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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Wedge

The "Wedge" is a technique first proposed by anti-evolutionist Philip Johnson to gradually eliminate the teaching of evolution in schools. A document describing the strategy was leaked to the press by someone. Comments on the Wedge can be read at the links below:

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Battle for Germany 1944-1945

Max Hastings is one of the premier historians of the Second World War. Unlike Stephen Ambrose, who , while a very readable historian -- even knowing whom to plagarize (link) -- is as much a cheerleader as historian, Hastings presents objective analysis. It's fortuitous that he also happens to be a very good writer.

Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 follows his Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, 1944. Hastings succeeds in explaining why the Germans fought so tenaciously even after the war was obviously lost. Within ten weeks after the landings at Normandy, the allies were at the Rhine. The Russians, without whom we could never have defeated Hitler, were pressing hard on the eastern front.

Hastings portrays the Wehrmacht as one of the premier armies of the world -- and also one of the most vicious in its treatment of civilians. We tend to forget the enormous casualties suffered in WW II that make WW I look like a walk in the park. The Russians alone, according to some estimates, suffered some forty million deaths (of course, Stalin was responsible for many of them through vicious resprisals and substantial incompetence.)

Hastings presents a convincing case that poor training of allied troops and less than inspired generalship by Montgomery and Eisenhower prolonged the war, which should have ended, her argues, by the end of 1944. The Red Army, while having more spectacular leadership, suffered from its callous treatment of its own troops. They responded with savagery against the occupied countries. The more democratic countries' armies were substantially more humane -- Americans never saw the Germans as the inhuman barbarians they considered the Japanese to be -- but relied on the advances of the Russians to tie down German SS units on the east which otherwise would have been used against the allies.

Democracies tend to be more cautious in war, having to be concerned with casualties. Hastings notes that the Red Army and Germans had no such concern and could be much more profligate with their armies.

On the other hand, Germans fighting to the bitter end, for whatever reason, be it indoctrination or saving Europe from the asiatic hordes, meant that they had more time to kill Jews. Almost 500,000 Jews were shipped to concentration camps from Hungary in mid-1944.

A fascinating book .

Creationism versus Scientific Evolution Theory: Introduction - Foreword

Creationism versus Scientific Evolution Theory: Introduction - Foreword

Just a good link to material worth reading.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Intelligent Design?

I remain amused by the intelligent design movement. A recent article in The New Yorker (May 30, 2005) discusses the ID theories of two major ID proponents: William Demski and Michael Behe,(related link) both prolific writers who argue not against evolution – they accept most of evolution’s processes – but they do not accept the randomness inherent in natural selection. They propose that the complexity of cells and life must predicate an intelligent design.

The problem with their argument is, of course, that organisms aren’t trying to match a predetermined design; they are merely trying to survive and produce as many offspring as possible. There are species of fish who have gradually moved from the light to darkness of caves and these species show remnants of eyes or eyes that are covered with skin or degenerate. That’s intelligent?

The intelligent design movement is nothing more than a political attempt to resurrect a religious point of view. Yet, the irony is that the prevalent anti-evolutionist view that to believe in evolution is to begin the path toward atheism, is silly and just plain wrong. As the New Yorker article notes, the major figures in twentieth century evolutionary biology were all religious believers. And certainly one would be hard pressed to propose that John Paul II had become an atheist after his pronouncement that “evolutionary theory was more than a hypothesis.”

But the best argument I can see against intelligent design is human beings. Who in his/her right mind would create a species so subject to disease and the desire to dominate and kill one another. That, for me, is the greatest evidence of all against intelligent design.

Excellent summary of the Kansas hearings.

P.S. "I can give you several examples of new species that have emerged within human observation. The best example that I can give you is the butterfly, the genus of butterfly known as Hedylypta. Hedylypta is a genus of butterfly that feeds on various plants. It's endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, which means it's only found there. And there turn out to be two species of Hedylypta with mouthparts that only allow them -- only allow them to feed on bananas. Now why is that significant? It is significant because bananas are not native to the Hawaiian Islands. They were introduced about 1,000 years ago by the Polynesians -- we know this from the written records of the Hawaiian Kingdom -- and what that means is that by mutation and natural selection, these two species have emerged on the Hawaiian Islands within the last 1,000 years. And I think that's a very good case in point." Ken Miller in "Resolved: That evolutionists should acknowledge creation" _Firing Line_, 4 December 1997, p. 24.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Torture Control?

The Bush administration continues to control the news media to its own benefit. The recent flap over the Newsweek story is a case in point. Note that Newsweek’s carefully worded retraction never said the story was false, in fact, the source apparently insists the flushing of the Koran actually happened; they said their source could not confirm which document was reporting the investigation. (Link)

What the right-wing media and Bush spin doctors have succeeded in doing is changing the focus of the story from the content to the “liberal” reporters. The fact remains that we are conducting torture in Afghanistan and Iraq. The New York Times, in a story by Tim Golden, which was taken from a confidential – of course – Army document revealed numerous instances of vicious torture of prisoners, some of whom were innocent of anything.

Bush has fostered an atmosphere that permits this kind of treatment by arguing that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to these prisoners. The current Attorney General prepared a memo while he was White House counsel that permitted torture to the point of “organ failure.” Given that the heart is an organ, I suspect the translation of this could be that it’s OK to torture someone until they die. We know that religious humiliation of the prisoners was common, and when the perpetrators do get caught, the bosses are never held accountable.

And this is an example of the shining light of democracy and freedom?

John McCain and the Religious Right

“I am a pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative and advocate of a strong defense. And yet Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable Presidential candidate. . . . Why? Because I don’t pander to them, because I don’t ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message.”

John McCain speaking in Virginia after the smear campaign against him in South Carolina that lost him the primary.

Cultural Wars

The Makah Indians, several years ago, received permission from the courts and the Interior department to resume the hunting of gray whales. A firestorm of controversy erupted pitting environmentalists and animal rights advocates who deplored the “slaughter” of these mammals, and the supporters of those who wanted to preserve a unique culture. The pro-whale group even resorted to threats of violence. One member of the Whaling Commission returned home to discover 25 messages on her answering machine, each consisting of only the sound of a gun being fired.

Robert Sullivan traveled to Neah Bay to go on the hunt with the Makah and he chronicles the obstacles faced by the Indians caught between warring camps in a book called Whale Hunt. It’s a great read that raises many questions.

Native Nazis?

What constitutes a "native" plant? My ecologist friends despise species they consider non-native, e.g., alfalfa, horses, certain kinds of birds and plants. The idea, I gather is to maintain a pristine environment little influenced by external forces. I have always wondered what period of time should be considered the baseline. A footnote in a fascinating book called Rats by Robert Sullivan sheds some light on the subject.

Sullivan quotes from an article entitled "The Mania for Native Plants in Nazi Germany," in a book edited by Joachim Wolschke-Bulman. The editor comments, "The missionary zeal with which so-called foreign plants are condemned as aggressive is significant. Such characterizations do not contribute to a rational discussion about the future development of our natural and cultural environment, but possibly promote xenophobia." He points out that many of the plants we now consider "native" were most likely brought over via the land bridge from Siberia. Advocates of preserving a native America had close ties to the Nazis before the war and a desire to rid the country of anything foreign. A Jewish writer responded to one of them, "If this kind of garden-owning barbarian became the rule, then neither a gillyflower nor a rosemary, neither a peach tree nor a myrtle sapling, not a tea-rose would ever have crossed the Alps. Gardens connect people, time and latitudes . . . . The garden of humanity is a huge democracy. It is not the only democracy, which such clumsy advocates threaten to dehumanize.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Justice American Style

Courtroom 302 by Steve Bogoira describes a world most of us will never see, nor would we wish to.

"No man can examine the great penal system of this country without being astounded at its magnitude, its cost and its unsatisfactory results," said John Altgeld, Cook County judge and later governor of Illinois in 1890. At that time, the end result was the imprisonment of fifty-thousand citizens. Today the yield is 1.5 million.

Ironically the vast majority of those in the system are there for drug-related offenses, almost always non-violent crimes. If you beat your wife, you'll get released on an I-bond (recognizance), because it's a misdemeanor, not a felony, unlike drug offenses. For some bizarre reason we consider a health problem of much greater import than a violent crime.

Bogoira's book examines a the Chicago justice system during the course of a year from a variety of viewpoints: judges, accused, police and attorneys. You will finish the book grateful to have a job and money. Without these, you would most likely be in the maelstrom of the justice system.

What was God thinking?

Unicast: Jon Stewart on C-SPAN podcast

What could he/she have been thinking when putting most of the world's important religious shrines within blocks of each other?

An example of some of Jon Stewart's remarks during a presentation done before the election last year before a group of journalists (?). Download the audio podcast. It's funny and trenchant. He savages the media for its failure to penetrate the bubble of the political "inside." He says that the media have become a part of the political world they need to analyze and instead have lost sight of the whole.

When asked about reports that children were getting their news from The Daily Show, he noted that an Annenberg study discovered that viewers of his show were in fact much better informed than the general populace, but it's not from watching his show. People watch his show to be amused. It's a comedy, but he assumes a considerable knowledge base for the humor to work. People watch the show to laugh; they already have the information, which they get from non-traditional sources.

The FCC indecency fines were just silly. The Janet Jackson episode was preceeded by a Cialis commercial that suggested that if your erection lasted more than four hours, you should see a doctor. Puhleeeze.

The presidential debates were nothing more than Coke and Pepsi discussing beverage supremacy. (Classic). The problem with the media is not bias it's laziness. Right on, Jon.

Download and enjoy.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Bush would veto House bill on stem cells - Yahoo! News

Bush said the bill would violate his principles.

"I've made it very clear to the Congress that the use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life -- I'm against that. And therefore if the bill does that, I will veto it," Bush told reporters during a picture-taking session with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

I think if you follow Bush's reasoning to a logical conclusion, he should veto money for Iraq, since that certainly involves spending money to destroy life in order to save it.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Reading v. Video Games

"Brain Candy" by Malcolm Gladwell, May 16 The New Yorker pg 88

This article in the New Yorker should be required reading -- even if that perhaps is too linear (the pun will become apparent if you read the article.)

Malcolm Gladwell first cites James Flynn, a political philosopher, who uncovered data showing that the I.Q. scores of Americans have increased quite dramatically in the past few decades. The mean is always being adjusted to reflect changes so that the average will always be 100. If you eliminate the recalibrations, you find that an individual who scored in the top 10% in 1920 would now score in the bottom third. Flynn wonders whether the change in popular culture might have something to do with that increase in intelligence -- if I.Q. measures intelligence, but that's a whole different argument.

Gladwell discusses Steven Johnson's new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, which makes some provocative statements. Johnson has written several books on science and technology -- I have ordered all of them for the library -- and his analyses are provocative. He suggests that television has evolved from shows that are essentially linear, with few characters and a simple story line, to shows like "The Sopranos" in which a single show would encompass multiple narrative threads and characters who move in and out of the plot, often with little explanation, requiring the viewer to do a lot of "fiilling in." Television now forces an engagement of the viewer that forces cognitive demands on the spectator.

Video games have evolved similarly. Today's games might require forty hours to complete and require the player to make strateghic decisions based on multiple sources of information. "This is why many of us [me, certainly] find modern video games baffling: we're not used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do. We think we only have to learn how to press the buttons faster."

And is there evidence that Roe v. Wade reduced the crime rate?

A final quote for us book lovers to mull over:

"Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying--which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements--books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . . .
"Books are also tragically isolating [something I've always considered a benefit :))] While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. . . .
"But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion--you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. . . .This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one."

Johnson, in a jocular manner, is making the point that reading "is a form of explicit learning." Video games make you think. Of course, reading this article certainly got me thinking. . . .

Saturday, May 14, 2005

To Deny Evolution is to Deny God.

I've been listening to the debate, if you can call it that, of the Kansas Board of Education courtesy of, which is offering the hearings for free downloads. I remain flummoxed. Somehow the supporters of intelligent design -- a questionable premise given some of the oddities that exist in nature -- propose that an intelligent creator could not have created through evolution.

It seems to me that believing in a God who created as an artist creates, painstakingly, lovingly, and over a long period of time, is more worthy of reverence than the magician who snaps his fingers and, voila, everything is done.

Peter Hibbard, in a letter to the Christian Science Monitor, said it very well:

In my Bible, Genesis 1:24 reads 'And God said, "Let the earth bring forth all manner of living creatures.....and it was so" 'It does not say God waved his hand and -- poof -- it was there. I would ask if God's method of creation is what science calls evolution. I will not stand too close to those who claim to have knowledge of all of God's intentions or ways. But evolution may well be the means of creation, and we should seek to understand the science in it that God offers to us. To do otherwise is to reject God."

Ratzinger and Prayer

I was startled to read in The New Yorker today that the new pope revealed that he had prayed not to be elected. I suppose that can mean several things: that God wasn't listening; that God doesn't like Ratzinger and was getting back at him; that God thought it would be funny to give someone what he doesn't want; that God could care less; that Ratzinger was using reverse psychology on God who was too dumb to get it; or, more likely, there is no God and Ratzinger hasn't caught on yet.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Do we have Roe v Wade to thank for the drop in crime?

That's what economist Steven Levitt proposes in his book, Freakonomics. He analyzed causes usually attributed to the drop in crime since the 1990's -- gun control, aging of the population, tipping point policing and a stronger economy and increased imprisonment rates, only to discover they could account for perhaps only 40% of the crime rate drop. The balance he proposes can be explained only by the availability of abortion. The crime rate started to drop just as the first cohort of post-Row children were reaching their peak age for crime activity. Since many of the women taking advantage of more liberal abortion laws were unmarried, poor and in their teens, whose children would have been most likely to resort to crime, Levitt concludes that an unintended consequence of Roe v Wade was a drop in crime.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Why the hell not?

That's the slogan of Kinky Friedman, author of the delightful Kinky Friedman detective novel series, for his campaign to run for governor of Texas. A recent biographical note in Mystery Scene magazine reveals his lighter side. His books are weirdly funny. A favorite scene of mine has Kinky -- as he notes in the article, having a main character with the same name as the author blurs distinctions -- hide some important papers in his cat's litter box, guaranteeing they will not be found by bad guys searching his apartment.

While he claims a major reason for running for governor is that he needs more closet space, and "wants to be misunderstood just as much as the next guy," he does appear to have some other agendas, support for education being one of them, "Guam is now passing us in funding public schools," and he wants to "de-wussify Texas," taking us back to the days when "cowboys all sang and their horses were smart." He's against the death penalty, but only because he doesn't want to risk executing the wrong guy, and for gay marriage since "they have every right to be as miserable as the rest of us." Emulating amateurs Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, he's all for clearing out the politicians, "after that, I want to clear out the Californians."

Lack of experience should not be a problem. "Trust me. I'm a Jew. I'll hire good people. . . If elected, I would ask Willie Nelson to be head of the Texas Rangers and Energy Czar."

Should be a lot of fun.