September 2009 Archives

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Burns, Charles. The Best American Comics 2009 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

The fourth annual edition of the Best American Comics series, edited this time by Charles (Black Hole) Burns, doesn't quite live up to expectations. The previous volumes in this series (see my reviews of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 editions) all had their charms--as does the 2009 volume--but this year's contents didn't quite thrill me as much as I had hoped. There are selections from Jason Lutes' Berlin (previews), Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings (previews), and Kevin Huizenga's Ganges series, but (except for Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman's Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist As a Young %@&*!, and Skim, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki) there just isn't enough stand-out work from the other contributors.

The BAC series has a website, but they haven't done much with it yet; Wikipedia has a placeholder page with no content. As this series continues, it would be nice to see its history and growth reflected with some better online content. A few excerpts could go a long way toward enticing potential readers.

Today is International Blasphemy Day, intended to "dismantle the wall which exists between religion and criticism." 30 September was chosen as the anniversary of the Danish Mohammed cartoons:

The newspapers which chose to publish these cartoons were in many cases blamed for the outpouring of violence which followed. This unfortunate yet inevitable sequence of events clearly demonstrated a dangerous misconception that had piggy-backed into the 21st century on the shoulders of ignorance, fear and apathy, that all religious beliefs and ideas deserve respect and are beyond criticism or satire.

International Blasphemy Day is a movement, not just a day, to remind the world that religion should never again be beyond open and honest discussion or reproach. Our future depends on it.

Wikipedia reminds us that Biblically-based blasphemy demands stoning to death as earthly punishment

And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:16)

and eternal torment as heavenly retribution:

And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven. (Luke 12:10)

(Mark 3:29 is slightly less assertive, merely suggesting the possibility of eternal torture: "But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.") The Blasphemy Challenge reminds us that "[r]eligious dogma has one chief means of support: Our unwillingness to criticize it in public:"

If we talked about religion the same way we talk about science, history or other fields involving truth claims, dogma would wither in the light. The Blasphemy Challenge, by addressing a truth claim of Christianity, is intended to provoke this sort of conversation.

What is a thought-inducing provocation to some may be a thought-stopping incident to others, however. Center for Inquiry is promoting a Blasphemy Contest, but CFI's Paul Kurtz has "serious reservations about the forms that these criticisms take:"

It is one thing to examine the claims of religion in a responsible way by calling attention to Biblical, Koranic or scientific criticisms, it is quite another to violate the key humanistic principle of tolerance. One may disagree with contending religious beliefs, but to denigrate them by rude caricatures borders on hate speech.

Who determines what is disagreement and what is denigration? Who decides whether a Communion wafer is the "body of Jesus" or "just a cracker?" For my Quote of the Day, I'll go with the words of P. Z. Myers--who knows a thing or two about blasphemy--from his piece "The Great Desecration:"

Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity's knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

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Banal Books Week

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News reports (AP, Reuters) are pointing to a 17 November release date for Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue. Details are still quite scarce due to the book being rushed into print for the holidays; her publisher, Rupert (Faux News) Murdoch's HarperCollins, isn't yet listing it among their upcoming books.

In her honor, I suggest renaming 15-21 November "Banal Books Week."

Banned Books Week

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The American Library Association's annual "Banned Books Week" has begun; it lasts from 26 September to 3 October this year. The list of "Books Challenged & Banned 2008-2009" (8MB PDF) has all the details on the most recent books that have evoked censors' deepest fears--which seem to consistently revolve around issues of explicit language, drug use, and (especially) sexuality.

In defiance of the intellectually-stunted anti-readers that are forever banning and/or burning books, I try to read at least one book from the list every year. My selection this time around is Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass; I'll be back in a few days with some commentary.

The latest PBS series by Ken Burns, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, premieres tonight at 8pm. Time notes that in addition to serving up "plenty of unobjectionable, pledge-drive-friendly nature porn," Burns' latest work is also "his most topical and political film yet:"

With America frothing over the role of government -- should it save banks? should it expand health coverage? -- The National Parks makes a simple case for an idea that is wildly controversial in the year of the tea party: That we need government to do things the private sector can't or won't.

The LA Times follows this thread by suggesting that Burns is a "secret propagandist for socialism,"

...the entire origin of the national park system, whose most passionate backer was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, is based on a firm belief in -- Glenn Beck, cover your ears, please -- government intervention to regulate an out-of-control free-enterprise system.

In addition to such conservation efforts as establishing the United States Forest Service and signing the Antiquities Act, TR also busted trusts, regulated the railroads, and put in place both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act to protect America's food supply. When they find out that he also earned a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, clueless teabaggers will probably call Roosevelt a socialist/Nazi/communist (or some other equally nonsensical formulation).

I'd love to see Burns chronicle the Progressive movement for his next series. In the meantime, there are 12 hours of National Parks to watch...set your DVR!

[typo fixed]

Buffy at Gaytheist Agenda recommended a great video called "A slippery slope of stupidity" by ZJ:

(See ZJ's YouTube channel and website for more.)

migrained by reality

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This cartoon by Steve Brodner about Cindy McCain's migraines

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is accompanied by some insightful commentary:

She says, "For the first time in my life, I'm going to go to Congress, and I'm going to be tenacious and be forceful and be honest and tell them that it's time. If you can give five million dollars to study flatulence in cows and its effects on the ozone layer, you can give me some money for migraine research."

This is a good thing. But it got me wondering: "You want help from the GOVERNMENT now?" I started thinking about Nancy Reagan and her battle for funding for Alzheimer's, Bob Dole and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The minute a personal problem becomes too big for the folks on top, they become like the rest of us: looking for collective action.

Forrest Church, RIP

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Unitarian minister and prolific author Forrest Church (website, Wikipedia) has succumbed to cancer at the age of 61 (h/t: Jon Rowe). I've only read a handful of Church's many books, but I always appreciated them even when I disagreed with his religiosity. Here are some of Church's words about approaching the end of life:

We are all going to die. This is not an unmixed tragedy. If you could love forever, work and play forever, neither love, work, nor play would be nearly as charged with meaning as they are by the fact that each will end. (Lifecraft, p. 116)

I came up with an explanation for my ease of mind that, to whatever extent it may be true, has practical consequence for how we might prepare for a death sentence years before it may be issued. The key is unfinished business. How much of it do we have left when the boom falls? The less unfinished business we have when it is time for us to go, the less regret we shall suffer for lost opportunities and the more attentively we can prepare our departures.
(Love & Death, p. 90)


update (9/30 @ 8:57am)
The NYT has a solid obituary for Church, mentioning that his final book The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (Beacon Press) is due in November. Until then, we can savor this sentiment:

"Do what you can, want what you have, and be who you are."

I daresay that if all theists were as thoughtful as Church, there would be far less theist/ atheist tension.

Lauri Lebo's "Unregulated Capitalism and Christian Fervor" from Religion Dispatches is a great piece about the 9/12 teabagger protest, in which she lamented the impasse in discourse caused by "Glenn Beck and Fox News and the incessant drum beat of their misinformation campaign:"

One cannot find reasonable discourse with people in this setting. One might as well try to reason with a tornado--one swirling with confirmation bias, logical fallacy and Fox News-driven non sequiturs.

Lebo identifies the common threads binding the protesters together:

If they were universal in anything, it was in a combination of undying support for unregulated capitalism (ironic in light of the fact that it was a year ago this week that the free market led to global economic collapse) and Christian fervor.

I've always found the link between Christianity and capitalism to be a curious one; did some people skip the Sunday School session about Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the temple? His concern for the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick? His warning that the rich will have a difficult time entering Heaven?

Lebo mentioned "the Gospel of Supply-Side Jesus," which was the title of this classic Al Franken/Don Simpson piece. On a more serious note, the Wikipedia article on Christian Communism notes the Biblical basis for communism, laid out in Acts 2:42-45 and 4:32-37. I'd love to see some counter-protesters at the next teabagger rally carrying signs with this image:

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I've previously noted the 9/12 protest's myriad factual problems (see here, here, here, and here), but I am nonetheless glad to see--amidst all the birther/deather/Nazi/socialist nonsense--the blossoming of conservative concern for the Constitution and the federal budget that has taken place since 20 January. We liberals could have shared a great deal of common ground with conservatives during the preceding eight years if they had been worried about those issues during their Bushism blackout period--but they were too busy impugning the patriotism of liberals who pointed out that Bush's tax cuts were bad economics, his Iraq invasion bad precedent, his spying bad law, and his torture bad morality.

There's a glimmer of hope in the teabagger protests, and I don't want to slight any sign of progress--however muted or mutated it may be.

?!

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Today is National Punctuation Day; please celebrate it with the mark of your choice.

(This post has been brought to you by the interrobang.)

After showing how the trivial ACORN sting videos became a "major story" after a week of ricocheting around the conservative media echo chamber, Media Matters detailed the "misleading, incomplete" coverage by noting that "the conservative media had a few isolated facts but were willing to extrapolate an entire thesis from them:"

...all three network evening news broadcasts -- ABC's World News, NBC's Nightly News, and the CBS Evening News -- left out substantive facts about the incidents that mitigate the accusations, exonerate ACORN employees, or undermine the credibility of the filmmakers. Moreover, none reported that Fox News, in its aggressive promotion of this story, had made false accusations.

Anonymous Liberal observed that "You Can Tell a Lot About People By Who They Choose to Demonize:"

That the GOP and its conservative supporters would single out this particular organization for such intense demonization is telling. In September of last year, the entire world came perilously close to complete financial catastrophe. We're still not out of the woods and we're deep within one of the worst recessions in U.S. history. This situation was brought about by the recklessness and greed of our banks and financial institutions, most of which had to be bailed out at enormous cost to the American taxpayer (exponentially more than all of the tax dollars given to ACORN over the years). The people who brought about this near catastrophe, for the most, profited immensely from it. These very same institutions, propped up by the American taxpayer, are once again raking in large profits.

But rather than focus their anger on these folks, conservatives choose to go after an organization composed almost entirely of low-paid community organizers, an organization that could never hope to have even a small fraction of the clout or the ability to affect the overall direction of the country that Wall Street bankers have.

Digby has some comments at Hullabaloo, noting that "important not to throw in the towel and grant the conservative ratfuckers the moral high ground." Glenn Greenwald's Salon piece, "The Distracting Benefits of ACORN Hysteria," provides some much-needed perspective:

ACORN has received a grand total of $53 million in federal funds over the last 15 years -- an average of $3.5 million per year. Meanwhile, not millions, not billions, but trillions of dollars of public funds have been, in the last year alone, transferred to or otherwise used for the benefit of Wall Street. Billions of dollars in American taxpayer money vanished into thin air, eaten by private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, led by Halliburton subsidiary KBR. [...]

So with this massive pillaging of America's economic security and the control of American government by its richest and most powerful factions growing by the day, to whom is America's intense economic anxiety being directed? To a non-profit group that devotes itself to providing minute benefits to people who live under America's poverty line, and which is so powerless in Washington that virtually the entire U.S. Senate just voted to cut off its funding at the first sign of real controversy -- could anyone imagine that happening to a key player in the banking or defense industry?

Apparently, the problem for middle-class and lower-middle-class Americans is not that their taxpayer dollars are going to prop up billionaires, oligarchs and their corrupt industries. It's that America's impoverished -- a group that is growing rapidly -- is getting too much, has too much power and too little accountability.

This is why I try to ignore right-wing "news" items like this; avoiding the distraction helps one focus on much more interesting things occurring behind the curtain. In this case, as Greenwald mentions, "The issue is one of proportion:"

If someone ostensibly opposes government waste and unfairness in tax policy yet spends most of their time focusing on a tiny group that helps the poor and receives a miniscule amount of government money -- all while ignoring or even revering the enormous, omnipotent industries which eat up trillions in taxpayer waste and dwarf the impact of ACORN by many, many magnitudes -- then any rational person would question what the real motives are... [...] Claiming you're worried about large government and taxpayer waste while fixating on ACORN proves the insincerity of the ostensible concern...

Congress has since seen fit to de-fund ACORN, but this HuffPo piece points out a little problem with their sledgehammer tactics:

The congressional legislation intended to defund ACORN, passed with broad bipartisan support, is written so broadly that it applies to "any organization" that has been charged with breaking federal or state election laws, lobbying disclosure laws, campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent paperwork with any federal or state agency. It also applies to any of the employees, contractors or other folks affiliated with a group charged with any of those things.

In other words, the bill could plausibly defund the entire military-industrial complex. Whoops.

Anonymous Liberal notes that "The GOP's obsession with optics over substance is also on full display here:"

In their rush to capture headlines and grandstand, they didn't bother to consider what the law they were proposing would actually do. Everything is a game, including the lawmaking process.

And the Democrats didn't exactly bathe themselves in glory here either. Rather than reject a hastily thrown together and poorly thought out bill, most of them took the path of least resistance and voted for the bill. It was a perfect demonstration of the kind of fecklessness and political cowardice that pervades the Democratic caucus.

Washington Monthly echoes Greenwald's assessment:

The next question, of course, is why ACORN's problems with voter-registration materials are extremely important, while Lockheed Martin's and Northrop Gumman's bad habits are not only considered uninteresting -- to conservatives, to lawmakers, to news outlets -- but largely verboten as a topic of conversation.

Greta Christina's "How Dare You Atheists Make Your Case!" is a great response to this Ode Magazine excerpt from Karen Armstrong's latest book, The Case for God. Christina writes, in her typically great commentary, "I was struck, not just by how bad and tired Armstrong's arguments were, but by the degree to which they were entirely focused on trying to get atheists to shut up:"

I was struck -- as I am often struck lately -- by how much anti-atheist rhetoric has been focusing, not on why the case for atheism is incorrect or inconsistent or unsupported by the evidence, but on why atheists are bad people for making our case at all.

The only quibble I have with Christina's analysis is her comment about modern apologetics. "[R]educing God to a metaphor (or a 'symbol,' as Armstrong puts it)" isn't "reducing religion to a philosophy," it's elevating religion to a philosophy. I don't often quote Ayn Rand, but her assessment of religion as "a primitive form of philosophy" rings true.

In addition to the problem of intent that Christina points out, Armstrong's argument has other faults as well. She writes accusingly that science has been "been ideological and had refused to countenance any other method of arriving at truth." I suppose that is her way of saying that scientists point out the unsupportable nature of religious assertions. There may be "other methods of arriving at truth," but only science has been proven effective.

She rejects the "hard-line form of scientific naturalism" adhered to by those dreadful "new atheists," asserting that "science itself has to rely on an act of faith." Using examples of early and provisional acceptance of evolution and relativity in attempts to bolster her case, Armstrong fails to see that there's a big difference between a). believing in a scientific theory with explanatory value that fits the available evidence on one hand, and b). holding a religious opinion that explains nothing and is supported by nothing.

Later, Armstrong tries to criticize atheists' theological knowledge by lauding "the latest discussions and the new insights of biblical scholarship," and lamenting that such rarified religion "rarely reach[es] the pews." (This is, of course, a variant of the ploy known as The Courtier's Reply. Armstrong should know better; the atheists in her audience certainly do.)

unintentional irony

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Here is the cover of Glenn Beck's latest book, released today:

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The irony, it burns!

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced the "Respect for Marriage Act," a long-overdue piece of legislation which would reverse the Orwellian "Defense of Marriage Act" (h/t: Michelangelo Signorile) that was foisted upon the nation during the Clinton administration:

The text of the bill (HR 3567) is here.

This exchange at New Majority made me laugh:

Sweet Little Old Lady: "I'd like to buy some stamps, and I don't want those ones with the Simpsons on them. I don't like the Simpsons."

Post Office Lady: "Here's this one, it's nice."

Sweet Little Old Lady: "What is it?"

Post Office Lady: "A Jewish Holiday."

Sweet Little Old Lady: "Oh that's nice! My Jewish friends will like that!"

The stamp recommended by the clueless USPS employee was this one:

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I'm surprised that she didn't also suggest this stamp for Rosh Hashanah:

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What a maroon.

...should appreciate this XKCD cartoon:

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...here's a list of his 20 worst sentences.

I haven't read any of his books--and on the basis of this list, I'm not sure if I should.

In his Edge essay "Economics Is Not Natural Science," Douglas Rushkoff writes that "It doesn't take a genius or a scientist to understand how the rules of the economic game as it is currently played reflect neither human values nor the laws of physics:"

In their ongoing effort to define and the defend the functioning of the market through science and systems theory, some of today's brightest thinkers have, perhaps inadvertently, promoted a mythology about commerce, culture, and competition. And it is a mythology as false, dangerous, and ultimately deadly as any religion.

Rushkoff goes on to assert that "the pull of the market" is "tilting the ideas of many of today's best minds toward the agenda of the highest bidder" by creating economic incentives to promote corporate-friendly ideas. He concludes that our economic model is "broken," and suggests that "[i]t's time to stop pretending it describes our world." This dovetails nicely with Paul Krugman's essay "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?" from The NYT Magazine:

Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field's problems. More important was the profession's blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy. [...] There was nothing in the prevailing models suggesting the possibility of the kind of collapse that happened last year.

Krugman posits that macroeconomics is in a "state of disarray" partly as a result of the disconnection between the largely Keynesian pragmatic "saltwater" views from coastal economists and the more theoretical "freshwater" economists who tend to be "neoclassical purists." The problem with the dominant beautiful-theory ideas of freshwater monetarism is that "there was no room in the prevailing models for such things as bubbles and banking-system collapse:"

In short, the belief in efficient financial markets blinded many if not most economists to the emergence of the biggest financial bubble in history. And efficient-market theory also played a significant role in inflating that bubble in the first place.

An idea's beauty may be intellectually seductive, but ignoring the parts of reality that don't fit had led economists--and the economy--into a minefield:

When it comes to the all-too-human problem of recessions and depressions, economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly. The vision that emerges as the profession rethinks its foundations may not be all that clear; it certainly won't be neat; but we can hope that it will have the virtue of being at least partly right.

Brad DeLong excerpts a number of comments about Krugman's piece, and Krugman himself has some more thoughts here and here in addition to these remarks about the intellectual isolation of freshwater economics:

It's a sad story. And the even sadder thing is that it's very unlikely that anything will change: freshwater macro will get even more insular, and its devotees will wonder why nobody in the real world of policy and action pays any attention to what they say.

Max (Republican Gomorrah) Blumenthal interviewed some teabaggers in this video, asking them about their signs. Here's a screenshot of my favorite:

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(This guy is a supporter of the English-only movement...but is apparently not a big fan of spelling.)

Jon Perr's "Ten Lessons for Tea Baggers" at Crooks and Liars could go a long way toward correcting the misconceptions that fostered so many of their signs--if only they cared:

1. President Obama Cut Your Taxes
2. The Stimulus is Working
3. First Ronald Reagan Tripled the National Debt...
4. ...Then George W. Bush Doubled It Again
5. Republican States Have the Worst Health Care
6. Medicare is a Government Program
7. Barack Obama is Not a Muslim
8. Barack Obama was Born in the United States
9. 70,000 Does Not Equal 2,000,000
10. The Economy Almost Always Does Better Under Democrats

These Teabagger interviews (h/t: vjack at Atheist Revolution) are even more dismaying than their signs:

The interviewer has a great comment after echoing one marcher's remarks:

"Fascism, socialism, communism...these things are apparently interchangeable--if you don't know what they mean."

Sadly, that's an all-too-common problem. I guess we should add political science to the other subjects on the teabaggers' remedial refresher list: history, civics, religion, geography, mathematics, and economics.

Steve Benen asks "What constitutes front-page news?" at Washington Monthly, noting the disparity between anti-Iraq-War marches getting buried in the Post's Metro section while far fewer numbers of teabaggers get front-page coverage:

Anti-war protestors, the thinking goes, were liberal hippies out of step with the mainstream. After all, there was a Republican president and Republican House in 2002, and polls showed reasonably strong support for the war in Iraq. Why pretend the liberal protestors are important?

In contrast, seven years later, Tea Baggers have to be considered a major political movement. There's a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress in 2009, and polls show reasonably strong support for the administration's economic agenda, but the right-wing cries can't be relegated to a few throw-away paragraphs in the Metro section.

I'm sure that not all of the 60,000-75,000 estimated protestors in Washington over the weekend (far from the 1-2 million that the organizers claimed) were loons, but the photographic evidence is not very complimentary. The FAQ about the 9/12 March said

"This protest is about defending our liberty, and about restoring our Constitution by reducing the size and scope of the federal government"

but--at least judging from the signage--those principles appeared to be concerns for a minority of the protesters. Most of them seemed to be much more interested in misrepresenting Obama's birthplace (Hawaii), religion (Christianity) and politics (Democratic centrism) than anything resembling a principled stand on liberty, the Constitution, or taxation.

Daily Kos has a montage featuring some classic birther signs along with "We came unarmed (this time)," the unintentionally hilarious "FOR THE TRUTH [sic] WATCH FOX NEWS," and "IMPEACH THE MUSLIM MARXIST" [double sic]. The photos at Look at This Fucking Teabagger (h/t: Andy Towle at Towleroad, who called it the "Million Moron March") have even more winners: claims that "It's 1939 Germany all over again," proclamations that "The cure for Obama Communism Is a New Era of McCarthyism," many accusations of "socialism" and "fascism," the moronic "liberal fascism" oxymoron, and even "DEATH PANELS SARAH WAS RIGHT!" At Salon, Alex Koppelman wrote about his experiences at the march:

Stepping in to the crowd there felt, at some times, like stepping into an alternate reality. It was a reality in which provisions establishing "death panels" really can be found in healthcare reform legislation, where President Obama is a Marxist and a Fascist, where the majority was represented by these protesters rather than the voters who elected a Democrat president and gave him an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress less than a year ago...

Andrew Sullivan--one of the more principled conservatives whose work I follow--has some fine remarks as well, particularly in his closing paragraph:

The protestors keep saying that they want their country back. Sorry, my fellow small-governmenters, but this country is a democracy, and you didn't lose your country, you just lost an election. You had your chance for eight years. You blew it, and you lost. What Obama is doing is what he was elected to do. The principled response is not a massive, extremist-riddled hissy fit a few months in, but a constructive set of proposals to build on universal care for a more market-friendly and cost-conscious system in the future. You have to win some political credibility for that; and then you have to beat the man you lost so badly to last year. That's the civil and civilized way forward for the right. It also seems, alas, to be the one they are currently refusing to take. [emphasis added]

Barry Ritholtz's Big Picture features a guest column by libertarian Doug Casey wondering whether George W. Bush--or Bush the Lesser, if you prefer--is "The Worst President in History." Casey observes that Bush was a "disastrous" president and a "strong contender" for the title, but he's hesitant to crown Bush the worst president ever. After assembling an eighteen-point list of Bush's most memorable failures, Casey writes, "I suspect he'll just fade away as a non-entity, recognized as an embarrassment:"

Those who once supported him will, at least if they have any circumspection and intellectual honesty, feel shame at how dim they were to have been duped by a nobody.

The worst shame of Bush -- worse than the spending, the new agencies, the torture, or the wars -- is that he used so much pro-liberty and pro-free-market rhetoric in the very process of destroying those institutions.

You mean that chanting "USA! USA!" didn't transform PretzelDunce Chimpy McFlightsuit into the most supremely patriotic Dear Leader ever to grace God's Own Party? That illegal spying on Americans--not to mention torturing and murdering detainees--didn't really make us secure? That blowing the Clinton surplus on tax cuts for the rich and ill-advised wars didn't strengthen our economy? That Orwellian phrases such as "fair and balanced," "mission accomplished," and "compassionate conservatism" obscure reality instead of describing it?

I'm shocked, shocked to find out that deceit was going on in the Bush White House!

Bush Six

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Andy Worthington writes at AlterNet about the continuing efforts of Baltasar Garzón in "Spanish Judge Resumes Torture Case Against Six Senior Bush Lawyers." (Back in April, I mentioned his laudable persistence against the Bush Six; may his pursuit serve the goal of justice.)

the Lion's last roar

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In last week's healthcare address, Obama referred to this letter from Ted Kennedy. Although written at the end of Kennedy's life, it looks forward--anticipating the fulfillment of his healthcare dream:

At the Denver Convention where you were nominated, I said the dream lives on.

And I finished this letter with unshakable faith that the dream will be fulfilled for this generation, and preserved and enlarged for generations to come.

[...]

...while I will not be there when it happens, you will be the President who at long last signs into law the health care reform that is the great unfinished business of our society.

high-class signage

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Of all the low-accuracy, low-aesthetics, low-class, signs toted around yesterday's wingnut/teabagger rally in Washington--the usual assortment of birther/deather/socialist nonsense--this one was the worst of many:

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Nice job, wingnuts! May the future electoral prospects of your tiny tent be everything that a clueless angry mob deserves.

Jonah Lehrer at Science Blogs wrote something that increased my energy consumption just a little bit:

...computational efficiency is the single most astonishing fact of the mammalian brain. Here you are, reading these words, daydreaming about lunch, processing the richness of reality, thinking about tomorrow, and your brain requires less energy than a low wattage lightbulb. Evolution is an impressive engineer.

Indeed.

Juan Cole notes the differences between two Joe Wilsons: the Joe "You lie!" Wilson who shouts out (incorrect) accusations during a presidential speech, and the Joe "What I Didn't Find in Africa" Wilson who was viciously smeared by the previous administration for telling the truth about Iraq and Nigerian uranium.

Note that the first Joe Wilson was dead wrong, but that the Obama administration responded in a gentlemanly way to his charge.

The Bush-Cheney administration, in contrast, attempted to besmirch the reputation and the life of a dedicated lifetime civil servant because he spoke the truth to the president.

The story of the two Joe Wilsons and how they were treated is the story of two visions of America. The Bush-Cheney vision is a nightmarish landscape of blighted lives and cruel indifference to basic human decency. The Obama vision is just the Golden Rule, with which the people who vote for the evil Joe Wilson typically profess acquaintance.

The evil Joe Wilson (R-SC) is the remnant of Cheneyism in this new America, painfully being born from the rubble made by the old. He needn't remain in office, defiling the halls of the Congress of the United States of America. He has an opponent in the next election, Rob Miller, an Iraq War veteran. An honorable man. Here is his campaign site.

We only need the one kind of Joe Wilson, the one who shouts "truth" to lies; not the one who shouts "lies" to the truth.

Speaking of double standards, this Tom Tomorrow cartoon does a fantastic job of pointing them out...kudos!

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Earlier this morning, there was some panic in Washington:

A U.S. Coast Guard training exercise set off a security scare in Washington's Potomac River on Friday as the United States marked the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

Police and federal law enforcement officials said the incident, which prompted reports that shots had been fired at a boat in the river near the Pentagon, was actually a training exercise.

[...]

"They're in a training exercise and we didn't know it. Somebody reported that they had shot at somebody. That was part of the training exercise," said Lt. Mike Libby of the U.S. Park Police, who was by the river near the 14th Street Bridge.

A Federal law official later confirmed that no shots had been fired.

Just like the Air Force One flight over NYC, I'm sure that this is (somehow) Obama's fault, and will be listed on the next edition of the "mistakes" he has made.

calling out the liars

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In his healthcare address to Congress last night, Obama took aim at "all the misinformation that's been spread over the past few months:"

I realize that many Americans have grown nervous about reform. So tonight I'd like to address some of the key controversies that are still out there.

Some of people's concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.

There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false - the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up - under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.

My health care proposal has also been attacked by some who oppose reform as a "government takeover" of the entire health care system. As proof, critics point to a provision in our plan that allows the uninsured and small businesses to choose a publicly-sponsored insurance option, administered by the government just like Medicaid or Medicare.

Congresscritter Joe Wilson (R-SC) had a little outburst toward the end, yelling out "You lie!" when Obama mentioned excluding illegal immigrants. This drew stunned looks, a quiet "Not true." rebuke from the president, and a blogsphere full of comments about impropriety. In addition, many observers noted that Wilson's accusation was false, most notably Politifact. FactCheck noted last month that the relevant portion of the bill (HR 3200, Section 246) specifically excludes illegal immigrants:

Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.

Wilson has apologized for the timing of his gaffe, but not for its content:

"This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the President's remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the President's statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility."

I checked Wilson's website to verify the statement, but was greeted with this:

20090910-joewilson.gif

Later in the day, that epic fail was replaced with this image:

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Jill Lawrence notes at Politics Daily that Wilson's opponent Rob Miller has been the recipient of greatly increased campaign donations since last night. That's a good sign!

Even after hearing Obama's speech to schoolchildren yesterday, conservatives still appear blinded by partisanship. Their desire to excoriate Obama is the beam lodged in their eye which obstructs their vision. This clip from Rush Limbaugh (h/t: Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars) is a prime example:

Rush thinks rants that Obama is a "socialist radical" who is "standing [democracy] on its head" and "taking over" schools by delivering an (optional) speech to schoolchildren on the importance of setting goals, studying, and working hard in school. If Obama's speech was indoctrination and propaganda, I say let's have some more of it!

AlterNet's Tana Ganeva lists the Right's keep-kids-out-of-school paranoia one of the ten most "Obscenely Stupid Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories and Attacks Against the President," along with birthers, deathers, czar worriers, AmeriCorps paranoids, and the other chasers after fever-swamp phantasms. After discussing Rush's previously claim that Obama "wants mandated circumcision" (because the CDC suggested the procedure as a prophylactic effort in the fight against AIDS) and the Freepers who want to know if the presidential member is uncut, Ganeva writes:

It would seem that there needs to be a subcategory on this list for these patriots' obsession with the president's penis.

It's almost as if they're reliving the Clinton years! (Which would be OK, I guess, as long as they don't trade in their firearms for high explosives and emulate the Eric Rudolph/Tim McVeigh/Unabomber wingnut whackjobs...)

information diet

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Over at Barry Ritholtz's Big Picture, Kent Thune asked the site's readers about information sources:

Why do you read this blog? What other media sources do you consume? If information were food, how healthy is your diet? [...] Do you seek sources of information that only align with your perspective (confirmation bias) or do you seek a variety of opinion?

I rely primarily on the printed word, reading many blogs (let's hear it for RSS feeds!), magazines, and books--with a smattering of TV news programs and an almost complete absence of talk radio. The sources upon which I rely cover much of the religious/social/political/economic spectrum, and I have a special fondness for media criticism--sort of a meta-source, in this context--as a corrective against reliance on sources with an unhelpful bias.

Thune mentioned Nobel laureate Herbert Simon, who noted that "a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention" and coined the term bounded rationality, which:

...suggests that individuals are only partially rational and that their rationality is bound by the information they consume, the complexity and abundance of the information available to them and the finite amount of time they have to make decisions.

That concept gave me one of those on-the-tip-of-my-tongue feelings until I recalled a reference to Samuel Popkin and his theory of "low-information rationality" from my review of Drew Westen's The Political Brain:

Political scientist (and sometimes-consultant) Samuel Popkin has argued that this tendency to play "follow the leader" is a sensible strategy for most voters, who have their own lives to lead and don't have the time or interest to study all the affairs of state. Accepting uncontested elite opinions represents a form of what Popkin calls "low-information rationality." If no one on either side of the aisle is contesting an issue at the top of the information chain, why would most voters, who have far less direct knowledge, contest it at the bottom? (p. 190)

As an analogy, I guess it would be like trusting the wait staff at your information restaurant to recommend a dish that you would like.

Google books

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Geoffrey Nunberg's piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education calling Google's Book Search "A Disaster for Scholars" observes that "Google's digitization effort is clearly on track to becoming the world's largest digital library," and already has "an effective monopoly" despite consistent problems with unreliable metadata. Nunberg discusses a plethora of classification errors and incorrect publication dates, and traces the problem to Amazon's unfamiliarity with issues peculiar to libraries: "managing a vast library collection requires different skills, approaches, and data than those that enabled Google to dominate Web searching."

Google has done a credible job of making the Internet searchable, but the corpus of the written word is indeed a far different task. Google Books is a useful resource, but without an accurate index (card catalog, anyone?) it is far less than it could be. Amazon is arguing that Google's move will "gouge consumers and stifle competition," but such anti-monopoly rhetoric sounds rather funny coming from a company that not only holds 43% of the online bookselling market but is competing with Google by digitizing more than 300,000 books for its Kindle ebook device.

I'll go to Stewart Brand for my Quote of the Day:

"On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."

(first Hackers conference, 1984)

Obama released the prepared text of tomorrow's school address, and it's every bit the totalitarian/socialist/liberal propaganda/brainwashing/indoctrination that conservatives were warning us about last week:

...at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world - and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education.

That's just a taste of what to expect; I'm sure that Obama's actual presentation tomorrow will contain even more horrible liberal lies (the importance of hard work and personal responsibility) and left-wing propaganda (setting goals, perseverance, and fulfilling your potential):

You'll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You'll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems.

This passage will really piss off the screaming heads at Faux News:

The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

Oh, the horror! We can't let our impressionable schoolchildren be exposed to those dangerous ideas--if they expect learning and achievement to be part of their educational experiences, who knows what might happen?

20090904-runnersbody.jpg

Tucker, Ross and Jonathan Dugas. The Runner's Body: How the Latest Exercise Science Can Help You Run Stronger, Longer, and Faster (New York: Rodale, 2009)

I wanted to examine running physiology after looking at it from an anthropological angle, and this new reference guide from Runner's World fits the bill. The Runner's Body is divided into five sections covering the five major body systems: musculoskeletal, cardiorespiratory, metabolic, central nervous, and immune. The comprehensive detail may be overkill for some readers, but it's great to have so much up-to-date information on the science of running in one place.

The authors (Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas) debunk many common running myths, such as the cause of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), the overemphasis on VO2 max as a performance-limiting factor to the exclusion of running efficiency; and the danger of over-hydration (hyponatremia) due to excessive consumption of sports drinks. In some later chapters, Tucker and Dugas take aim--rather less successfully, I think--at the recent emphasis on running technique:

The inclusiveness of running, as evidenced by the sport's phenomenal growth over the past few decades, is a wonderful thing. But it also provides an alternative explanation for why people get injured. A preponderance of today's noncompetitive runners, who don't share the physical condition or biomechanical traits of the elite, are likely to become injured with even the tiniest error in training, regardless of how good their running technique is. (p. 201)

I would suggest the opposite: that non-elite, non-competitive runners are likely to become injured from errors in technique, regardless of how good their physical condition or training may be. The authors continue their criticism of technique-driven approaches:

...the notion that millions of people, with different body shapes and sizes and leg lengths and centers of gravity and joint angles, could fit into one single pattern or technique is also difficult to accept. Rather, the passage of time would filter out any flaws for each person. (p. 203)

Here I disagree again. The passage of time filters out runners rather than running flaws. How many potentially lifelong runners have we lost to the naïve attitude that each of us can individually discover the biomechanically correct technique? Our bodies may be unique in their particulars, but they share a common anatomy and physiology; their reaction to the physical demands of running will be likewise similar. Without defending any particular methodology, I think Tucker and Dugas are too quick to dismiss running technique as a concern.

The book's website is more a sales tool than an informational one, but the Science of Sport blog by Tucker and Dugas is a great supplement to this volume.

If you run, you need to read this book!

Ben & Jerry's has temporarily renamed their "Chubby Hubby" ice cream to "Hubby Hubby" in honor of Vermont's move to marriage equality,and some conservative commentators don't like it one bit. Debbie Schlussel, for example, has tried to parody B&J's pro-marriage stance, but her new suggested flavors (RuPaul Black Raspberry, George Michael Elton John Swirl Sorbet) merely demonstrate that humor isn't her forte.

ChristWire.org parodies the Right's homophobia very well in "Ben and Jerry's Wants Kids to Eat Semen Flavored Ice Cream" (h/t: From the Left):

We all know gays use candy, puppies and toys to lure young boys into their sugar plum sex fantasy homes and we know children LOVE ice cream, so what better way to shove gayness down white male boy's throats then to name a ice cream after the act of two men shoving each other's twinkie puffs into one another's sin holes.

This will brand "GAY FRIENDLY" to children. This will make "GAY" look normal because it is on ice cream, YEAH!

From studies and reports we have also found that this ice cream was concocted to taste just like male sperm.

It's easier to parody paranoid lunacy than sensible egalitarianism, so ChristWire does have an easier task at generating genuine humor. I clicked through some of the ChristWire site, and I wouldn't hesitate to put them in the same league as Landover Baptist Church--one of the snarkiest of sites, and always a joy to read.

Obama's planned address to schoolchildren next week on "the importance of persisting and succeeding in school" has been the subject of much paranoid fear-mongering from the far Right. WingNutDaily (no, I'm not linking to them) quotes one Freeper referring to Obama's "Hitler youth brigade," and another drawing parallels to "[t]otalitarian regimes around the world [that] have sought to spread their propaganda and entrench their power by brainwashing the children."

Susie Madrak at Crooks and Liars understands why Obama's "encouraging kids to stay in school and study hard could be threatening to the Right, because:"

"if children actually pay attention, learn to read and write and apply critical thinking skills, they're actually a lot less likely to read fine publications like World Nut Daily - except when they're mining them for comedy gold like this."

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen observes that the victims of Obama Derangement Syndrome "are on hair-trigger alert to turn any opportunity into a hysterical temper tantrum." Obama's encouragement for students to "work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning" inspired Jim Greer, Republican Party chair in Florida, to issue a statement claiming that Obama is trying to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda," and that he "has turned to American's children to spread his liberal lies."

It didn't get any better when the paranoia began spreading through the mainstream conservative media. MediaMatters has the details: Michelle Malkin wrote about "children being used as Political Guinea Pigs for Change," Hannity said that the not-yet-delivered speech "seems very close to indoctrination," Monica Crowley stated "this is what Chairman Mao did," Mark Steyn claimed "it's all part of the cult of personality," and Glenn Beck compared Obama to Mussolini. Jamison Foser wrote at AlterNet about a few other examples, including the wingnuts who--get this-- "are telling children to skip school as a protest against Obama's encouragement of students to stay in school."

And they wonder why the rest of us have stopped taking them seriously?

In a later post, Steve Benen commented that the administration has even "offered to make the text of the address available in advance, just so everyone can see how innocuous it is. It's made no difference:"

Conservatives don't want school kids to hear a message from their president. Those who claim superiority on American patriotism have decided to throw yet another tantrum over the idea that the president of the United States might encourage young people to do well in schools.

This is what American politics has come to in 2009.

In addition to giving conservatives' claim a "Pants on Fire" rating, PolitiFact noted that George HW Bush gave a similar speech in 1991. Newt Gingrich asked at the time "Why is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education?" (Reagan also did so in 1986 and 1988.) The Rude Pundit also dipped into the archives of Bush the Elder, noting a 1989 speech--also broadcast into the nation's schools--wherein "Bush sought to scare the living fuck out of kids about drugs:"

The backdrop of the speech was that Bush was trying to get Congress to pass a tough and useless anti-drug program that included lots more prisons, prosecutors and other things that don't really work. Democrats wanted to add more drug treatment and prevention measures to the bill. Bush had already spoken to the nation on September 5 about drugs, even getting the DEA to set up a crack sting near the White House just for a visual and a story in that address.

So, in other words, in 1989, President Bush spoke to students with the blatantly political goal of getting his harsh new drug laws passed in order to demonstrate, again, how tough he was. And the outrage from the left? Well, some of the kids thought the whole thing was worthless and/or bullshit. Some liked it. Otherwise, not a damn peep from anyone...

My, how times have changed.

Every time I would read the Bitch, PhD RSS feed lately, this story (cross-posted from here) about Roxanne Shante (rapper on the classic "Roxanne's Revenge") made me smile. The story was sourced to this NY Daily News article:

Shante had very little to show for her breakout hit and subsequent fame--until at the age of 19, she remembered the fine print on her recording contract.

Warner Bros. had included a clause promising to pay for Shante's education. Faced with pennilessness, she decided to cash in on that promise.

Despite foot-dragging by her former label, the story goes, it ended well for her:

By 2001, Warner Bros. had funded Shante's entire college education-up to and including the PhD in psychology she earned that year from Cornell University.

Total cost of education: $217,000. Roxanne's Revenge: priceless.

I was ready to write an inspiring post about her victory over music-industry greed until I read a Slate exposé stating that "[v]irtually everything about the Daily News' heartwarming 'projects-to-Ph.D.' story appears to be false. An investigation by Slate has revealed:"

• According to Warner, neither it nor any of its subsidiary record labels ever had a contract with Shanté, and it was not obligated to pay for her education. Indeed, there's no evidence that it ever did.
• Shanté--real name Lolita Shanté Gooden--doesn't have a Ph.D. from Cornell or anywhere else. Indeed, she admitted it in an interview with Slate. And Cornell has no record of Gooden (or "Shanté") ever attending or receiving a degree.
• According to Marymount Manhattan College records, Shanté enrolled there but dropped out less than four months later without ever earning a degree.
• New York state records indicate that no one named Lolita Gooden or Roxanne Shanté is licensed to practice psychology or any related field.
• In the course of several phone interviews and exchanges over Facebook's internal e-mail system, Shanté--who refers to herself as "Dr." and "doctor"--admitted that she never received a Ph.D.

How disappointing.

James Wood's New Yorker piece "God in the Quad" (pp. 75-79 of the 31 August issue, only an abstract of which is online) starts off with the rather ludicrous supposition that:

"a resurgent atheism [is] marked by its own kind of Biblical literalism." (p. 75)

Really? There's a text that we revere, that we believe in literally without evidence, and follow with little critical thought and sometimes without even understanding? One that is not open to correction, subject to revision, or capable of outright replacement?

But wait...it gets better:

"The new atheists do not speak to the millions of people whose form of religion is far from the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism, and who aren't inclined to submit to the mad mullahs and the fanatical ministers." (p. 75)

If you added up Jainism, Shintoism, and Taoism, you'd certainly have "millions of people whose form of religion is far from the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism." Unfortunately for Wood's argument, the Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews who we atheists tend to criticize--and whose embodied certainties lie at the root of so much strife in the world--number in the billions.

"Abolishing the category of the religious robs non-believers of some surplus of the inexpressible; it forbids the contrails of uncertainty to pass over our lives. What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty..." (p. 76)

What, exactly, do we supposedly treat with such certainty? I don't know that I've ever seen an atheist either as intolerant or as certain about disbelief as theists often are about belief.

"the new atheists have, finally, an incomprehension of the actual faith that people lead their lives by" (p. 79)

Wood appears to be unaware that, as minority citizens in a hyper-religious society--not to mention members of religious families and often former theists ourselves--atheists comprehend quite well the "actual faith" as it is lived around us. Whether theists can comprehend the fulfillment of lives without faith is quite a different matter.

"What is needed is [...] a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief. [...] It would be unafraid to credit the immense allure of religious tradition, but at the same time it would be ready to argue that the abstract God of the philosophers and the theologians is no more probable that the idolatrous God of the fundamentalists, makes no better sense of the fallen world, and is certainly no more likable or worthy of our worshipful respect--alas." (p. 79)

Jerry Coyne responded to this point at Why Evolution Is True:

In other words, we need to express sadness that there is no God. [...] ...most atheists freely admit that religions and their traditions have considerable allure. But admitting that is not the same as saying that religious beliefs are facts. And on that point the gulf is unbridgeable.

PZ Myers ladles on the sarcasm, writing that:

All we've got here [at Pharyngula] are hordes of triumphal atheists who think the whole enterprise of religion is hairy effin' bollocks, and we aren't at all sad about our loss of faith, a loss that we've found liberating and joyous.

Losing one's religion may be a disappointment for some atheists, but that doesn't seem to be the norm. In fact, I hesitate to even call it a loss in any sense that indicates a lack of something vital or essential. To me, loss of faith has been akin to removing an orthotic from one's shoe only to find that it wasn't necessary--or, more to the point, that it was actually an impediment.

20090901-whywerun.jpg

Heinrich, Bernd. Why We Run: A Natural History (New York: HarperCollins, 2001)

Reading Born to Run inspired me to dig into the evolutionary aspects of our running heritage, and Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich leapt to the front of the line. Heinrich writes a "natural history" of running, discussing the long-distance traveling abilities of various insects, migratory birds, antelopes, camels, and frogs en route to his own victory in a 100K race in Chicago

The first 40 pages are somewhat of a chore, but the remainder of the book--especially the last three chapters, where Heinrich describes his race preparation as well as the race itself--make Why We Run more than worthwhile. He ties together many strands of biology and anthropology, and does so quite amazingly. Here is my Quote of the Day:

A race is like a chase. Finishing a marathon, setting a record, making a scientific discovery, creating a great work of art--all, I believe, are substitute chases we submit to that require, and exhibit, the psychological tools of an endurance predator, both to do and to evaluate. When fifty thousand people line up to race a marathon, or two dozen high schoolers toe the line for a cross-country race, they are enacting a symbolic communal hunt, to be first at the kill, or at least to take part in it. (p. 184)

Heinrich's Why We Run can inspire the runner in all of us--no matter how distant a memory that most recent romp may have been.

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