Friday, October 5, 2012

This Is American Politics

Its official. Winning debates now means lying at 100 LPH and promising to give Big Bird a pink slip.

In other news, I hear that a bunch of writers for the Onion decided to seek employment elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Debate Drinking Game: Staying Sane Through Spirits

As everyone with an internet connection or TV knows, the first of three presidential debates is tonight. Obviously as a serious minded citizen, the best way to face these debates is to use them as an excuse to booze it up.

Game Rules:
1. Every time someone says "That's a good question," take a sip.
2. Every time their mouth smiles but their eyes rip out the other guy's throat, sip.
3. A sip for every already debunked lie.
4. A sip for every obviously prepared zinger.
5. For every time the word "taxes" and "Obama" are used in the same sentence, sip.
6. When "Romney" and "middle class" are used in one breath, sip.
7. If the recent 2007 video of Obama is mentioned, chug.
8. If the 47% video gets a nod, chug.

Happy watching.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Its True: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

A trivial but funny thing happened in class today. At the moment I am taking a statistics in psychology class. We learn about things like experimental vs non experimental approaches to studies and how to tell a good study from a bad one.

Our specific topic today was histograms. Histograms are a way of tabling and graphing data. A graphical version looks like this:

With a table looking a lot like:

                                                                      Our particular table had five columns, number of things remembered ranging from 11-16, (F)renquency of the numbers, (C)umulative (F)requency with each category adding to the one below it, % of total for each different category, and (C)umulative % for the sum of the categories.

Not having a calculator on my, I did the calculations for percent and cumulative percent in my head. My math was accurate. What turned out to be less than accurate was my counting of the individual numbers lined up one by one on the projection screen. In short, I goofed by adding one too many to the 16 category and one too few to the 12 category. This naturally messed up all my percent calculations.

What does this have to do with the title? Near the end of the class as I realized my mistake, I happened to glance at the paper of the person to my immediate left. To my surprise, she had the exact same percent numbers as I did, while having the correct amount in each category. This left me with two options:

1. She had made a math mistake that lined up completely with my numbers despite her having the correct category amounts and no method of getting those incorrect calculations I could fathom

2. She decided to make her life easier by copying the calculations of the guy next to her who seemed confidant enough to do it all in his head.

I must admit, it kind of made my day. Or hour anyways.

To my fellow students, let this be a lesson to you. Just because you're copying the answers of the person next to you doesn't mean you'll get it right. Cheaters and slackers beware.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

These Are Times That Try Men's Sides

In politics, there are periods full of worry and gnashing of teeth, when elections and issues are nail biters right up to the very last minute.

And then there are times when you can sit back and enjoy a heaping cup of schadenfreude. If you are a Democrat, this is one of those times.

Ever since Romney had the misfortune to speak his true mind in the infamous "47%" remarks, his election numbers have been plummeting. So called "swing" states such as Ohio have clocked up to 10+ point margins for Obama in recent polls.

And what has Romney done in response? Stuff like this. That's right. Romney's going to save Virgina from the tick borne menace with synergy, and other corporate buzzwords.

Unfortunately, the laughs dry up when more is learned. The real story is that the only reason Romney is bothering with this odd promotion because of a single donor named Michael Farris, who is both influential in Virgina and screwy as a silly straw. Michael Farris is a firm believer in a notion of "chronic Lyme's disease," an idea that has been thoroughly debunked by the CDC. This is more than silly, its dangerous. People have died due to the "treatments" given to them by quacks and those with loose ethics.

But of course that doesn't stop Romney from pandering to this guy. What's supporting a dangerous delusion in light of some extra help for his floundering campaign? Keeping consistent with his character, he considers a choice between money and people no choice at all.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Being an Artist and Being a Jerk: Two Completely Compatible States of Being

An incident both irritating and upsetting happened in my Literature class earlier today. We were discussing the poet Amiri Baraka, a poet who started out as a Beat artist and transformed into a card carrying radical socialist. Being a black socialist born in the 1930s, one can take an educated guess as to his views on America and white people.

After bringing him up in class, my professor decided to tell what I'm sure she thought would be nothing more than an amusing anecdote. Apparently despite this man having written such lovely sentiments as "the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped,"* the state of New Jersey thought it a grand idea to appoint him the Poet Laureate of New Jersey, a honorary position.

Then 9/11 happened. In response, Baraka wrote the poem "Somebody Blew Up America," graced with such lines as these:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?
Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion
And cracking they sides at the notion*

Naturally, many people called this poem anti-Semitic. He claimed it was only about Israelis and the Israeli government, who he think knew of the attack beforehand.

In other words, he doesn't hate Jews, he just thinks a majority Jewish country run by Jews knew of a terrorist attack that would kill thousands and only thought Jewish lives were worth saving. Indeed, even thought that watching non-Jews die horribly was quality entertainment.  

I'm sure some of his best friends are Jews.

In response to this blood libel based on a lie, the Governor of New Jersey attempted to strip Baraka of his Poet Laureate title, only to find there was no legal way to do so. This fight ended up in court, with the state eventually prevailing by abolishing the post altogether.

Perhaps the professor thought that hearing of New Jersey's self imposed plight would be amusing. I failed to see the humor.

While having a anti-Jewish slur thrown in my face early in the morning wasn't exactly pleasant, what happened next was worse. In reaction to my declaring this guy a nasty bigot spreading lies, other people defended Baraka, including the teacher. You see, Baraka is controversial, and an artist, and a controversial artist. This means that I can't criticize what he writes. Or something. They never got much beyond calling him an artist who is controversial.

It even got to the point where someone said they thought being a good artist meant offending people. To which I responded, "So if I write in large letters in the hallway, 'Jews ain't shit,' am I a good artist?"

The student actually responded, "Yes," but stopped talking after that. Its official folks. Internet trolls are now artists.

It seemed beyond even the professor to comprehend that someone can be an artist and use their art to propagate a horrible message. One that can and should be condemned. 

I was the only person to voice a problem this poem. Would it surprise you that I was the only Jew in that class? I'm just lucky that I am perfectly comfortable arguing a position with everyone else against me, even the teacher. Another person, another Jew could have all too easily found themselves in a position where they heard an anti-Semitic slur tossed off as nothing and then let it slide without comment because they didn't feel comfortable making waves.

Upon reflection, some comments made early in the semester make the behavior of my professor much more understandable. She explained that there were some writers and poets that she just couldn't bear to read no matter how beautiful their writing because she knew they were jerks in real life. Knowledge of an artist's poor behavior tainted all their work for her. So in light of what happened today, if she accepted that Baraka was a bigot, that would mean she could no longer read his poetry. Thus she chose instead to hide under the shield of being "controversial," saving her enjoyment of his work.

It doesn't excuse her actions, but it does explain them. Meanwhile, I will persist in calling a spade a spade, and a bigot a bigot.

*Obtained from the Wikipedia article on Amiri Baraka.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Well, that was unexpected

As all non-under rock dwellers know, the Supreme court today released their decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Healthcare Act. And as far as I know, no one predicated 5-4 with Roberts as the 5th vote.

This is a triumph for the over 40 million of uninsured Americans who will now have guaranteed coverage. And for the millions more denied care because of pre-existing conditions and all the other inhumane excuses insurance companies used to kill and maim the inconveniently ill.

The fact that it was this close at all is a shock and a shame. Virtually all constitutional scholars agree that the ACA was consistent with the Constitution and past Supreme court decisions. Yet many thought the court would strike it down anyways.

The Supreme court is at the edge of an abyss. Its credibility as a non partisan institution is already at the breaking point. I guess Roberts gazed into the abyss, and it gazed back into him. So he tip toed away.

But Alito, Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy are cheerfully waving as they plummet down. Come on in, they cry! The water's fine!

With this in mind, I know full well who I am voting for this November. Its not just about Obama. If the Supreme court goes full Monty partisan, the loss to our country will be incalculable. 

As unimaginable to those like me who grew up in the shadow of Bush vs. Gore, my father speaks wistfully of a time when the Supreme court was as unquestioned and trusted as the air. Lets do everything in our power to bring that back.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Modesty Proposal

If you ask many conservative Christians, the greatest problem facing our country isn't war, poverty, the deficit or even The Muslim Menace™. Its women. 

Specifically, how they dress. There is an epidemic roiling the heart of America, and it is wearing cut off shorts. Everywhere these good men of faith go their eyes are assaulted by women wearing skirts above their shins, sleeves so small you can witness their elbows, and tops so low cut their collar bones are visible. As the proverb goes, these are the times that try men's souls. 

The scope and depth of this societal plague has been expertly cataloged by an online modesty survey here. It asks men the crucial questions of our time: How short is too short? Do only Jezebels wear jeans? And if a boy gets an erection, is it all the girls fault, or just mostly? 

But while good Christians have been fulfilling their holy duties to tell ladies to cover up, I fear we have been neglecting a group in desperate need of help. One that is already constantly struggling with sin. 

I am speaking of the gay man, those who never cease to be vigilant against the rising snake of sin, fearlessly beating it off whenever it rears it head. As has been reiterated elsewhere, men are visual and women are emotional. Women must be mindful of how much they show lest they cause a Brother in Christ to stumble. Men don't because no good Christian woman has ever been attracted to a man's body ever. This all well and true. But how does this help our devout gay man? 

Every trial the straight man faces they encounter double. All day they are taunted by the chiseled abs, mouth watering biceps and tempting thighs of their male peers. Even such sacred spaces for male bonding such as the football field and the locker room offer no respite. The less said about what football shorts do to men's buns the better. 

Add on the fact that even marriage offers no respite for these gay urges, and the torment can become intolerable. Is it any wonder so many of the poor men break, and run off to San Francisco to put glitter on their pants and destroy America? As fellow walkers in faith, it needs to become the Christian duty of men to do all they can to not be a stumbling block. Tuck in those shirts. Keep those sleeves rolled down. No more games of skins vs. shirts. And for God's sake keep those pants up. 

Being good people intent on preventing sin wherever it may appear, I'm confidant once I send my proposal to prominent Christian modesty organizations they'll immediately address these urgent concerns. How could they not, when the need is so clear and the danger so present? 

Any time now. Just you wait.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Brave: Mothers and Daughters

Yesterday my brother and I went to the theater to see the newest Pixar film. Despite some of our trepidations based on the trailers, we were eager to view it. Its Pixar after all. All of their movies have ranged from the excellent to the merely very good(Cars? What Cars movie?).

While this is one that ended up more on the very good end of the scale, there is still much to recommend about the film. "Brave" is centered around the broken relationship between the 13-14 year old Merida and her mother Queen Elinor. As Merida loves nothing more to ride horses and practice impossible archery feats and rock climb, her mother has been reduced to a nagging, correcting presence in her life. One whose words are mostly telling her what she most not do or be in order to become "a lady."

Naturally, this all comes to a head when the issue of Merida marrying comes up. The other three clans in the area have their first born sons all attempt to compete for her hand, but Merida will have none of it. It is in a fight that turns nasty about this that causes Merida to flee into the woods and into the cabin of a witch, promising a spell that can change her mother's mind.

The astute movie goer can of course see that this will lead to the sort of horrible complications that will force Merida and her mother to mend their fences. For spells are always broken by character development.

First, the good. Merida and her mother have a quite real and complex relationship. One that is explored well throughout the movie. Almost every element of the plot is foreshadowed in an intelligent and thoughtful manner.There are a number of well done comedic set pieces, and the animation. Oh lord, the animation. Suffice to say, Pixar's computers have clearly gotten to the point that the only limiters are imagination and expertise.

Now, while there aren't any major stumbling blocks or gaping flaws, there are little things that add up. Pixar, you do your first and likely only movie about a girl, and you make her a princess? Isn't that market a little saturated? Thankfully, it barely has an impact. Also, while there are action scenes that will get your heart pumping, for the most part they are the sort of thing that could have been done easily in live action.

While I could stretch more and add to the list, what is really missing is a je ne sais quoi. This didn't end blowing me away as Walle or Toy Story 3 did. As stated before, it was merely quite good. Which makes it better than 90% of what comes out, so go ahead and see it if you like Pixar, animation, or just well done movies in general.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Unintentionally Revealing: The Ugly Truth About Purity Rings

Recently on the blog Love Joy Feminism, the lovely blog host did a link round-up of dads celebrating and writing about giving their daughters "purity" rings. The particular one I wish to highlight is called Celebrating Another Milestone: Purity Ring for My Daughter.

First, a quick primer. Purity rings are a relatively recent phenomenon, starting in the late 90s to the best of my knowledge. Silver Ring Thing is a good example. The basic premise that daughters need to be abstinent before marriage to have a good, happy life. The ring is supposed to be a symbol and reminder of her promise to "purity." And a promise it is, for the girl in question is only half of the parties present for this contract. Her daddy is the one who slips the band onto her finger, the one who is supposed to protect her purity, and the one who the daughter swears her virginity to until another ring comes on her finger. 

With that in mind, let's take a look at this post. The father in question is celebrating giving his daughter her purity ring, in the same way another parent might after their child had a bar mitzvah. He takes her out to dinner, reads a letter to her for the occasion, then slips on the ring. As explicitly stated in the post, this ring is meant to be replaced only by a wedding ring. He also goes on to say:
It is a reminder for her to pray for her future husband and it also is a reminder that God has in store for her HIS BEST!  She doesn’t have to go prancing around trying to find or settle for second, but know that God knows already the person He has for her.
This alludes to an oft stated assumption that being a virgin is a building block and guarantor of a strong marriage free from strife or divorce. For if God has a chosen path for his daughter that she sticks to, then obviously his plan is for her to be with one man forever. Also quite clear is just how suffused in christian culture the entire purity ring concept is. While they pretended otherwise at times for the sake of getting into public schools, the entire movement is protestant Christianity through and through.

But the most revealing part comes up next. To quote:
DADS: WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE PURITY OF OUR SONS AND DAUGHTERS!  We cannot just hope that they figure all of this out!  And we cannot let Punks come in and destroy in days or weeks or months, what effort we as parents have put into our children for 13-14 years!
While the conviction that children cannot be trusted to guard their purity is one that can certainly be unpacked, the crucial bit is in the last sentence. Daddy is determined to not let "punks" come in and destroy 13-14 of efforts.

Lets spell this out as explicitly as possible. This man is basing the success of his parenting and his judgement of his daughter's character on whether she has sex before the approved time. This is the ugly, logical necessity of the entire concept of purity. For if someone is not pure, than they are corrupt, tainted, wrecked, destroyed.

Taking this man at his word, he would consider all his years of raising his daughter obliterated if she touches a penis before a wedding ring.

In this humble blogger's personal opinion, that is deeply screwed up.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Star Trek and Moral Myopia: The Myth of the Neutral Action

I am a huge Star Trek fan. I grew up on watching every week the trials and travails of the Voyager crew with my mother and sister. When I grew older one of my mother's boyfriends gave her a TV recorded set of the best Next Generation episodes. Even if he stank as a boyfriend, that was pretty sweet. It was only near the end of high school that I started watching Deep Space Nine. It turned out to be my favorite, and continues to be till this day, and likely forevermore.

Like all shows, Star Trek has had its ups and downs. And there is one episode in particular I despise like none other. What are its sins? Is it bad writing, laughable effects, shoddy pacing, infuriating character derailment?

It is none of these. It is evil.

That word is not one I use lightly or frivolously. Furthermore, it is often seen as one of the best episodes of the show by some people. A justification is in order.

The episode in question is from the oft derided "Star Trek: Enterprise." Entitled "Dear Doctor," it employs a narrative device of having the character Doctor Phlox narrate his day to day thoughts and happenings as a letter he is writing to a human friend of his back on the his home world. During the episode, an alien race contacts the vessel and begs the Enterprise for help. Their entire species is dying. Their own doctors being helpless to stop the disease the is afflicting an increasingly large portion of their race, the Valakians have turned to aliens for help.

Captain Archer of course agrees to help. When the crew arrive on the Valakian home world, one of the first things noticed is the Valakians are but one of two sentient species on the planet. The other species are called the Menk. They are unaffected by the disease, and are generally seen as less intelligent and capable than the Valakians. They usually are servants and service workers for the Valakians. Evidence from Phlox's and the other crew mates interactions with them though indicate that the Valakians are underestimating their abilities and intelligence.

The central conflict comes to a head when Phlox discovers that the so called "disease" is a genetic mutation that is increasingly prevalent among the Valakians. He comes up with a cure, but refuses to use it.


Because according to him, the genetic disease means that nature and evolution have destined the Valakians to die, and the Menk to rise up and dominate the planet. After one day of interaction with the Menk, the Doctor concludes they are getting smarter. To cure the Valakians would interfere with their natural evolution. So to death's cold embrace they must go.

That's bad. What's even worse is that Captain Archer agrees with this garbage, citing the old cliche of "not wanting to play god." And thus an entire species is doomed to die painfully by one man. And then the episode even has the temerity to have Archer winkingly cite some sort of "Prime Directive" to not interfere that Starfleet should cook up one day.

Tabling the the fact this episode's understanding of evolutionary biology would be laughable in a less despicable context, this script has a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire concept of the Prime Directive and non-interference. The Prime Directive was Gene Rodenberry's response to the United States believing it had the right to organize the affairs of any country it pleased, famously resulting in such lovely enterprises such as the Vietnam War. The core of the Prime Directive was about formally making note of the dangers in believing you know better than the natives how to run things.

Yet none of this applies to the situation in this episode. The Valakians were begging for help. And they weren't asking for weapons to crush a hated enemy or for technology they didn't know how to handle or understand. They merely desired survival. Rather than Vietnam, this was India getting hit by a tsunami.  

Yet incredibly, this episode is cited by many as one of the few episodes that Enterprise did well, that had complex moral dilemmas and even handed debate.

Now, most of these people are smart enough to defend the unadulterated horse manure that is this episode's take on evolutionary science. Yet defend this episode they do.

This comment from a Star Trek reviewer's website* is fairly representative of the general arguments of the defenders:

The question of the hour is about stakes--on the one hand, many seem to agree that when the extinction of a species is the inevitable outcome of inaction, any moral nuances are rightly cast out in favour of simple human compassion. It sounds alright in those terms, but only because the stakes are so high...the problem is our compassion sometimes blinds us to the larger picture. We see existing as an end unto itself, because, evolutionarily speaking, we want to exist for as long as possible. This isn't a question of correcting the injustice of an agressive alien culture against another or aiding the victims of some isolated natural disaster, we're talking about one crew, one man taking responsibility for the ultimate fate of an entire species, and by proxy an entire civilisation. Becoming extinct by way of your own genes is not "genocide."

What Archer realises, finally, in this episode is that holding up human values an example is one thing, but inflicting them, even upon request, on a scale beyond the comprehension or purview of what any individual can possibly apprehend is hubristic in the extreme.

To quote the ever-wise Picard, "[t]he Prime Directive has many different functions, not the least of which is to protect us. It keeps us from allowing our emotions to overrule our judgment." 

Got that? Preventing an entire sapient species from dying is letting compassion overrule our reason, and to do so is "inflicting" human values on another species, even on request. Because desire for your species not to die is a human value. And of course, would be playing god.

While the conflation of compassion and irrationality is both annoying and distressing, there is a far more fundamental flaw in this reasoning that inspired me to write this post.

The flaw is this: Doing nothing isn't staying above the fray or morally neutral. Doing nothing is as much a choice as choosing to interfere.

Captain Archer pushes a button, an entire race is saved. He does nothing, they are doomed. They are doomed because of a choice he made, even if it was to do nothing but watch. The commenter would have us believe that Archer was refusing to play god. This is only compatible with opting for genocide of an entire species if you believe in the fallacy described above.

Rather than going for the uncertainty of a living and breathing society, Archer prefers the quiet certitude of a tomb.

*Seriously, if you have any interest in Star Trek, read this guy's site. While I intensely disagree with his opinion on this episode, most of his reviews are spot on and are quite thought provoking.