. But nor does that mean that I am miserable and my life sucks. Things just are the way they are. You can enjoy things the way they are, or not enjoy them.

My problem is that the sermon was clearly intended to steer you towards the "not enjoy" category. It was a subtle encouragement to look on your own life and find things to get depressed about. Like any good sales pitch: create a void in the customer's life. Then state that the void can only be filled with all-new better-tasting Jesus soda. It was a very cheerful, bouncy, and upbeat presentation. But the message is an astoundingly negative one.

Another amusing point is that while the pastor was talking about empty accomplishments, he said "Now just because your accomplishments don't have ultimate significance doesn't mean that you should just give everything up. If you're the CEO of your company, I'm not saying quit today and walk away." At that point Ginny leaned over and whispered, "Yeah, because they need your money!"

Unlike some churches, there were no Bibles in the seats. Instead, every time the pastor referred to a particular verse, the passage would appear on the overhead screens. Except that the language in the Bible verses was unusual. They were using some weird translation, like the "New International Hipster Version." There was all sorts of modern lingo. Jesus is referred to as "driving" while you're a "passenger". Paul apparently talked about something being like a "house of cards." And there was one verse about a smart carpenter and a stupid carpenter, which I'm quite sure isn't how it goes in King James. Overall, nearly every verse sounded slightly jarring and anachronistic in some way.

It was clear that every aspect of this church was meant as a marketing gimmick to pull in 20- and 30-somethings. The pastor's speech was just larded with references that kids from the 80's would get. At one point, he referred to three or four movies in one quick analogy: 16 Candles, Top Gun, and The Breakfast Club are the ones I remember.

It's a marketing ploy that delivers. The audience was all very young; I would guess that I was in the top half of the age range at 31 years old. And they were all quite casually dressed. I dressed up a little bit nicely, not knowing what to expect: black slacks and a button-up blue shirt. I was clearly overdressed.

I'm not really complaining, as such. If I actually wanted to go to church, this is probably something that I might like and not be intimidated by each week. Then again, the friendly atmosphere doesn't change the fact that the message is so profoundly negative. You are miserable, everyone is miserable, and you are doomed to always be miserable until you accept this meme and start believing in things that can't be shown to exist.

Of course, another interesting question that the new hipster churches raise is: what about Pascal's Wager? Is it actually good enough to go once a week in your grungy clothes, sit and watch a rock show, a skit, and a kid who gets you jazzed up about the 80's? If it is good enough, then why do so many churches bother with the stuffy atmosphere and the fire and brimstone "believe or die" mentality and the behavioral commands? And if it's not good enough, then won't all those so-called "Christians" be surprised when they find themselves in hell, or left behind at the rapture? Hmmmm...

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Anatomy of a propaganda attack

Anybody heard about this one?

There was this dad in Lexington, MA, David Parker, who has embarked on a crusade to protect his seven year old from hearing about gay people. The son brought home in a reading bag with books about different types of families, including gay families. He complained to the school board - which is fine with me. I don't agree with his attitude, but I suppose he should have the right to opt out. In this case, he carried his protest so far that he refused to leave the school grounds and got arrested.

Then a few weeks later, this story pops up: Seven-Year-Old Beaten at School For Father's Stand Against Homosexual Activism.

I first encountered the story on alt.atheism last week. Naturally, every right wing media outlet picked it up as fast as they could and used it as a bludgeon. You can probably guess what they said, along these lines: "Shameful! These so called 'tolerant' liberals support physical assault to intimidate believers in family values! Why won't the liberal media pick up this story?"

The first question that springs to my mind is, "How do they know that the beating had anything to do with the dad's anti-gay crusade?" The second question is, "Seven year olds are really THAT concerned with gay politics?"

Here's the school's side of the story:

Some of you may be aware that the press has received a news release related to a playground incident at Estabrook. The Estabrook principal has investigated the issue over the past two days, talking to the adults and children involved. The following are the facts as she understands them.

On May 17, several first graders were involved in a disagreement over who would sit where in the cafeteria. As a result, upon going outside one child took another by the hand and brought him to a third student in an area of the playground that is somewhat difficult for the adults to see. (The student who was hit said that he went willingly.) All children who saw agreed that the third student then hit the student who had been brought to him two to four times in the chest/abdomen (children’s accounts vary) and he fell to his knees. The student who was hit says he was hit when down; the other children say he wasn’t. One child reports that one student held the arm of the student who was hit; however, the child who was hit and the other children did not report this. The children involved named five children who were nearby watching but not directly involved. Several other students were close enough to see a cluster of students but not close enough to see what was happening. The student who did the hitting suggested that others also hit, but none of them did so. Based on the children’s accounts, this all may have happened in under a minute. The aide on duty saw a group of children gathering, and as she walked toward them was approached by a child that said someone was being bullied. When the aide inquired what was going on, the child who was hit identified one student who hit him, and the other children agreed. The child who was hit said he was not hurt and did not want to go to the nurse. He reported that his feelings were hurt, because the child who hit him was his friend.

The child who did the hitting was sent to the assistant principal’s office and while talking with her acknowledged his behavior. As a result, he filled out a “think sheet,” to reflect on his behavior and choices, missed recess on two days, and wrote an apology. In addition, the classroom teacher called both sets of parents and a class discussion was held about not hitting and speaking up when there is a problem on the playground. The teacher indicated that both parents took the matter seriously and seemed satisfied with the outcome. Following the incident the boys were observed arm in arm at school and subsequently the child who was hit went to the house of the child who hit him for a play date.

On May 31, the parents of the child hit casually inquired of the assistant principal as to the consequence given to the other child, and they were told that the child’s parents were informed and a consequence given. Other than this brief interaction, between the time of the phone call by the teacher to the parents on May 17 until June 14, there were no complaints of injury or dissatisfaction with the process to the teacher, nurse, or the administrators. On June 14, school administration received a call from a local paper stating that they had received a press release that a child had been assaulted at Estabrook.

In this case, we followed all of our usual procedures and worked with both sets of parents to resolve this issue. We are surprised that it has resurfaced in a press release issued by a group calling itself Mass Resistance without any prior contact with the school. The press release states that the incident was "fueled and incited by adults (and yes, school officials).” We have found nothing in our investigation that would support this allegation in any way. Nonetheless, in the interest of an open and thorough review of the incident, the matter has been referred by the superintendent to the Lexington police, District Attorney’s office, and the Department of Social Services for independent investigation.

At Estabrook, playground safety and student behavior are school improvement goals each year. The school, like all of the schools in Lexington, works hard to establish behavioral expectations, teach students social skills, and provide strong supervision on the playground. In the seven years that Joni Jay has been principal, we have more than doubled the adults watching students on the playground and our coverage ratio at Estabrook is at or above all other Lexington elementary schools. We have separated older and younger students and have fewer students on the playground at one time. We have trained and hired skillful aides who stay actively involved with children, equipped with walkie-talkies and actively walking around identifying potential problems and working through them with students. The Open Circle program, adopted this year, has provided students with skills to help them resolve problems verbally. Administrators discuss with children the reasons for what happened, the consequences, and future alternatives every time there is a problem. We involve parents and teachers when a child has broken school rules, and if the nurse treats a child due to a playground incident. Each incident is documented, and referrals are made to the counselor and other support personnel when appropriate. As a result of the efforts of staff and parents working together, physical altercations on the playground have been reduced significantly.

A major goal of the Lexington Public School system is both to help all children feel safe as well as to help the child who has erred learn. We are continuously looking to improve the playground experience for children and welcome your input.

A few points of interest in the story:

  1. David Parker claims that "a group of 8-10 kids suddenly surrounded Jacob and grabbed him." The school says that it was one kid who actually hit him.
  2. In the conservative media story, "According to Mr. Parker, school authorities determined from an investigation into the assault that the beating was indeed planned and premeditated." While according to the school, they had not determined any such thing. Rather, the kids "were involved in a disagreement over who would sit where in the cafeteria."
  3. Despite the allegedly severe beating, the parents declined to file a complaint with the police. Apparently, filing a complaint with a local right wing mouthpiece was enough... two weeks later.
  4. "Following the incident the boys were observed arm in arm at school and subsequently the child who was hit went to the house of the child who hit him for a play date."

My conclusion? Unfortunately, kids get in fights. This is a bad thing and should not be excused in any way. The little brat who attacked Jacob Parker should be (and seemingly was) disciplined.

But the father seems to have used his status as a loudmouth political activist to act like his child was a victim of anti-bigotry-bigots. The conservative press jumped all over this claim without even bothering to verify that he had any evidence.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


My grades have probably been posted for longer than I realized, but I finally figured out where to look yesterday. I did, in fact, get straight A's in my first semester at school.

This is the only time in my life that I have EVER had a 4.0 grade point average. I don't necessarily expect it to last, but I'll savor the moment.

It looks like the curve was pretty generous in some spots of my Data Mining class. I got 19 out of 40 on my midterm exam, but the median grade was something like 19.01, so I didn't get killed on that as badly as I had expected. On the other hand, the professor sent out an email saying that this was an unusually weak class, and the curve reflected that by giving a lot of low grades. So I guess by one way of reckoning, that makes my A worth more.

My homework grades were consistently above average, but not tremendously so. It was my final class project and paper topic presentation that gave me the huge boost I needed. I had to give three public addresses in one weekend of two classes. Thanks to my public speaking experience, both of them killed. I mean, the class laughed at my jokes and asked questions that indicated they were interested in the subject. What more can anyone ask for?

Software Validation and Verification was an odd class. There was a simply enormous volume of technical papers that we were supposed to read in the month between each class. I tried, but the subject was fairly dull and it was very tough to slog through a few of them in any given month. Then, in the month before my last class, I realized something amazing: there WASN'T GOING TO BE A FINAL. In other words, reading the papers was mostly useless. There was a 20 minute "quiz" that was like a midterm; there was one homework assignment; and there was the paper topic. And I had managed to round up an excellent team of four students to work on a project that was basically my idea. There was lots of communication and meetings, and everybody seemed to share fairly equally in the work.

The professor was kind of new, so I suggested to him that it might have been constructive to give a few take-home quiz questions on selected paper topics. It would have meant more work for me, but without that kind of feedback, I definitely didn't feel like I was getting what I was supposed to out of the reading.

No, I wasn't that annoying kid in class who says the teacher forgot to assign enough homework. I'm a grownup now, dammit. I paid $X0,000 so that I could learn things.

I think I said before that I'll be posting my final papers on my web site soon, in case anyone is interested. I recently upgraded my very old hosting account from 50 megs to a gig, for very little extra money. So now I can actually put stuff on my site freely without worrying about quotas. I'll do that someday soon.

Monday, June 19, 2006

More thoughts on Ann Coulter

Jeff, Denis and I had a very interesting discussion about Ann Coulter this weekend on the Non-Prophets this weekend. I'd say it lasted a solid half hour, and Jeff gave me a new perspective on what her motives might be in naming the book "Godless".

In her latest train wreck of a column, Coulter complains that people aren't getting properly offended by the central thesis of her book.

My book makes a stark assertion: Liberalism is a godless religion. Hello! Anyone there? I've leapt beyond calling you traitors and am now calling you GODLESS. Apparently, everybody's cool with that. The fact that liberals are godless is not even a controversial point anymore.

To Coulter, "godless" is a worse insult than "traitor." And she's frustrated that this isn't what bothers people.

Jeff Dee wrote a blog entry a year ago that addresses what this issue is all about. Like many things I write, some of this post is a wholesale ripping off of ideas that he gave me.

First of all, the reality. Most atheists do in fact vote Democratic. It's simply a fact... somewhere around 70-80% of the atheist vote went to Gore, and then to Kerry.

But of course, most Democrats are godful. Not all Democrats are atheists; many are liberal Christians, or wiccans/pagans/new agers/whatever. This reflects that fact that Democrats are actually a highly diverse coalition of people and interests. The godless and the laid back religious form one issue oriented segment; then there's gay rights advocates, pro-choicers, environmentalists, pro-science people, anti-war people, civil rights pinkos, and so on. Many times these interests converge, but not always. Democrats have varying individual agendas and tend not to move in lockstep. Being "liberal" on one or several issues is no guarantee that you'll agree with the rest of the party platform.

This is as contrasted with the Republican party, which by and large demands complete loyalty on all issues. Sure, they have the "enrich the rich" big money guys on one hand and the very poor rural theocrats on the other. But the poor rural theocrats have also been persuaded to believe that eliminating the estate tax is in their interest; while the big money guys regularly use hyper-religious language to woo the rural theocrats. In short, Republicans have managed a kind of cohesion that Democrats don't have.

Ann Coulter's nasty routine tries to drive a wedge into the already tenuous alliance among Democrats. Liberal Christian Democrats are driven to say "We're not Godless, you mean lady! Look how much we love God!" And then they try to find ways to make the Democratic party more overtly religious.

Then what happens? It alienates the atheists, of course. We atheists -- who make up a not insignificant fraction of the party's base -- see that the Democrats are starting to pander to the religious left, and we get discouraged, and the votes start to fall off.

THIS is what Coulter and her ilk are really after. Internal rifts in the Democratic party. With the last two elections being won by less than five points, a chunk of 10-20% of Democrats becoming convinced that there's no difference between the parties could ensure Republican victories for a long time to come.

If Democrats were smart, their reaction to being called Godless would be one of unambiguous solidariy with atheists. Easy for an atheist to say, right? But they don't have to agree with our position. They could say, "You know, most of our party are not godless, but we gladly accept people of all religions and no religion. We understand that there are differences among individuals, but we celebrate those differences." The people who find "godless" to be an automatic insult will avoid the Democratic party, but they already do that anyway.

Monday, June 12, 2006

For IBM Help, please do NOT call...

The correct number for IBM internal support is 1-888-IBM-HELP.

As I learned today, the number is **not** 1-800-IBM-HELP. That appears to be a phone sex line.

Using, I learned that the same numbers also spell 1-800-4-ANGELS.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I'd rather be Godless than insane

Sometimes -- not often, mind you -- I wonder about Ann Coulter. She seems to be a potential soul mate for Fred Phelps (the "God hates fags" guy). Both of them appear to be in the business of saying things that are as offensive as possible, and then playing the victim when people react to them. Fred Phelps makes sure NOBODY likes him, so he can make money by suing people who take a swing at him. Coulter, on the other hand, sells books, so clearly she actually has a target audience. However, the stuff she says is so stupid and insulting that it's hard to believe that even she believes it.

So I wonder about her. I haven't ruled out the possibility that she's deliberately created a character for herself, like Stephen Colbert. If she is a walking satire, she's not that funny and really, REALLY dedicated to it.

Take her latest book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism. Now, I happen to be a liberal AND godless, so the subject matter doesn't bother me as much as it undoubtedly will bother some other people. In fact I'm quite looking forward to seeing excerpts from the end of the book, most of which is supposed to be spent on Intelligent Design, and the usual tiresome charge that I worship Darwin. I'm sure the web will be rife with hilarious take-downs, and that's something I always enjoy reading.

Speaking of hilarious take-downs, recently Keith Olbermann devoted a segment to pummeling the crap out of a clip of her being interviewed. Watch the segment. I guarantee it won't disappoint you.

This is what Keith Olbermann was responding to. Coulter's book goes on a rant about the four "Jersey Girls" -- 9/11 widows who have become prominent political figures criticizing Bush on national security. They were at least partly responsible for the formation of the 9/11 commission.

Matt Lauer (reading from Coulter's book): "These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, revelling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' death so much."

Coulter: Yes.

Lauer: Because they dare to speak out?

Coulter: To speak out using the fact that they're widows. This is the Left's doctrine of infallibility. If they have a point to make about the 9-11 Commission, about how to fight the war on terrorism, how about sending in somebody we're allowed to respond to? No, no, no, we always have to respond to someone who just had a family member die.

Ann, of course, is completely full of shit. There is absolutely NO REASON why she wouldn't be allowed to "respond to them". I wouldn't hesitate to disagree with widows, if I didn't completely agree with them anyway.

Except that in Ann Coulter's twisted mentality, "respond to" is a synonym for "slander the character of." It's all that she has ever known how to do. And she is completely stymied by the Jersey girls, because when she attacks them, she sounds like a bitch from hell. Ann asks, "And by the way, how do we know their husbands weren't planning to divorce these harpies? Now that their shelf life is dwindling, they'd better hurry up and appear in Playboy." Cute. Classy. No, wait a minute, that makes her sound FUCKING EVIL.

But in a way, that's what she's complaining about. She's used to making character attacks and being basically shielded and supported by her fans, but when she says crap like this, nobody likes her. So that's how she came to the conclusion that she "can't respond to them" -- she lost the ability to "respond" in the only way she knows how: by screaming at them.

And she can't stand it. She doesn't know the difference between a legitimate discussion and a screech fest. She interprets this lack of support as inability to hold a discussion with them. But in fact, the reality is that she is incapable of holding a serious discussion with anyone.

Putting this shrew on TV only dignifies her. "Enjoying their husbands' deaths" indeed. In a sane world, the only possible response to that would be "Go fuck yourself." The fact that any other response is expected, frankly mystifies me.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Last weekend of class

I'm sitting in my Data Mining class now. My first semester will be over tomorrow. What a relief.

This month, and especially this week, have been very rough on me, and I think even rougher on Ginny and Ben. I've been either working continuously or meeting with somebody every night. Ben hardly sees me, and when he does try to get me to play with him, I usually have to shoo him away because I'm so busy. Ginny says he's been unusually unruly during the day, and she thinks it's because he's stressed too.

At 10:00 I'll be going up in front of the class with my partner, Chip, to do a ten minute presentation on a published paper (not ours) about gathering marketing information from blogs and message boards. This afternoon, I will be in a group of four presenting a system that we wrote to translate logic puzzles into visual solutions. The program parses natural language and then shows what categories it puts people in. Then tomorrow, back in Data Mining, I'll be showing our data on how gun laws affect crime rates. That paper is 14 pages. I'll probably put both papers up on my web page sometime soon.

So anyway, I worked my ass off this month, and I'm ready to take a big break. I still have to go to work, of course, but just working is a piece of cake compared to working in the day AND doing class work at night.

We're planning to go to Sea World soon. No responsibilities until my next class starts in a month. A very welcome change.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within [GC, **]

I've owned Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within for over a year now, I think. Usually I either win a game within a few weeks or get sick of it and don't finish at all. With Warrior, I played it for a while and then set it aside, having the best intention to return to it eventually. Recently, I've given it another go.

I love the Prince of Persia series. I played the original game as a freshman in college. The second game was one of the first I ever played after I bought my first sound card, so I fondly remember the experience of hearing ACTUAL VOICES in the game for the very first time.

In the Prince games, you play a character with extraordinary athletic abilities. The first two games were side-scrollers. In a typical gaming session, you might be running from a bunch of angry guards, then you duck through a gate just as it closes, jump over some spikes, and finally leap across a wide chasm, just barely grabbing the ledge.

Also characteristic of the series is that it is both brutally hard on mistakes, and generous in allowing you to recover from them. Miss the ledge, and you'll plummet to your death many screens below as the prince lets out a terrified scream. (Hooray again for the invention of sound cards.) Then you'll be transported back a couple of minutes to the beginning of the scene, where you need to start running from those guards again. Luckily, you get infinite lives. The first two games had a time limit; later games have given that up, which I considered a wise move.

In the latest incarnation of the series, the prince has gone 3D on GameCube, PlayStation 2, and XBox. (Actually the Prince went 3D in an earlier PC version called Prince of Persia 3D, but that one was so bad it's best not to speak of it.) In Sands of Time, they introduced a terrific game mechanic, which was the power to control time. You get a limited number of "sand tanks", which you can fill by fighting enemies. If you get killed by one of the many cliffs or deathtraps, you can rewind time to a point just before you died as long as you still have time sand. It was a clever way to stick with the spirit of the series, because it allows you to feel that the world is deadly while still giving you an opportunity to recover from your mistakes without starting over very often. It reduced a lot of the frustration but still kept the tension high, because if you run out of sand then your next screwup kills you. The character was well designed and the new moves (such as running along walls and flipping around poles) were very cool.

In Warrior Within, it's like some committee of corporate non-gamers tried to redesign Sands of Time to make it "hipper," realizing that Sands is a great game but not having any understanding of why. In Warrior, the prince is darker and edgier. The fighting is more violent, and requires you to memorize "combos" -- buttons you have to press in a certain sequence in order to win the battles. Also, the introductory movie has a hot goth chick in chainmail, and there's actually a closeup shot of her chainmailed butt. I like skin shots as much as the next guy, but it was just so utterly gratuitous that it was stupid. It's not all that relevant to the plot and it feels wedged in to the Prince of Persia universe.

All that aside, though, I finally managed to enjoy the game for a while, until I gradually realized that there is one aspect of Warrior Within that I truly, truly hate.

Some games are linear, dragging you from event A to event B to event C on rails. That's okay. Some games are nonlinear, giving you free reign to explore what you want. That's okay too.

But in Warrior Within, the designers have chosen the worst aspects of both. The game is linear in the sense that you must unlock events in a particular order. But the geography of the game is nonlinear, because at any given time, you can travel to just about anywhere else you've already been. And the enemies are all still there.

In other words, it's really hard to tell which way you're supposed to be going. I just recently backtracked very close to the beginning of the game, fighting newly resurrected enemies all the way, before realizing that there's nothing happening there. Apparently there was some other branch that I was supposed to take. So I went back to hunt for the other branch, and got sidetracked going to another useless location.

Adding to this horror, some areas can only be accessed by a very roundabout route, but once you're there, you can instantly take a one-way path that drops you right back where you were. So if you make a wrong jump, you'll slide down a banner and land on the floor, only to realize that you're now in the same place you were 15 minutes ago when you started climbing, leaping, swinging, and shimmying your way to the top. Now you get to do it all over again.

Finally, the game gives you nothing in the way of hints about where you want to be. One button reveals a "map", but the map is just a big artist's sketch of the exterior of the palace. There's not even a large, friendly "you are here" arrow. At the top, it just says "Gardens." At the bottom, it helpfully says "Goal: Open the second tower." Say, it would be nice if you could let me know where the second tower is, you unhip suit-wearing fogey bastards.

It's a shame that there is such a high quantity of anti-fun in this game, because there really are strong hints of the elements that have made the entire Prince of Persia series so much fun. When you're climbing around an enormous yawning chasm, and you make a dangerous running leap, and JUST BARELY manage to grab on to the ledge as you fall past it, it gets the heart pumping while simultaneously conjuring up a delightful nostalgia for the original side scrolling games.

But the first game had different levels, and once you enter a new level, the door closes behind you. When you're on level 20 and about to rescue the princess, you can't accidentally drop down a few ledges and suddenly be back fighting the guys from level 1.

I rarely give games one star, preferring to reserve that rank for the absolute worst stuff I've ever played. This isn't that bad. But it's not good.

Score: ** (out of five stars)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Libertarianism, part 2

Since I wrote my post on libertarianism, I've received quite a few comments, including a few by email and phone. Some are highly positive about what I wrote, some less so.

One particular poster, "Philanthropic Patriot", is now a repeat visitor to this blog and has written a fairly lengthy reply. I decided I can't do it justice without starting a new post. Thanks for your interesting feedback, PP.


"I believe that we are better off for having a government that actually does stuff. Not that I think the government is in good hands right now; I think that we are being run by a bunch of insane bunglers who are incapable of long term planning. Nevertheless, I believe that a government, run by competent and rational people, is critical for managing aspects of a decent society that the free market doesn't address. That's right, there are things that the free market does not, never has, and cannot do."

Philanthropic Patriot:
"The assumption on the left is that people, left to their own devices and attmepting to improve their lot in life will naturally end up rushing the planet and society headlong to their own destruction. It is believed that if we can only get the correct legislators in place and leave important decisions to these more enlightened, socially responsible individuals is the only way that man can be prevented from destroying himself. Yet I ask, what suddenly makes an elected official less self destructive than the rest of us, and why should we really want universal sufferage given the self destructive nature of most people. Are we to trust people to vote on the best legislators to solve their problems, but not trust them to solve their own problems?"

Okay, hold it right there. You're already trying to turn me into a straw man.

Sorry, you are incorrect. The belief held by me (and whether this is typical of "the left" is open for debate) is *not* that people, left to their own devices, will isolate themselves from one another and destroy themselves. Quite the contrary, I believe that because people are smart, they will eventually recognize the fact that there are things they can't do on their own, and band together in groups to accomplish larger and more important works than scrabbling out a bare existence. This is a huge distinction from the words that PP is putting in my mouth.

For example, suppose I'm writing an essay on the virtues of technology. My eyesight is awful; I correct that with very powerful contact lenses. My running speed is not very fast; luckily I can and frequently do zip across the landscape at 60 miles per hour in my car. Also, luckily for me, I am able to feed myself readily available food without bothering to learn how to hunt or farm; and luckily for me, I am able to communicate my thoughts to people thousands of miles away by tapping my fingers on a piece of plastic. Technology is terrific.

Now suppose somebody comes along and says: "The assumption of the technologists is that people, left to their own devices without their cars and computers and optometry and grocery stores, will naturally end up dying young. Why do they have such contempt for mankind?" Well, no, it's not contempt. If you take away my technology then I'm going to have a much tougher time surviving. That's why I'm pleased that humans are so intelligent and resourceful as to have invented all those things. Before those things existed, life was much shorter and more unpleasant. That's our niche. We do things the smart way.

Government, like contact lenses, is a technological advancement. Go read Guns, Germs and Steel sometime and you'll see the point. In a primitive society, it's pretty much every man for himself, and most of what occupies their time is finding or growing food. Even in primitive societies, of course, there's typically some sort of rudimentary social structure, either family based or chieftain based, but dealing with other tribes is a sketchy business.

Once a tribe discovers the principles of agriculture, suddenly it becomes easier and easier to grow food. All of a sudden, people are no longer limited to eating what they can grow by themselves. They can do other things with their time. There then arises an enormous idle class, and what those idle individuals do to occupy their time is what makes a tribe powerful. They develop technology and weapons. They organize themselves and make laws to keep things running smoothly.

The cultures that do not do this, get crushed or assimilated by the ones who do. History demonstrates, over and over again, that failure to organize is an evolutionary dead end.

"You go on to point out that a free market cannot think far enough ahead to invest in fusion research despite the potential advances for humanity in general. I could point out that politicians rarely think past 4 years, but I will instead say that the market can and would support such research when humanity needs it. If oil prices continue to rise (due to scarcity rather than inflation) than more money will be invested into finding energy alternatives. Politicians love to invest in so-called green technology, but not having any market forces to help them determine when and where that technology is needed, they are more likely to invest in useless technologies as helpfull technology. (and with our current political system I would claim that they would be much more likely to invest in technologies pormoted by those with the most political clout.)"

And yet, nevertheless, governments somehow managed to get an impressive array of large projects that individuals failed to do by themselves. Little things, like, you know... stop lights. Sewers. The internet.

I'm also kind of keen on how we no longer have widespread child labor, or a 50% poverty rate among the elderly, or 70 hour work weeks.

"However, if you tax away all the rich people's 'excess profit', you also have to deal with certain consequences. Seeing as how rich poeple invest far more heavily in new businesses and new jobs, taxing away their excess capital reduces future job growth. Reducing future job growth then reduces workers ability to negotiate for higher wages as they will end up having more competition for the fewer jobs available."

That would be a swell point if it weren't another irrelevant straw man. At no point in my post did I say a word about "taxing away all the rich people's excess profit." See, I believe that your income should be taxed at a marginal rate that is greater than 0% and less then 100%. I do think that people who have more money are better able to afford taxes, but taxing away ALL the excess profit, golly, that would be a dumb thing to say, wouldn't it?

"Your talk about vouchers is a bit misleading as any libertarian I know wants government out of education completely. Any voucher system (in fact any government money) will come with strings attached which will compromise the private school and move it closer to a public school. So what would happen if we got rid of government schools.

Many progressives assume that poor people would get no education."

What an unreasonable assumption. I guess they only say that because poor people never *have* been educated effectively in a society with no publicly supported education. Still, why bother with trifling things like evidence?

"This stems from a belief that public education is 'free education'"

No it doesn't. It stems from a belief that public education is publicly supported, in such a way that people who can't afford it get educated. Homeowners pay for it, with people who live in more expensive homes paying more. By so doing, they get to buy the privilege of living among an educated populace who don't feel that their only avenue of profit is stealing stuff from the rich houses.

"Another effect the ending of compulsary education would have would be that some people would choose not to school their children. Before public schools were common in the U.S. some of the best selling books were reading primers and there was no illiteracy problem in our country. If I have a succesfull carpentry business and I choose to keep my son home and teach him my business and what I feel he needs to learn, why is that wrong?

You go on to claim that poor children would end up in the worst schools, yet right now only wealthy people can afford to send their children to private schools because they have to, in effect, pay for that schooling twice (once through thier property taxes), so the poor are already going to the worst schools. If, however, they went to a poor private school, that school would have incentive to improve (attracting more students) that public schools lack. In addition, many businesses would understand the need for a well educated work force and would set up scholarships and other financial help for the poor. Believe the poor would be excluded from private schools? Read this:
And this:"

Nope. I don't believe that the poor would be "excluded" from private schools. One of the things I have noticed throughout this post is that you are constantly engaging in thinking that everything is all or nothing. For instance, if there are a few dimly lit ratholes serving as "schools" for a fraction of the children in third world countries, that doesn't make it an impressive substitute for widely available education.

Interesting that you need to look in underdeveloped and impoverished countries to locate examples of the ideal libertarian educational situation. Why do you suppose that is?

"You say that the free market does not provide good meals for the poor and, in this, you are correct. While charitymay not be the perview of a free market, it is much more so that it is the perview of the government. Most charity does, and should, come from private individuals yet corporations do have a good track record of giving to charity. Is that good for the bottom line? Well, it turns out it is. Companies do not just put up a sign that says 'my busines' and automagically have customers, they have to attract those customers and many businesses realize that goodwill from the community can be better than paying a high priced Madison Avenue ad firm."

Again, this is an example of all or nothing thinking. You imagine that, because a few companies have the incentive to give to charity, suddenly the problem of meals for the poor -- poof! -- just vanishes. The question isn't whether some poor people get fed; the question is whether ENOUGH poor people get fed to massively reduce the number of people who starve in the streets. While I'm sure that lots of private charity makes up some of the shortfall, it's never managed to offset hunger the way a fully funded government program does.

Prove me wrong. Find me a society of comparable prosperity and size, which has no public welfare programs and manages to stave off starvation among the poor better than we do. Or should I take this assertion on faith?

"Yet when someone is in need. Truly in need of a meal and a bed to keep them alive, do they turn to the government? No. They go to the Family Kitchen for a meal and to the YMCA for a bed."

You are talking about a starving person looking for a last resort to keep them alive. Yet you dismiss the fact that "the government" is what keeps many people from reaching that point.

Moving on to post number two...

"Your analogy of a multicelled animal with humans as the cells really gives a good insight into the progressive mindset. Viewing humans as lumps of material to be molded by those better able to see the good of society into a functioning whole. You ignore the fact that those cells (humans) have intelligence, free will, thier own hopes and dreams and even thier own ideas on how to best organize society. Individual cells in a body don't wake up every morning worried about bills, about forgetting their anniversary; they don't wake up in the morning thinking about that girl they met at the party the night before or the bonus they are hoping to get this quarter. If you look at humans as aimless, lifeless masses to be organized by 'your plan' for society than your plan is going to fail."

This should win an award for "most strained attempt to take an analogy literally." Yes, PP. My dad made that analogy because he thinks that human beings are literally microscopic cells with no brains. He's just the stupidest scientist in the world.

Or perhaps the reason that the analogy between people and cells actually works is because people, like cells, function best in a larger context. Don't believe me? Then go ahead and abandon society, cut yourself off from human contact, and become a hermit. I'm sure you'll be a very wealthy hermit. Maybe when you've managed to truly free yourself from the shackles of governments and laws, you can serve as a shining example of someone who has truly made it on his own, with no help from anyone.

"I don't know about icelands history, but I do know of a society that was far closer to the ideals of libertarianism than any socety today. This society watched over some of the greatest achievements and discoveries by man, had a booming economy, practically inflation free money, no income taxes, true property rights and a judiciary who zelously defended those rights, and a level of freedom almost unprecedented in human history."

Nothing I read about Iceland since this subject was brought up have in any way indicated to me that the economy was "booming". On the contrary, the article by Jared Diamond that I referenced earlier had this to say:

"Medieval Iceland became Europe's most backward country, poorer even than Albania. In contrast to the rich burial goods found in Viking graves elsewhere, all of the gold and silver recovered from Viking graves in Iceland could be accommodated within a small bucket. Everyone lived on scattered farms: until the 1700s Iceland didn't even have any villages, towns, or full-time merchants. It had no roads, carts, or wheeled transport until the late 1800s; at that same recent date most Icelanders still lived in houses built of turf."

The other "perks" that you mentioned seem to be either things that we already have, such as "true property rights," or cases where you are simply begging the question, such as "no income taxes." Income taxes pay for a lot of the great stuff I mentioned we have in our society, which the Icelanders seem to have notably lacked.

"You probably already know I am refering to the first one hunder and fifty years of our Constitutional Republic, before the standard bearer for the progressive movement, FDR, decided the Constitution was too binding for his plans and bullied the Supreme Court into redefining it. Now we have far too much ignorance about what the Constitution says, even among our legislators who all swear an oath to defend it. As far as I can tell about progressive thought, the Constitution starts with Amendment I and ends with Amendment XXVII."

No, I agree that people should be familiar with the whole Constitution, such as the part where it says that the government is supposed to do things like "promote the general Welfare" and "establish Post Offices" and "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts." (And yes, before you ask, I am fully aware that the definition of "welfare" is "health, happiness, or prosperity.")

"Finally, I find it funny that you spend some time disproving that Iceland was libertarian and then you turn around and say that Iceland is proof that libertatrianism is self-defeating. Which is it?"

I suppose I can concede here that you've caught me in a bit of a contradiction, which is probably understandable since, as I said, I'm not all that familiar with medieval Iceland.

So let me try to clarify. It's clear that medieval Iceland was not a pure libertarian society, but of course, there is no such thing. It does, however, make sense to talk about degrees of libertarianism, and I'll also grant that medieval Iceland was definitely CLOSER to the libertarian ideal than the United States has been in any century. Certainly there was no centralized government across a largish group of very small areas. There were laws within the tribal families, but the authority was clearly broken up into smaller groups.

So I'm going to rescind my statement that Iceland wasn't a libertarian society; it was "sort of" a libertarian society, before the scheme collapsed under the weight of the warring families. As for whether they were prosperous, I don't see any evidence of that. The fact that they simply survived for a while doesn't impress me very much.

Woodrow Wilson once said, "Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance."

Wilson was right. Liberty doesn't "come from" the government. As Thomas Jefferson said, people are endowed with inalienable rights. (Though, as I am an atheist, please excuse me if I disregard the"by their creator" part.)

But as Jefferson also went on to say, governments are instituted among men, to secure these rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Jefferson had just lived through a period of unjust government, so I presume he knew what he was talking about. Once Jefferson and his compatriots was free of a tyrannical monarchy, did they say "All right lads, clearly government is inherently evil, so let's abolish government from this day forward and create an anarcho-capitalist utopia"? Nope, they proceeded to spend thirteen years crafting the details of a new government, which they felt would be the best vehicle for securing their rights. I guess that was a pretty good idea.