SocraticGadfly: 3/18/12 - 3/25/12

March 24, 2012

The voter ID guilty flee ...

When someone might be pursuing.

Texas AG Greg Abbott, possibly the biggest pusher of Texas' new voter ID law among elected officials of the state's executive branch, is trying to keep 12 legislators from testifying to the feds.

The DOJ wants bill author Troy Fraser, a definite wingnut, and 11 others to give depositions in a federal investigation under Section 5 Voting Rights Act preclearance issues, as well as seeking written communication by the 12.

Abbott's response?
The state's motion called the Justice Department's requests "an unwarranted federal intrusion into the operations of the Texas Legislature."

In its objection, the state said that a "determination of whether a discriminatory purpose exists must be made by examining publicly available sources — such as legislative history, floor debates, and the historical background of the decision."
Anybody else in Texas mouthed bullshit like that and Abbott would call it obstruction of justice.

March 23, 2012

#NewAtheism - temptation offset by stupidity; see #PZMyers

First, here's why it's tempting at times.

I just got this mass blast email at work:
Recognizing child abuse and neglect as an epidemic that killed 1,560 children in 2010 and affected nearly 700,000 children nationwide, Christian leaders will hold an audio news briefing on Tuesday, March 27, at 1:30 p.m. EDST (10:30 am Pacific Time) to discuss efforts encouraging congregations to observe Blue Sunday on April 29, with prayer and reflection for abused children as well as recognition of the heroes who rescue and protect children.  To learn more about these efforts, go to

"Christians can and should help lead efforts to end America's epidemic of child abuse and neglect," says Dr. John Crupper, national director of Shepherding the Next Generation and a frequent contributor to the Christian website, Crosswalk. "We are calling on pastors and ministry leaders to rededicate themselves on April 29th to the belief that children are a gift from God and harming them violates not just the law.  It violates biblical principles."

Shepherding the Next Generation is sponsoring the press conference, which will include representatives from Moody Radio, World Vision and the Fairhaven Church in Dayton, Ohio.  Besides focusing on the problem of child abuse and neglect, participants also will discuss effective ways to address the epidemic including high-quality voluntary home visiting programs that can reduce abuse and neglect by as much as 50 percent.
The obvious response is, why isn't your god  preventing any of these deaths in the first place? Maybe, like Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, he's asleep. Or deaf. Or just not listening.

Now, I don't engage in that unless such religious events are shoved in my face. But, when they are?

I'll admit that I'll occasionally, I give in to temptation to take Gnu-type potshots and wisecracks.

And, here's the stupidity.

Pardon or don't pardon the pun, but the claim that a penis-nosed statue of Peter exists in the Vatican sounds like a cock-and-bull story.

First, there's this nonsense, which sounds like it came from the lips of a New Age feminist:
"Peter" is not only "the rock" but also "the cock" or penis, as the word is used as slang to this day. As Walker says, "The cock was also a symbol of Saint Peter, whose name also meant a phallus or male principle (pater) and a phallic pillar (petra). Therefore, the cock's image was often placed atop church towers."
The "Savior of the World" image appears in Walker's book on p. 397, where she remarks:
It is no coincidence that "cock" is slang for "penis." The cock was a phallic totem in Roman and medieval sculptures showing cocks somehow transformed into, or supporting, human penises. Roman carvings of disembodied phalli often gave them the legs or wings of cocks. Hidden in the treasury of the Vatican is a bronze image of a cock with the head of a penis on the torso of a man, the pedestal inscribed "The Savior of the World."

No proof is offered that this is anything but a multilingual bad pun.

Nor, per one person's comments, is the possibility that this is a post-Reformation Protestant diatribe considered.

Other commenters, though, seem to think that Bart Ehrman's attack on Murdock's claims mean that he's conducting a smear campaign against people who don't believe Jesus exists. In personal email exchanges I've had with him, I've never sensed such an attitude.

That said, I've seen other New Agey New Atheism at Murdoch's site before. No surprise here. Nor any surprise that P.Z. Myers latched on to this. Robert M. Price, though? Why is he touching this with a 10-foot pole?

The Net's latest killing blows for traditional media

This story by Bloomberg explains both how the BuzzFeed model of both advertising and content works, and some of the fallout from that.

Per the story, it seems that things like Top 10 lists are what's "sticky" for both readers and advertisers. And, that's why more and more sites will only do Top 10s as a slide show, not a single-page view. Not just at something pop-ish like BuzzFeed, but at Fortunate and Foreign Policy, that appears to be the angle.

And, per the story, that's not the only problem. Note the canned corporate-produced content that's used for much of this at BuzzFeed, just like PR factories cranking out "newsoid" snippets for smaller TV news stations. And, how this all increases brand "loyalty."

And, here's what that means for "traditional media":
BuzzFeed cofounder Jonah Peretti argues that the amount of time spent on a site is an increasingly outdated measure of value. “The reason that time on site has been so important is because advertising hasn’t worked very well,” he says. “You need someone to view 100 million pages with your banner ad on it before it has any effect.” By contrast, says Peretti, an effective social publisher doesn’t need much of a user’s time. The branded content is designed to follow the users back into their Facebook news feeds via the same route as Stopera’s photo collections—the Facebook “like” button, primarily. BuzzFeed has a team of six who work with a corporation’s marketing department or ad agency to come up with branded content that works with BuzzFeed’s technology and editorial sensibility. It’s a nascent craft. “We have a very long-term view,” says Peretti. “The shift has happened a little bit faster on the editorial and content side, and now it’s starting to break on the advertising side.”
So, in essence, per smaller newspapers that do "advertorial" special sections, the whole new media world is headed that way. Advertising/editorial content is being sold as "packages."

But, with the increasing production of content in general, soon enough, this will become more fragmented, too.

Friend Leo Lincourt asks on Facebook if the slideshow issue will really transfer that much to online verions of mainstream media.

Perhaps not. But, the "packaging" could well be so. At the least, mainstream media, both in online and traditional forms, may continue to turn to that as a cost-cutter. And, it doesn't even have to... be slide-show style. Just embed more ads, of various sizes and shapes, within single stories. Or, pepper the stories with logos and product images. I can make a 3,000 word story, that takes just, say, two webpages without a "single page" link, read almost like a slide show if I do that enough.

Now, it's true that the war between types of ads, and blocking software, will only increase. That's where the logos come in, perhaps. They're just JPGs, and if they're hosted on BuzzFeed's servers, and not the companies, how do you block a JPG? Or, put a logo with a pull quote, and save it all as a JPG. It works well for the Onion, after all. And, as marketers, advertisers and behavioral economists know, all you need is a little priming!

Hoffmann gets closer on #GnuAtheist critique

R. Joseph Hoffmann has been among the better academic writers to critique excesses of Gnu Atheism. The problem is, he has sometimes gone too far himself in protesting against some of their protests.

Because, while conservative Christians aren't all the religious in America, and do make easy targets, nonetheless, they've become more vocal, and more pushy, over the past decade. And, the more liberally religious, even when not put off by Gnu Atheists, have not always been as forceful in criticizing fundamentalist excess as they could.

And, even, some non-fundamentalists still believe some myths about atheism. For example, how else could Americans say they'd be even less likely to elect an atheist as president than a gay unless bias against atheists weren't widespread?

So, while his latest post is better than many earlier ones, he still misses a thing or two.

I do have one bone to pick with one segment of this piece in particular, and it’s where Hoffmann criticizes defending the emotional range of secularists, when he asks rhetorically:
But is there really a general movement afoot to tar atheists as emotional defectives?
Uhh, yes there is, and in a newspaper column nearly a decade ago, before the word “Gnu” was around, I riffed on Shylock myself to write just such a column. (It appeared in the religion section of The Dallas Morning News.)

In fact, after claims that atheists must be immoral, the claim that they must be emotionally soulless is probably the second one raised by conservative religious apologists and general defenders of conservative religion.

The general thesis is that without being able to be grateful to a creator deity, one just can’t appreciate a sunset, or a Beethoven quartet, in the same way that a true believer can.

That said, there are some great comments on the thread.

Nathan Bupp, formerly of the Center for Inquiry, seeing how Paul Kurtz was pushed out, wonders how Gnus would have treated a seminal secular humanist, Sidney Hook. It's a great question, and he's probably right that the likes of a P.Z. Myers would have been an attack dog against Kurtz.

Anyway, here's hoping that the generally articulate Hoffmann gets closer to what I see as the "sweet spot" on Gnu Atheist critique. While their style is pretty much all wrong, their issues don't just narrow down to the three points he lists in his post. And, while Gnus may delve too much into the language of victimization, that's not to say, per the presidential polling I listed above, my column, etc., that there aren't legitimate issues.

Right now? From my perspective, he's about 80 percent there.

Gary Gutting whiffs on 'problem of evil'

For theists, atheists, and philosophers of religion and beyond, the "problem of evil" is at the core of stumbling blocks of western monotheism.

How can a deity be both omnipotent, or all-powerful, AND omnibenevolent, or all-good?

Theistic apologists often appeal to god's inscrutability. In a nutshell, they claim that what appears to be evil now is for our ultimate good, or similar.

Gary Gutting says we need more than an appeal to ignorance, if we don't want to have a blind faith.

But, he misses what apologists also miss.

That such an all-powerful, all-good god, even if he or she must allow local evils, or allow short-term evils for long-term good, could still explain himself/herself better to sentient created beings, and *has chosen* not to do so.

That, as I have repeatedly identified it, is the "problem of psychological evil." And, I've yet to see a theistic apologist adequately answer it.

Debate on Ike memorial misses biggest issues

There's yet another newspaper op-ed debating the proposed D.C. memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and conflict over the memorial's design.

Missing from the Eisenhower memorial debate, in this column as in others, though, are two issues.
A. Do we want more clutter on the Mall? 
B. Is Eisenhower worthy of a presidential memorial?
On A, I say no, and I say no to more National Park Service units without more budget.
On B, although it's not specifically identified as a presidential memorial, I say no. His famous "military-industrial complex" comment aside, post-Brown, he was a huge foot-dragger on support for desegregation. And, worse about it yet in private.

March 22, 2012

Were you born straight?

It's an interesting and provocative twist on the old question, "Were you born gay?" And, the shorter answer is, per a great piece in the Atlantic, pretty much so if you are male, but in comfort to Cynthia Nixon and a comeback to her detractors, less so if you are female.

Behind that is the issue of that old fragile Y chromosome and the semi-true factoid that the default human gender is femila.

But, in reality, the issue is more complex, even with men, as "Brokeback Mountain" and ancient Greek pederasty, among other things, illustrate societal, sociologically-driven situational male homosexuality, too.

And, beyond that is plenty of other cultural baggage to unpack.

Give the whole essay a read.

#RonPaul, libertarian nepotist

Do Members of Congress benefit from their service? You bet, when they pay themselves various fees, or put plenty of family on the payroll, like Ron Paul does.

Melanie Sloan of CREW, though, overdoes it with concern-trolling:
“If donors really understood where their money is going, I think they would be aghast.” 
If you mean ma-and-pa donors, well, yes, I'll agree there. But, if you mean big donors, nahhh ... they expect it.

And, at least with the cult-like followers of Paul, even ma-and-pa donors will rationalize this stuff.

Sidebar: Whether Republican or Democrat, note how many of the Congressmen in the story are from Texas.

March 21, 2012

Catholics might not want to Mormon-bash too much

I just got to thinking about this issue last night.

Regular followers of the news know that Mormons have been in dutch recently for some particularly egregious practicing of their doctrine of baptism for the dead, namely, living Mormons being baptized for Anne Frank and other dead Jewish Holocaust victims. (That said, with Mormon temples around the world, and splinter Mormon sects to boot, it's surely still being done somewhere.)

That said, if Mormons are getting attacked not just for what seems a tad morally repugnant, but for the entire dogma of baptism for the dead, others might not want to pick up stones.

Rick Santorum's Catholic church, for example, believes in prayers, to saints as well as to God himself, on behalf of those in purgatory. Jack Kennedy, in 1960, had concerns raised over whether he might put the pope and the Vatican ahead of the U.S. Interestingly, though, nobody asked him about weird dogmas like this.

And trust me, I can find others in other religions, but the Catholic one stood out because it too is for the dead.

Who is 'The Real Romney'?

Two Boston Globe reporters attempt to answer just that question in a book with that title. And, he is what he is, is the best answer.

The Real RomneyThe Real Romney by Michael Kranish

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very good look at  Mitt Romney, Mormon family history and all.

I knew about Romney’s dad, George, the governor of Michigan and failed 1968 GOP presidential candidate.

But, I didn’t know just how prominent his family had been in the early history of Mormonism. That includes not knowing about the polygamy background of his great-grandfather.

The two Boston Globe reporters behind this book do a good job of looking at Romney’s Mormon roots without being judgmental, other than noting that Romney has generally dodged talking about his Mormon background in detail, and  especially that part of it.

They go beyond that,  though, to look at Romney’s storied business career at Bain Capital, his work on (rightfully,  they say) “saving” the Salt Lake City Olympics, and his political career.

His analytical nature runs through and through all of this, they say. While he learned political tactics tricks from his loss to Ted Kennedy, the analytical, non-“warm” side of him apparently will not change.

And, whether one uses “flip-flopper,” “opportunistic” or some other term, Romney is apparently that, and in a more detached way than many a politician, which leaves him more open to that charge.

This is a good read in the middle of this campaign, for Republicans and Democrats alike wondering just who Mitt Romney is politicially.

View all my reviews

March 19, 2012

Your body, for sale

Hey, if SXSW can have human hotspots for wireless, why can't people be paid to brand-tattoo their foreheads, etc.?

Well, they already are, and it will likely get worse.

Michael Sandel tells us just what the problems are with that.
Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?

For two reasons. One is about inequality, the other about corruption. First, consider inequality. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence—or the lack of it—matters. If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to afford yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would matter less than they do today. But as money comes to buy more and more, the distribution of income and wealth looms larger.
The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship.
That said, Sandel says the problem is more that of making things into "markets" (that would include the Internet, too) that shouldn't be, than the normal greed of capitalism.

Well, I'd partially beg to differ. It's that greed of capitalism, put on steroids, that LED to the marketizing of things that shouldn't be.

Beyond that, Sandel talks about markets becoming detached from morals. Well, capitalism by itself is at best a-moral in the sense of not being an issue of morals, and, at worst, because it's based on greed, fundamentally immoral.

Rather, one could say that modern capitalism is getting in touch with the base-level immorality that was camouflaged for all these years.

Camouflaged by what? In part, per Antonin Scalia, civic Christianity? But, we still have many conservatives proclaiming civic Christianity today, with a greed-based success gospel no less immoral than capitalism in general.

A sense of noblesse oblige? But, the one GOP presidential candidate who should have that, Mitt Romney, doesn't.

By a pre-technological society in which societal pressures counted for more? Perhaps.

Maybe it's the simple doubling of the world's population in the past half-century or so, that's continued to erode a sense of community, whether within a nation or globally.

If so, on either of the last two, we're in trouble.

More on the gas fracking bubble

Jeff Goodell has a good story here on how (shades of the real estate bubble) the gas-fracking bubble is about "flipping" land as much as anything at times.

It seems clear that land rights ... given that Chesapeake was started by a landman .... are a major driver of company business.

And that bubble? Chesapeake is worried about refinancing $10 billion in long-term debt, and Wall Street is reportedly worried, too.

The savvy among us have for some time seen the bubbly nature of the gas exploration itself; but, that seems to be nothing compared to the bubbliness of the land speculation.

March 18, 2012

Why not just call it "Palestine"?

Peter Beinart, in a generally good op-ed calling for a selective boycott of modern Israel, decries it calling its main occupied territory "Judea and Samaria" as well as others, including the New York Times in which he is writing, calling it "the West Bank."

He then proposes a clunker, "non-democratic Israel."

It's a country with an elected government.

It has a name.

It's called "Palestine." Already.

Why can't the mainstream media (the Associated Press is another egregious offender) do the same?

It's in order to avoid offending Zionists in the U.S.

We know that.

Robert Wright has more on Beinart's column, including noting that Beinart is a Zionist.  (But, apparently, not enough of one for The New Republic, or even  close, with this stance.)

American exceptionalism, Democratic non-exceptionalism, Sgt. Bales

People are continuing to talk about Sgt. Robert Bales, the man accused of killing 16 Afghans earlier this month. He suffered a traumatic brain injury, may have had PTSD, and probably shouldn't have been sent back into combat. Through all that, a lot of people have referred to him as a nice guy.

Well, evolutionary anthropologist Scott Atran takes a whole look at this "nice guy" claim, and while not doubting it for a second, notes that it's being tied to American exceptionalism, and with a little intellectual judo, rightly calls bullshit on a lot of this.

It's easy, as Atran notes, to think that America is filled with almost nothing but "nice guys." That's especially true when it comes to Americans abroad, where surely, all we're doing is spreading white bread and the American way of life.

Well, we usually don't ask if other countries do that. Then, in certain parts of the larger Middle East in particular, when we spread the idea of democracy, we suddenly find that people in these countries democratically vote in favor of social values we reject.

Beyond that, we assume all American values are noble. A predatory hypercapitalism, whether in "secular" or "success gospel Christianity" forms, is at least one that certainly isn't. If Africa, the Middle East or certain parts of Asia wants Western values, it might want old Europe's instead of ours.

That said, this all assumes that Sgt. Bales, as in individual, was a "nice guy." After all, he volunteered, at or past the age of 30, for the military.

But, we may not know all of the story of Bales we thought we did. The New York Times weighs in with more.

He has, apparently, a (relatively minor) criminal record including some violence.

And, in light of this statement about his second tour in Iraq:
“Giving money to Hagji instead of bullets just don’t seem right,” he wrote, apparently misspelling Hajji, a term used by soldiers, often pejoratively, in referring to Arab people.  
I'm sure a lot of Afghans would reject the claim that he's a "nice guy."

Hail to the new Torturer in Chief Obama?

Hmm. Seems like Preznit Look Forward, Not Backward, may have yet more of Bush's War on Terra continuity on his hands.

U.S. troops surrendering captured Afghans to sites where it's known people are tortured?
"There is compelling evidence that at least some U.S. forces or personnel continue to transfer individuals to NDS Kandahar despite not only a widely acknowledged risk of torture but also evidence that detainees transferred to NDS Kandahar by U.S. forces have been subjected to torture," according to the report.
Don't tell me this isn't known higher up the food chain. Exactly how high, on civilian as well as military sides, is the question.

And, let's see how Preznit Look Forward spins this one, with his constitutional law skills. Let's also see how he spins it on the foreign policy side with Our Man in Kabul, Hamid (Don't Say I'm Off My Meds) Karzai.

Ask me again why I'm voting Green again.