God Talk

Professional complainer Charlotte Allen takes to the pages of the LA Times today to complain about her competition: the "superstar atheists" who professionally complain about religious believers.  People like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, P.Z. Myers, etc.

Which is fine.  Sometimes these guys are annoying.  And they certainly don't need me to defend them anyway.  But after some fairly routine whining about how much she hates all these other whiners, Allen drops what's rapidly becoming my all-time least favorite argument from the religious crowd:

The problem with atheists — and what makes them such excruciating snoozes — is that few of them are interested in making serious metaphysical or epistemological arguments against God's existence, or in taking on the serious arguments that theologians have made attempting to reconcile, say, God's omniscience with free will or God's goodness with human suffering. Atheists seem to assume that the whole idea of God is a ridiculous absurdity, the "flying spaghetti monster" of atheists' typically lame jokes. They think that lobbing a few Gaza-style rockets accusing God of failing to create a world more to their liking ("If there's a God, why aren't I rich?" "If there's a God, why didn't he give me two heads so I could sleep with one head while I get some work done with the other?") will suffice to knock down the entire edifice of belief.

Please.  This argument has become ubiquitous lately (was there some secret meeting or something?), which I suppose is a confirmation of Drum's Law: the more inane a complaint is, the more popular it becomes.  And this one is right up there.  Aside from the fact that if you so much as scratch any of these "serious arguments" you end up with a handful of air, the fact is that atheists have addressed them in sophisticated ways since the beginning of organized religion.  But they do it in journals and convocations and formal theses and other equally tedious venues, not in bestsellers at Barnes & Noble.  Just like religious believers, who are represented in the nation's bookstores and chat show circuits by sophisticated tomes like the Left Behind series and the collected works of Robert "Possibility Thinking" Schuller.

If you want to believe, it's fine with me.  But contra Allen, don't pretend that atheists can easily get elected to public office, that creationism is no big deal, or that believers have gobs of sophisticated theological arguments that atheists have never had the guts to take on.  It may be comforting, but it just ain't true.

America's Team

You will all be excited to know that Team America aka Team AIG aka Manchester United has won the Premier League title.  Hooray.  It's good to see our investment paying off for the plucky lads.

One Billion Calls

Forget the stimulus package, universal healthcare, and global warming.  This will surely be the Obama administration's greatest legacy:

A federal judge has issued two temporary restraining orders designed to stop what officials describe as a wave of deceptive "robo-calls" warning people their auto warranties are expiring and offering to sell them new service plans.

....The FTC filed suit against two companies and their executives on Thursday, asking a federal court in Chicago to halt a wave of as many as 1 billion automated, random, prerecorded calls and freeze the assets of the companies.

....Besides ordering a halt to the automatic telephone sales calls, Grady's order froze the assets of the two companies. The FTC alleged in its complaints that the calls were part of a deceptive scheme and asked the court to assure the assets will not be lost in case they might be needed to repay consumers who have been victimized.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has more here.  Next up: how about taking on the clowns who keep calling to tell me they can lower the interest rate on my credit cards?

Quote of the Day - 5.16.09

From George Will:

"Perhaps it would be restful to give moral reasoning a rest...."

Yeah, I guess it would be for some of us.  Even better, though, would be to stop pretending you can tell fables about the economy based on a single poorly written paper on an absurdly narrow topic.  I don't think the fact that demand goes down as price goes up is going to come as a big surprise to anyone in the economics profession.

Pelosi and Waterboarding: Why all the Fuss?

Strangely absent from the recent coverage of Pelosi's past knowledge of U.S. torture policies is any acknowledgement that this story is old news. Really old news. Way back in December, 2007, the Washington Post ran a piece headlined, "Hill Briefed on Waterboarding in 2002." It hit Pelosi with the exact same allegations that have been so breathlessly reported as of late:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

 So what's new? For one, Republicans are under intense moral and political threat and see a chance divert responsibility for their misdeeds back to Democrats.

To be sure, Pelosi should have taken action against U.S. torture policies as soon as she was briefed on them. And she's now paying the price for being too politically cowardly—or opportunistic—to address this issue head-on when the Post broke the story back in 2007. But it's disingenuous for the press and Pelosi's political rivals to feign outrage over what Pelosi knew and when. What did they know and when? Assuming they read the news, why didn't they make an issue of this back in 2007?

One politician did make an issue of the Post story at the time. Cindy Sheehan, the Peace Mom, ran a quixotic campaign against Pelosi for her House seat last year, and garnered 16 percent of the vote and very little press. Key to her electoral strategy was capitalizing on liberal outrage—surprisingly tepid outrage, it turned out—over what Pelosi knew. She even called for Pelosi to be stripped of her leadership post over the news. "I was appalled and really saddened," Sheehan told me at the time. "We can't be represented by a person like this."

Seventy two percent of San Francisco voters thought otherwise.

With Sheehan's failed challenge in mind, it's hard to put credence in today's New York Times story on Pelosi's political fate, which quotes Bay Area resident Delphine Langille of San Ramon: "I'm very skeptical of what she's saying, Langille told the Times on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, "and when she goes to get re-elected, this could really damage her credibility." Yeah right. There's simply no way a Republican could ever mount a viable challenge in San Francisco, no way the Democratic establishment would ever try, and no way--as we've seen--that a third party outsider will take her down.

Politics is morally mushy business. The political climate was clearly more pro-torture back in 2002 than it is now. A braver politician might have spoken out sooner, but also might not have risen to the Speaker post. The interesting thing about San Franciscans is that they are politically sophisticated enough to entertain a race like Sheehan's while also voting for a pragmatist like Pelosi. And they can certainly distinguish between the moral clarity—or absolutism—of someone like Sheehan, and the immoral opportunism of liberal-come-lately Republicans. Let's hope the press and the rest of the nation eventually figure this out too.

Health Enemy No.1: Climate Change

The authors of a UK climate report issued this week say that climate change is "the biggest global health problem of the 21st century" and is likely killing people right now. The report was created jointly by doctors and climatologists from The Lancet and University College London. The report's authors assert that climate change is inextricably linked to global health, and needs to be treated as an emergency by policy-makers because it has the potential to wipe out "all the gains that we've seen in global health... improvements in child mortality, improvements in maternal mortality... over the past 20 or 30 years."

As Dr. David McCoy from University College London puts it, the current situation is dire. "Even today there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who are probably dying, most certainly living in an undernourished situation, as a result of climate change," says McCoy. "So it's really affecting the lives of people today."

Certainly that seems to be the case in Somalia where the fourth year of drought, the worst in a decade, is killing cattle and depleting food stores to the point that the nation is being pushed toward famine. There's no confirmation yet that this specific drought is climate-change related, but if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees centigrade as they're expected to, it will be just the first drought of many. (For the record, Africans produce far less greenhouse gas emissions per capita than North Americans.) As the UK report forecasts, water and food shortages and extreme weather patterns have the potential to kill far more people, especially in developing nations, than the increased spread of infectious diseases. Dr. McCoy says, "It was urgent 30 years ago. And I don't think it'd be alarmist to say it's reached emergency levels in terms of the kind of response we need today."

Round 1: How about refrigerators and air conditioners using 30% less energy and producing no ozone-depleting chemicals or greenhouse gases? Well, scientists are a step closer to making magnetic systems that could reduce summer energy use in the US by 50%.

Here's the recipe: Apply a magnetic field to a magnetic material like a metallic alloy to heat it. Remove the excess heat by water and cool the material down to its original temperature. Remove the magnetic field to cool  the material further. Harness this cooling for stuff like fridges and air conditioners.

How close are we? The technology is possible in the lab. Researchers are looking for improved materials to provide highly efficient cooling at room temps that can be used over and over again. A new study in Advanced Materials suggests the pattern of crystals inside different alloys affects how well they perform as magnetic fridges.

Translation: It's all in the microstructure. Or: Don’t hold your breath—but expect cool stuff in the future.

Round 2: How have postnuclear plants survived in Chernobyl? The answer: Strangely but effectively, reports Science Now. Researchers planted soybeans inside the 19-mile restricted zone just 3 miles from the remains of the mangled power plant. They also planted soybeans 60 miles from the plant where cesium-137 levels are much lower—then harvested all the mature beans and analyzed their proteins.

The radiation-zone beans looked weird. They weighed half as much and took up water more slowly. On a molecular level they got even stranger—with three times more of a protein that protects plants by binding heavy metals and 32% more of a compound known to reduce chromosomal abnormalities in irradiated human blood. There were also either more or less seed-storage proteins to help germinate the contaminated seeds.

Timothy Mousseau, biologist at the U of South Carolina Columbia who studies Chernobyl-area wildlife, says the research is novel and addresses an important societal question, given the interest in developing nuclear energy worldwide. If we understand how plants respond to radiation we could engineer crops to withstand—or even sequester—nuclear contamination.

Lovely thought.

Round 3: Just in case you thought there was much of any interest in endangered species (that is, unless they're black-and-white and big and round and eat bamboo), think again. Today is Endangered Species Day. Woo-hoo.

What's on the menu? Mostly a ploy to get people to visit those mostly sad places known as zoos and marine parks. Or so it seems to me.

What would be better? How about a national holiday to commemorate the 1 in 4 mammal species, 1 in 8 birds, 1 in 3 amphibians, 1 in 3 conifers… you get the idea… struggling to survive and—by the way—that provide the ecosystem services that keep us alive? How about a bank holiday for all of us to go outside and think about that?
 

Now that Blackwater (renamed "Xe") has lost its Iraq contract, you might have thought it would recede from the headlines. Almost certainly, that's what the company was hoping, what with the name change and the retirement of its founder and president, Erik Prince. Its controversial work in Iraq built the company from a small-time firearms training range into an international private security heavyweight. But it also came at the cost of the company's reputation, the victim of numerous alledged infractions from gun-running to wholesale murder, and ultimately led to the cancellation of its most lucrative source of revenue. The firm's been positioning itself for new markets, notably in Africa (piracy, anyone?), but what you may not realize is that it remains a player in Afghanistan. And recent events involving its contractors there bear an eerie similarity to some of the firm's most infamous acts in Iraq.

From August Cole at the Wall Street Journal:

Four U.S. contractors affiliated with the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide fired on an approaching civilian vehicle in Kabul earlier this month, wounding at least two Afghan civilians, according to the company and the U.S. military.

The off-duty contractors were involved in a car accident around 9 p.m. on May 5 and fired on the approaching vehicle they believed to be a threat, according to the U.S. military. At least some of the men, who were former military personnel, had been drinking alcohol that evening, according to a person familiar with the incident. Off-duty contractors aren't supposed to carry weapons or drink alcohol.

The incident occurred as the U.S. is facing rising outrage from Afghan leaders over civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes. For Xe, which is the name Blackwater chose earlier this year to distance itself from its controversial security work in Iraq, the shooting comes as the Obama administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates reconsider the role of military contractors, a practice that boomed during the Bush administration.

The contractors were trainers hired by Paravant LLC, a little-known subsidiary of Xe. Paravant has terminated contracts with the four men "for failure to comply with the terms of their contract," according to Xe spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. "Contractual and or legal violations will not be tolerated," she said.

 Photo by flickr user jamesdale10 used under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 May 2009

I sure have been feeling cranky this week.  I'm not sure whether it showed on the blog, but I have been.  Too much torture blogging, too much healthcare mendacity, too much gutting of carbon policy, too much credit card venality, too much wingnuttery — just too much of everything.

In other words, pretty much like every other week.  So why did it seem worse?  Hard to say.  But I'm sure looking forward to being able to hit the reset button in a couple of days.

In the meantime, though, here are the Friday cats!  Yesterday Inkblot suddenly went crazy and started tearing around the house for no reason, the way cats do, and after finishing up with all the ground level rooms he decided to tear up the stairs and — kaboom!  There was Domino, sacked out in a sunny patch at the top of the stairway.  Stopped him cold.  Domino gave him the evil eye, he stood around for a minute looking confused, and finally turned around and slunk back downstairs.  And who can blame him?  After all, what would you have done?

Congress and the CIA

The CIA says Nancy Pelosi was briefed about its interrogation methods.  Pelosi says they're lying.  Bob Graham, the former Senator with an anal retentive habit of tracking his movements to the minute in a spiral notebook, says they're lying too: the CIA claims they briefed him on four occasions, but Graham's notebook says different — and after he confronted them about this, they caved.  There was only one briefing, and Graham says waterboarding was never mentioned.  Jim Fallows:

Part of the payoff of reaching age 72 and having spent 38 years in public office, as Graham has, is that people have had a chance to judge your reputation. Graham has a general reputation for honesty....If he says he never got the briefing, he didn't. And if the CIA or anyone acting on its behalf challenges him, they are stupid and incompetent as well as being untrustworthy. This doesn't prove that the accounts of briefing Pelosi are also inaccurate. But it shifts the burden of proof.

Agreed.  If the CIA could screw up — or lie, or whatever — that badly in Graham's case, obviously they could have done it in Pelosi's case too.  DougJ has an optimistic view of what this all means:

To me, though, the big take away here is that the right is losing the torture debate. It started with “Dick Cheney was just keeping us safe from teh terrorists, don’t you libtards watch ‘24’?”. Then it became “mistakes were made, but it was a difficult time.” And now it’s “okay, maybe the whole thing was fucked up, but Pelosi knew about it so it’s her fault.” It’s just another variation on “Clinton did it too” and it’s essentially a defensive posture.

I'm not sure I believe this, but it's a nice thought.  Anybody else feel like the good guys are finally making some progress on the torture debate?