Archive for: November, 2007

Let's hear it for un-American nonsense!!

Apparently, the Virginia Republican Party has been getting nostalgic for the good old days at the end of the Cold War. You remember those days, right? Ronald Reagan was saying things like, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" and "we begin bombing in five minutes" . Ollie North was sitting in front of Congress and claiming to have the memory of a repeatedly concussed goldfish. And the Republicans looked likely to hold onto the White House forever. Given present circumstances, it's easy to see why the Virginia GOP might be getting a wee bit nostalgic. Unfortunately, in their enthusiasm to channel some of that good old Cold War mojo, they seem to have somehow forgotten just which side they're supposed to be on:

The State Board of Elections on Monday approved a state Republican Party request to require all who apply for a GOP primary ballot first vow in writing that they'll vote for the party's presidential nominee next fall.

That's right folks, from the party that claims to have won the Cold War for us, we now get Party Loyalty Oaths!!! Let's hear it for good old un-American nonsense!!!

(ht: Shakesville)

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Copyright Infringement = Theft. (or; A Few Pharyngulites Behaving Badly)

Nov 27 2007 Published by under Misc

I haven't always had as much concern about copyright infringement as I do now, but I've always considered it to be a given that copyright infringement involves taking something that doesn't belong to you without paying the owner. Taking something that doesn't belong to you without paying the owner is, at least under any system of ethics that I'm familiar with, theft. Not "something like theft". It is theft.

I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that a handful of people over at Pharyngula don't seem to understand that view. There's a discussion going on over there right now in a thread discussing Bill Dembski's recent Intellectual Property oopsie. Nobody's defending Dembski right now, but there are at least a few folks who seem to be advocating the position that copyright is somehow obsolete in the internet age. I was going to respond to them over there, but the response got a bit too long to work well as a comment.

The "copyright sucks" portion of the thread starts fairly early, in comment #4, when "Voting Present" wrote:

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120 responses so far

The Discovery Institute, Casey Luskin, "Judicial Activism", and Blatant Hypocrisy

One of the joys of procrastination is that sometimes if you wait long enough, someone else really will take care of things. I mention that because Ed Brayton just did a good job dismantling Casey Luskin's latest whine about how big bad Judge Jones was such a nasty judicial activist for daring to issue a ruling in the Dover, PA Intelligent Design case that addressed the question of whether or not ID is good science. I was planning a long and detailed post on the same thing, but now all that I have to do is highlight one point that Ed didn't make in his post.

As Ed points out, there were a number of reasons for Jones to rule on that point. For starters, he had to look at that if he wanted to handle the case in front of him the same way that the Supreme Court handled its last creationism case. (That's called following precedent.) He also needed to look at that point in order to apply the test commonly used by the Federal Courts when they look at Establishment Clause cases. (That's also called following precedent.) As Ed also notes, both the plaintiffs and the defendants specifically asked the judge to rule on that point.

What Ed doesn't mention is that the plaintiffs and the defendants were not the only ones who asked Judge Jones to rule on whether or not Intelligent Design is good science:

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26 responses so far

Science, "Faith", and the New York Times.

Nov 25 2007 Published by under Religion, Science

Verse one of Chapter 11 of the Letter of Paul to the Hebrews reads (in the King James translation of the Bible): "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." I mention this not because it is Sunday, or because I intend to offer a sermon, but because when I hear the word "faith," the definition that comes into my mind first is "the evidence of things not seen." By that definition, I have a very hard time thinking of science as requiring faith. If anything, "science" is the exact opposite of "faith". The body of knowledge that we call "science" consists of the things we know about the universe we live in based on the evidence of things that are seen.

In an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times, Paul Davies presents a view that's a bit different from mine. He thinks that not only is science not the opposite of faith, but that faith is necessary in order to do science:

The problem with this neat separation into "non-overlapping magisteria," as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn't be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The problem with this neat little argument is that science does not proceed on the assumption that nature is ordered. Science simply does not make that assumption. What science does is to ask the question, "is nature organized in a rational way." Science asks that question - tests that hypothesis - every time someone conducts an experiment. So far, the answer has always been yes. But we don't know that the answer will be "yes" the next time it's asked any more than we know that the sun will come up tomorrow morning.

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28 responses so far

Tropical Cyclone Sidr: How Bad Will This Be?

Nov 14 2007 Published by under Environment

You wouldn't necessarily know it from looking at most major American news sources, but there's a massive tropical cyclone in the Bay of Bengal right now, and it's heading right for one of the most vulnerable areas on the planet. If the most recent storm track predictions are accurate, the eye of the storm will most likely make landfall somewhere between Calcutta and the mouth of the main channel of the Ganges. Currently, the most optimistic forecasts suggest that the wind speeds at landfall will be in the neighborhood of 115 knots (132 mph) - and there's some data suggesting that it could be much worse.


The phrase that most of the people paying attention are using to describe the situation is "potentially catastrophic." That's accurate, but it doesn't convey the true magnitude of the threat very well, so let's try plainer language: there is a very real possibility that this storm could kill more than 100,000 people by this time tomorrow. That's not an exaggeration. That's something that's happened before when strong storms have hit this area. In fact, it's happened twice just since 1970.

There are ten million people living in threatened areas on the Bangladeshi side of the border alone. The available shelter space will only hold about 500,000. People are being told to evacuate, but most of them will have to evacuate on foot, and the worst of the storm is now less than a day away - and storms don't have to stop to rest their feet. Chris Mooney sums the situation up well when he says, "it's time to panic."

Unfortunately, there's not a hell of a lot we can do right now except wait, and watch, and hope for the best.

3 responses so far

Unions and Blogs

Nov 12 2007 Published by under Do Something, Misc

Two unions representing professions involved in the entertainment industry are on strike right now - Broadway stagehands in New York, and writers for both big- and little-screen productions nationwide. These strikes - especially the writers' one - have stirred up some discussion about online writing in general (and blogging in particular), and how non-traditional writers might benefit from unionization. From fellow Scienceblogger Chris Mooney:

Meanwhile, on to bloggers, who are entirely dismissed as workers ... because blogging is somehow supposed to be fun or a hobby. Well, guess what: Some people do not want to blog as a hobby; and some media companies are starting to make serious money off the work of bloggers. To me, and especially in light of all the attention bloggers have gotten in the last few years (they've been credited with playing crucial roles in elections, for instance), this suggests they should be taken much more seriously and treated as workers just like anyone else in many cases. Furthermore, just like freelancers, just like screenwriters, bloggers would benefit by having some sort of standards set in their industry. For one, those who are "professionals" should be fairly compensated for their quality work for blogs that are monetized--that bring in viewership or revenues.

There's a far broader and more resonant point here: An increasing amount people these days are choosing careers that do solely depend on what they create for the Internet. It's not just bloggers. Just look at job listings these days in the areas of media or journalism.

The points that Chris raises there are interesting. Should bloggers be considered to be workers, and if they are, are there benefits to organizing the labor? I don't think there's an easy answer to that question. There are some compelling arguments in favor of unionization in this case, and there are some compelling arguments against it.

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2 responses so far

Disclosure and the Discovery Institute

Nov 12 2007 Published by under Church/State, Creationism, Intelligent Design, Religion

The fine folks at the Discovery Institute aren't happy with tomorrow's PBS documentary on the Dover Intelligent Design case, and they're doing their best to make sure that everyone knows just how unhappy they are. They've been frantically tossing articles up on their Media Complaints Division Blog trying to make sure that their version of reality gets some exposure. I'm not going to bother going through all of their complaints right now. Most of their new material consists of a rehashing of discredited arguments from when the ruling came out. There's one post that caught my eye, though, mostly because it's such a fantastic exemplar of the level of honesty and academic discourse that makes Discovery what it is.

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17 responses so far

Well, I guess it's something

Nov 09 2007 Published by under Accidental, Humor

I was just watching the Today Show a couple of minutes ago. They're getting ready to set up the Christmas Tree, and someone from the Center was just talking about their new, environmentally-friendly approach to the tree. Apparently, this year they used a handsaw to trim up the base instead of a power saw. They're also going to be stringing the tree with power-saving LED lighting instead of the usual bulbs. And they were discussing all of this right next to the 84-foot high tree that they cut down to use as a holiday decoration.

7 responses so far

The Convention on Biological Diversity non-Parties

John Wilkins was browsing through the Convention on Biological Diversity's website, and decided to compile a listing of the countries that are not parties to the treaty. I replicated his experiment and came up with something similar. It's not a very long list:

  • Andorra (Wilkins missed that one)
  • Brunei
  • Iraq
  • Somalia
  • The Holy See
  • The United States of America

Most of those countries can be excused for not being parties to the Convention. Iraq and Somalia both have more pressing concerns (although it's worth noting that Afghanistan became a party to the Convention in 2002). Andorra has a long history of being a bit slow when it comes to international affairs - they were in a technical state of war with Germany from their entrance into World War I until 1957. The biodiversity of the Holy See consists almost entirely of priests and pigeons, so I can understand their lack of concern. That just leaves Brunei, with its 386,000 people and 5,800 square kilometers, and the US without excuses.

What makes this even more embarrassing is that unlike the other five countries on the list, we've signed the Convention. We did that back in 1993. We're not a party to the Convention because the Senate never ratified it. The other five parties were at least honest enough to not bother pretending that they gave a damn. We - as we often do - said all the right things, then did nothing.

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The Attorney General and the Torture Question - How did we get here?

Nov 06 2007 Published by under Politics, War and Peace

In all of the fuss about the imminent confirmation of a man who says he can't judge whether or not strapping someone down and pouring water over them until they think they're drowning is torture, there's an important question that I think we've lost sight of: how on earth did we wind up in this position in the first place?

How is it even possible that we are having discussions about what is and is not technically torture? How is it possible that we are listening to Senators ask a nominee for Attorney General to take a position on whether or not certain "interrogation techniques" are torture in the first place, and how is it possible that anyone, much less the person who nominated him, thinks that it is OK for the nominee to dodge those questions. How the hell did we get to a spot where we find ourselves (understandably) skeptical of the President when he firmly declares that the United States does not torture?

More importantly, how do we get out of here?

9 responses so far

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