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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Switching sides on belief in a personal God.

By Richard N. Ostling for the Concord Monitor and New Hampshire Patriot

August 10. 2004

Where God is concerned, two blue-blood theology professors floated in opposite directions and passed each other in midair.

The one thinker is Harvard Divinity School's Gordon D. Kaufman, who was raised in the devoutly evangelical Mennonite faith. His father served as president of the Mennonites' oldest U.S. school, Bethel College in Kansas. Following theological study and clergy ordination, Kaufman gradually adopted radical agnosticism and has long since rejected the supernatural, all-powerful and personal God of the Bible.

Oxford University's Alister McGrath went in the opposite direction. As a youth in Northern Ireland, he enthusiastically embraced atheism and Marxism, figuring that believers were "very stupid people." But advanced study in biochemistry and mature reflection caused McGrath to reconsider. Today he's not just a believer but a leading figure in the conservative wing of the Church of England and world Anglicanism.

Kaufman's latest book, "In the Beginning ... Creativity," denies God as a capital-C Creator. He thinks a lowercase and impersonal "creativity," defined as "the coming into being" of all that's new in the cosmos, is "the only proper object of worship, devotion and faith." To Kaufman, religious concepts are mere "creations of the human imagination," though some might retain the noun "God" to symbolize the mysterious creativity. Notably, his manifesto against the biblical God wasn't issued by a secular publisher but by Fortress Press of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a slowly declining mainline Protestant denomination.

McGrath has a new book out, too, and it's something else, a bold broadside aptly summarized in the title: "The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World" (Doubleday). Sounds like wishful thinking, considering the widespread disbelief in Britain and continental Europe and in influential U.S. academic and media circles. McGrath doesn't so much prove the near-demise of atheism as claim that, in principle, the props that made it credible and attractive have been rudely knocked aside. His basic theme is that in past centuries, Western faith squandered its moral stature when Christians ran around killing each other and oppressing dissenters. Back then, atheism seemed to promise human liberation.

Today, of course, churches abhor any hint of coerced faith and have long since embraced full freedom of conscience. Meanwhile, when atheistic Communists or neo-pagan Nazis gained political power in the 20th century, McGrath comments, they proved to be even more bloodthirsty than their misguided Christian predecessors and produced "just as many frauds, psychopaths and careerists." The reasonable conclusion: "It is not of the essence of atheism to be a liberator, nor of religion to be an oppressor."

He brackets the "golden age" of atheism between 1789, the start of France's bitterly anti-clerical revolution, and 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall announced the death of atheism as a European political force. Though Kaufman decided that science had dethroned the God of old, McGrath concluded from studying the history and philosophy of science that things aren't that simple. He realized that the great atheists (Marx, Freud) presupposed atheism rather than proving it. Thus, "the belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God." Impasse. "The grand idea that atheism is the only option for a thinking person has long since passed away." Moreover, McGrath argues, atheism failed in matters of "imagination" and created mere "organizations" instead of the sort of "community" that humans crave, and that religion fosters. Apart from Western Europe, faith is booming.

Still, McGrath maintains a certain respect for his youthful credo. Atheism's past successes showed that "when religion is seen as a threat to the people, it will fail; when it is seen as their friend, it will flourish. Atheism stands in permanent judgment over against arrogant, complacent and superficial Christian churches and leaders."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Rapture Index is:

158 - as of Aug 28, 2006.

I can't help but agree with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show & find that 'arbitarily terrifying'.

Picture Time.

Proof of Evolution as Dogs develop the ability to fly....

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Nukes Breed Nukes," ElBaradei Warns

From Reuters

May 26, 2006

The United States and other major powers who insist on retaining atomic arsenals set an example that encourages others to follow suit and the world may soon confront a vast expansion in nuclear-armed nations, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Thursday.

Mohammed ElBaradei, delivering the commencement address at a prestigious foreign policy school, said it is becoming harder to control the spread of nuclear weapons, despite the international community's best efforts. The speech by the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner is likely to have particular resonance at a time when the United States and other major powers are working to persuade Iran to abandon nuclear activities the West says are aimed at building weapons and Tehran says are only for producing energy.

"Nukes breed nukes. As long as some nations continue to insist that nuclear weapons are essential to their security, other nations will want them. There is no way around this simple truth," ElBaradei told the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University." When it comes to nuclear weapons, we are reaching a fork in the road. Either we must begin moving away from a security system based on nuclear weapons or we should resign ourselves to President (John F.) Kennedy's 1960s prediction of a world with 20 to 30 nuclear weapons states," he said. ElBaradei, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that as recently as a few decades ago, controls on nuclear technology and nuclear material was a sensible strategy for preventing nuclear proliferation.

But "security is no longer as simple as building a wall" and controls aimed at blocking nuclear technology transfers are "no longer enough" in a world in which advanced communications have made it easy to share knowledge, he said. Eventually, efforts to control the spread of such weapons "will only be delaying the inevitable," he predicted. ElBaradei challenged the graduates to help develop an "alternative system of collective security ... that eliminates the need for nuclear deterrence. Only when nuclear weapons states move away from depending on these weapons for their security will the threat of nuclear proliferation by other countries be meaningfully reduced," he said.

He said he did not know what that new security system should look like but suggested that, if the world intensified its efforts to raise living standards in undeveloped countries, "the likelihood of conflict will immediately begin to drop."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Poster Time.
The Best Way to Keep us Safe is to Learn the Truth

by Linda McQuaig for the Toronto Star

June 18, 2006

With all eyes glued on the UN Security Council in February 2003, then U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell laid out Washington's case for invading Iraq — based on top-secret intelligence purporting to show Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. As we now know, Powell would have been just as accurate making the case for the existence of the tooth fairy. The eventual revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq should serve as a constant reminder of the hazard of simply accepting at face value evidence gathered from the shadowy world of intelligence sources. Such evidence is notoriously unreliable, coming from unidentified sources whose knowledge or motives are unknown, or who may have simply confirmed "information" put to them by interrogators in order to end a particularly excruciating bout of torture.

And yet Canadian immigration law allows our authorities to use such evidence — unchallenged — to detain indefinitely an immigrant or refugee claimant they believe might pose a security threat. The Harper government last week defended the government's right to detain people on immigration "security certificates," arguing before the Supreme Court that such sweeping powers are necessary to protect Canadians against terrorism. Five Muslim men have been held in Canada under these certificates for the past few years. But surely the best means of protecting ourselves, not to mention our democracy and the rights of the accused, lies in learning the truth.

The system of security certificates makes it very difficult to learn the truth. Under the system, the accused are tried in secret courts. Neither they nor their lawyers are permitted to know the evidence against them, making it impossible for them to challenge this evidence, whatever it might be. Criminal lawyer Marlys Edwardh notes that this means the judge must weigh the evidence, without any way of knowing the weaknesses in the government's case. The government may, for instance, argue that an accused was at an Al Qaeda training camp at a particular time. How can the judge challenge this, asks Edwardh: "What can he say: Are you sure?"

Meanwhile, the accused is denied the opportunity to present evidence that may show he was fully employed in Canada at the time and, therefore, couldn't have been at the training camp. It's often asserted that, in these cases, there's a clash between the goal of protecting civil liberties and the goal of ensuring the safety of Canadians. But wrong information about terrorist threats does nothing to ensure our safety. Indeed, wrong information can lead us to confuse real and imagined terrorist threats — with possibly dangerous consequences. Is there any evidence that the American people are safer because they invaded Iraq, out of the false belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? If Canadians join U.S. wars — prodded by fears of terrorist plots that may not even be true — it's hard to see how this makes us safer. It might well do the opposite.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Church schools told not to discriminate in employment

From Ekklesia - 09/03/06

In a landmark ruling church schools have been told they may not to reserve key posts for teachers from their own denomination. An employment tribunal has found in favour of a maths teacher who was turned down for a post at his school because he was not a Roman Catholic reports the Scotsman. David McNab, who is an atheist, has been a maths teacher at St Paul's RC High School in Pollok, Glasgow, since 1991.

But when he applied for the post of acting principal teacher of pastoral care 18 months ago, he was told by the headteacher that he could not be considered for the post as he is not a Catholic. Mr McNab was yesterday awarded £2,000 after the tribunal found he had been "unlawfully discriminated against ... on the grounds of his religion", in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Scotsman reports. Mr McNab said that he was "very happy and elated" at the judgment.

The tribunal had heard that the school had a system of "reserved posts", such as headteacher or guidance teacher, which could be filled only by candidates who were approved by the Catholic Church. In its ruling yesterday, the tribunal found that the system was not justifiable in law. Church schools often advertise key posts with the requirement that candidates have a Christian faith. Some go further, and specify that sympathy is required with a particular denomination.

Mr McNab, who is currently off work due to stress, said he was treated "like a second-class citizen" when he was told he could not apply for the job. Yesterday, he said: "I'm very glad that the law has been seen to apply to everybody universally. I hope this case brings the system of reserved posts to an end." Jonathan Cornwell, Mr McNab's solicitor, said: "I'm happy that the tribunal has made the right decision."

The ruling comes at a time when church schools are facing growing pressure from both inside and outside churches to tackle their discriminatory admissions and employment policies. The Archbishop of Canterbury will next week give a keynote address at a major conference on church schools, and address the Church of England’s position on religious education, teaching as a vocation, and school admissions policies.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

My Favourite Movies: Gladiator

I have been a fan of sword and sandal epics since my Father took me to see films such as Ben Hur, Cleopatra & even El Cid. Gladiator was most certainly in that mould and although not Russell Crowe’s biggest fan I liked this movie very much. The opening battle scene was one of the best I’ve seen in ages and the later scenes in the Coliseum where quite frankly outstanding. Initially I did think that the middle of the film, full of politicking, was a bit dull but I have grown to like that too. The central characters are well done but watch the secondary characters, its worth the effort.

Anyway – the story is a fairly basic one, that of revenge. Maximus, a celebrated Roman general is betrayed and apparently killed on the orders of the son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. After failing to save his family, Maximus is sold as a slave and becomes a fearsome gladiator. As his fame and fighting skills grow he finally ends up in Rome to face the man who destroyed his life.

Thinking about things a bit more deeply – as is my want – it came to me that I tend to like films where an individual or small group fights against seemingly impossible odds but ultimately triumph(s) due to bloody hard work and raw talent…. I wonder what that says about my deep psyche.

If you haven’t seen this film why not rent it for a wet Sunday afternoon. Oh, and get some popcorn in…

Friday, August 25, 2006

Why Doesn't America Believe in Evolution?

By Jeff Hecht for New Scientist

Sunday 20 August 2006

Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false? This simple question is splitting America apart, with a growing proportion thinking that we did not descend from an ancestral ape. A survey of 32 European countries, the US and Japan has revealed that only Turkey is less willing than the US to accept evolution as fact. Religious fundamentalism, bitter partisan politics and poor science education have all contributed to this denial of evolution in the US, says Jon Miller of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who conducted the survey with his colleagues. "The US is the only country in which [the teaching of evolution] has been politicised," he says. "Republicans have clearly adopted this as one of their wedge issues. In most of the world, this is a non-issue."

Miller's report makes for grim reading for adherents of evolutionary theory. Even though the average American has more years of education than when Miller began his surveys 20 years ago, the percentage of people in the country who accept the idea of evolution has declined from 45 in 1985 to 40 in 2005 (Science, vol 313, p 765). That's despite a series of widely publicised advances in genetics, including genetic sequencing, which shows strong overlap of the human genome with those of chimpanzees and mice. "We don't seem to be going in the right direction," Miller says. There is some cause for hope. Team member Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, finds solace in the finding that the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution has dropped from 48 to 39 in the same time. Meanwhile the fraction of Americans unsure about evolution has soared, from 7 per cent in 1985 to 21 per cent last year. "That is a group of people that can be reached," says Scott.

The main opposition to evolution comes from fundamentalist Christians, who are much more abundant in the US than in Europe. While Catholics, European Protestants and so-called mainstream US Protestants consider the biblical account of creation as a metaphor, fundamentalists take the Bible literally, leading them to believe that the Earth and humans were created only 6000 years ago. Ironically, the separation of church and state laid down in the US constitution contributes to the tension. In Catholic schools, both evolution and the strict biblical version of human beginnings can be taught. A court ban on teaching creationism in public schools, however, means pupils can only be taught evolution, which angers fundamentalists, and triggers local battles over evolution.

These battles can take place because the US lacks a national curriculum of the sort common in European countries. However, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind act is instituting standards for science teaching, and the battles of what they should be has now spread to the state level. Miller thinks more genetics should be on the syllabus to reinforce the idea of evolution. American adults may be harder to reach: nearly two-thirds don't agree that more than half of human genes are common to chimpanzees. How would these people respond when told that humans and chimps share 99 per cent of their genes?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

U.S. Losing Terror War because of Iraq, Poll Says

by Bob Deans for the Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)

June 30, 2006

WASHINGTON - The United States is losing its fight against terrorism and the Iraq war is the biggest reason why, more than eight of ten American terrorism and national security experts concluded in a poll released yesterday. One participant in the survey, a former CIA official who described himself as a conservative Republican, said the war in Iraq has provided global terrorist groups with a recruiting bonanza, a valuable training ground and a strategic beachhead at the crossroads of the oil-rich Persian Gulf and Turkey, the traditional land bridge linking the Middle East to Europe. "The war in Iraq broke our back in the war on terror," said the former official, Michael Scheuer, the author of Imperial Hubris, a popular book highly critical of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism efforts.

"It has made everything more difficult and the threat more existential." Scheuer, a former counterterrorism expert with the CIA, is one of more than 100 national security and terrorism analysts who were surveyed this spring for the nonscientific poll by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research group headed by John Podesta, who served as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. Of the experts queried, 45 identified themselves as liberals, 40 said they were moderates and 31 called themselves conservatives. The pollsters then weighted the responses so that the percentage results reflected one-third participation by each group.

Asked whether the United States is "winning the war on terror," 84 percent said no and 13 percent answered yes. Asked whether the war in Iraq is helping or hurting the global antiterrorism campaign, 87 percent answered that it was undermining those efforts. The public gives Bush higher marks in the anti-terrorism effort than the policy experts. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken this past Thursday through Sunday, 57 percent of respondents said America’s efforts to fight terrorism are going well; 41 percent said it is not going well. In the same poll, 59 percent said the country is safer from terrorism today than it was before the Sept. 11 attack, while just 33 percent said the country is less safe. The poll was taken in March and April, before two significant milestones in Iraq: the formation of a new government and the killing by U.S. bombs of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was the top al-Qaida agent in Iraq. It surveyed 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The Iraq war was last year’s deadliest, according to Yearbook 2006, the annual evaluation of the world’s conflicts by Sweden’s Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The peace researchers said the number of wars has hit a new low, but that conflict is changing and free-for-all violence in places such as the Congo defies their definitions. "To say conflict as a whole is in decline, I could not draw that conclusion," said Caroline Holmqvist of the institute. The newly released Yearbook 2006 draws from data maintained by Sweden’s Uppsala University. It reports the number of active major armed conflicts worldwide stood at 17 in 2005, the lowest point in a steep slide from a high of 31 in 1991.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Poster Time.
Karl Marx, Religion, and Economics

From Austin Cline for About.Com

According to Karl Marx, religion is like other social institutions in that it is dependent upon the material and economic realities in a given society. It has no independent history; instead it is the creature of productive forces. As Marx wrote, “The religious world is but the reflex of the real world.” According to Marx, religion can only be understood in relation to other social systems and the economic structures of society. In fact, religion is only dependent upon economics, nothing else — so much so that the actual religious doctrines are almost irrelevant. This is a functionalist interpretation of religion: understanding religion is dependent upon what social purpose religion itself serves, not the content of its beliefs. Marx’s opinion is that religion is an illusion that provides reasons and excuses to keep society functioning just as it is.

Much as capitalism takes our productive labor and alienates us from its value, religion takes our highest ideals and aspirations and alienates us from them, projecting them onto an alien and unknowable being called a god. Marx has three reasons for disliking religion. First, it is irrational — religion is a delusion and a worship of appearances that avoids recognizing underlying reality. Second, religion negates all that is dignified in a human being by rendering them servile and more amenable to accepting the status quo. In the preface to his doctoral dissertation, Marx adopted as his motto the words of the Greek hero Prometheus who defied the gods to bring fire to humanity: “I hate all gods,” with addition that they “do not recognize man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity.”

Third, religion is hypocritical. Although it might profess valuable principles, it sides with the oppressors. Jesus advocated helping the poor, but the Christian church merged with the oppressive Roman state, taking part in the enslavement of people for centuries. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church preached about heaven, but acquired as much property and power as possible. Martin Luther preached the ability of each individual to interpret the Bible, but sided with aristocratic rulers and against peasants who fought against economic and social oppression. According to Marx, this new form of Christianity, Protestantism, was a production of new economic forces as early capitalism developed. New economic realities required a new religious superstructure by which it could be justified and defended.

Marx’s most famous statement about religion comes from a critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

This is often misunderstood, perhaps because the full passage is rarely used. In some ways, the quote is presented dishonestly because saying “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature...” leaves out that it is also the “heart of a heartless world.” This is more a critique of society that has become heartless and is even a partial validation of religion that it tries to become its heart. In spite of his obvious dislike of and anger towards religion, Marx did not make religion the primary enemy of workers and communists. Had Marx regarded religion as a more serious enemy, he would have devoted more time to it. Marx is saying that religion is meant to create illusory fantasies for the poor. Economic realities prevent them from finding true happiness in this life, so religion tells them this is OK because they will find true happiness in the next life. Marx is not entirely without sympathy: people are in distress and religion does provide solace, just as people who are physically injured receive relief from opiate-based drugs.

The problem is that opiates fail to fix a physical injury — you only forget your pain and suffering. This can be fine, but only if you are also trying to solve the underlying causes of the pain. Similarly, religion does not fix the underlying causes of people’s pain and suffering — instead, it helps them forget why they are suffering and causes them to look forward to an imaginary future when the pain will cease instead of working to change circumstances now. Even worse, this “drug” is being administered by the oppressors who are responsible for the pain and suffering.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Is US the World's Policeman or an Empire?

by Ted Rall for Common Dreams

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

NEW YORK -- Are we the world's policeman? Or are we an empire? The rest of the world has already made up its mind about us. The president of the Pew Research Center, whose latest poll of foreigners finds they hate the United Stats more than ever, says: "Obviously, when you get many more people saying that the U.S. [is as much of] a threat to world peace as...Iran, it's a measure of how much [the war in Iraq] is sapping good will to the United States." But we Americans remain deeply divided over American values and intentions, and it's high time that we got our story straight.

In 1975 Philip Agee published his explosive memoir of his career as a CIA operative, Inside the Company. The former black ops specialist provided proof for what critics had long suspected, that the United States government had assassinated popularly elected foreign leaders and propped up brutal right-wing dictatorships in countries such as Ecuador, Uruguay, Mexico and Argentina throughout the '60s and '70s. Published in the wake of Watergate and the forced resignation of Richard Nixon, disgust for the dirty dealings described by Agee contributed to a reformist wave that fed Jimmy Carter's successful 1976 bid for the presidency.

Upon taking office Carter declared "the soul of our foreign policy" to be concern for human rights. Carter recalled in a 1997 interview: "I announced that human rights would be a cornerstone or foundation of our entire foreign policy. So I officially designated every U.S. ambassador on earth to be my personal human rights representative, and to have the embassy be a haven for people who suffered from abuse by their own government. And every time a foreign leader met with me, they knew that human rights in their country would be on the agenda. And I think that this was one of the seminal changes that was brought to U.S. policy. And although in the first few weeks of his term my successor Ronald Reagan disavowed this policy and sent an emissary down to Argentina and to Chile and to Brazil--to the military dictators--and said, 'The human rights policy of Carter is over,' it was just a few months before he saw that the American people supported this human rights policy and that it was good for his administration. So after that he became a strong protector of human rights as well."

The media and the public interpreted Carter's human rights-based foreign policy as welcome, radical, and sweeping. There were worrisome inconsistencies: Carter's State Department continued to arm and finance the violent dictators of Haiti, the Philippines and Iran. Nevertheless, the CIA was subjected to budget cuts and Congressional oversight. Subsequent U.S. military involvement in Panama, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were wholly or in significant part marketed as attempts to liberate the oppressed and protect human rights. Carter and Reagan convinced Americans of all political stripes that defending the helpless, stopping genocide and overthrowing tyrants were our country's basic duties. We still do. Even though 63 percent of Americans say they approve of their own government's use of torture, 86 percent continue to believe that "promoting and defending human rights in other countries" as a U.S. foreign policy goal is "important." An August 2002 Investor's Business Daily/Christian Science Monitor poll found that 81 percent think that "the impact the U.S. has on the rest of the world [on] democratic values and human rights" is a positive one. If we're so nice, why do they hate us so much? The trouble with putting human rights first is that we have do it all the time, in every case, even when it costs us economically. Integrity requires doing what is right even--especially--when it hurts.

Before Jimmy Carter, American foreign policy was a straightforward and cynical realpolitik. We fought in South Korea and South Vietnam as if we were moving pieces on a Cold War chessboard instead of blasting children to bits; the despotic regimes we defended there were more brutal than their enemies. Afterwards, we became hypocrites. We went into Somalia, which controlled a strategic port of entry for oil tankers, but not Rwanda, which had no significant natural resources. We backed Saddam Hussein when Iraq granted lucrative oil concessions to politically connected multinationals and attacked him when he didn't. A true human rights-based foreign policy would require "regime change" warfare against the biggest evildoers in the world, including those willing to do business with us. What we have now is a Chinese menu pick-one-from-column-A-and-one-from-column-B mishmash. We do whatever we want, then come up with a justification--human rights, WMDs, imminent danger--after the fact.

People liked us better when we didn't pretend to be nice.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

This is the (Post) Modern World……

I’ve been thinking for some time now about what it means to be ‘modern’. What is actually meant by modern, what the heck is post-modern and just when did the modern world start?

Some years ago when I was settling on a University course I was keen to study History (one of my many intellectual passions) but couldn’t decide on whether to study Ancient History or Modern History – both of which interest me for different reasons. One of the things I found rather odd was that no University seemed to agree on just what Ancient and especially Modern History actually meant. One course, I think at Coventry University split Ancient & Modern at the point of the Fall of the Roman Empire and I thought – hold on - ‘Modern’ History began in 476AD? Personally I would have placed it just a bit later than that. Then I got my thinking hat on… just when did I think ‘Modern’ History did start?

So I mused. My first thought was August 1945. Why? Because it heralded the beginning of the Atomic Age with the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Then I thought that maybe 1945 is just too recent. My next thought was 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic which was a major blow to Victorian confidence later shattered by the First World War – things were certainly never the same after that. Going back a bit further I thought of the American Civil War (1861-64) which was arguably the first fully industrialised war. Of course a huge event in the previous century was the Industrial Revolution (around 1750) which changed the course of the world forever. Could that be the start of the ‘Modern’ age? I think that it’s a pretty good candidate. Finally, going back even further, I thought of the Italian Renaissance. Standing as it does between the Medieval world of the Dark Ages and what certainly started to look like a world we would recognise with International Banking, the beginnings of Capitalism, the Nation State taking precedence over the Church and the first forays into what we consider to be science. I certainly couldn’t bring myself to go back any further than the 15th century though and still call it anything like ‘modern’ times.

What do you think? When did we arrive in the Modern Age and what are your reasons for thinking so?
Gates Breaks Ranks with Attack on US AIDS Policy

by Sarah Boseley for the Guardian

August 15, 2006

Bill and Melinda Gates came off the political fence yesterday and backed key causes of Aids campaigners, criticising the abstinence policies advocated by the US government and calling for more rights for women and help for sex workers.

Making the keynote speech of the opening session of the 16th International Aids conference in Toronto, Canada, the Microsoft billionaire and his wife spoke with passion and commitment about the social changes necessary to stop the spread of HIV/Aids. The so-called ABC programme - abstain, be faithful and use a condom - has saved many lives, Mr Gates told the conference of more than 20,000 delegates. But he said that for many at the highest risk of infection, ABC had its limits. "Abstinence is often not an option for poor women and girls who have no choice but to marry at an early age. Being faithful will not protect a woman whose partner is not faithful. And using condoms is not a decision that a woman can make by herself; it depends on a man.

"We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women. This is true whether the woman is a faithful married mother of small children or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives or what she does, a woman should never need her partner's permission to save her own life." The Gates Foundation is funding research into microbicides - gels or barrier creams that a woman can use before sex and that could destroy the virus.

Mrs Gates called for an end to the stigma that affects those with HIV. "Stigma makes it easier for political leaders to stand in the way of saving lives," she said, in an attack on some African leaders influenced by the pro-abstinence agenda of the Bush government and the Christian fundamentalist right in the US. "In some countries with widespread Aids epidemics, leaders have declared the distribution of condoms immoral, ineffective or both. Some have argued that condoms do not protect against HIV, but in fact help spread it. This is a serious obstacle to ending Aids ... If you oppose the distribution of condoms, something is more important to you than saving lives," she said.

The promotion of abstinence is a key policy of George Bush's $15bn (£7.9bn) five-year President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar). By law, 33% of funding must be spent on policies that promote abstinence outside of marriage.The UN special envoy for HIV/Aids to Africa, Stephen Lewis, accused the Bush government of neo-colonialism. He has given his backing to US Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who has introduced legislation to get the abstinence-first rule overturned. "No government in the western world has the right to dictate policy to African governments around the way in which they structure their response to the pandemic," he said. Ms Lee, one of the chief authors of the Pepfar legislation, said she had the backing of 80 members of Congress and 70 non-governmental Aids organisations.

"For women, the abstinence-until-marriage policies make no sense when they face gender discrimination, violence and rape and can't control their own bodies," she said. Jodi Jacobson, executive director of the Centre for Health and Gender Equity in the US, said that in some African countries abstinence policies were absorbing much more than 33% of Pepfar's prevention funding. "In Nigeria nearly 70% went to abstinence-until-marriage policies. In Tanzania, the newest grant is 95% on abstinence and be faithful programmes for youth aged 15-24," she said.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Science versus religion? No contest

by Ian Tattersall for Natural History Magazine

April, 2002

Why do some (only some) of those with profoundly felt religious beliefs feel threatened by aspects of the very science that has brought them the material comfort and security they appear happy to accept? Presumably it is because they think that in some sense, scientific and religious beliefs are in conflict. Nothing, though, could be further from the truth. Science and religion deal in totally different forms of knowledge. Religions seek ultimate truth and do so in a variety of ways. But no really honest scientist would claim to be doing anything like the same thing. Science is a matter of honing our perceptions of ourselves and of the world around us, of producing an increasingly accurate description of our physical and biological environments and how they work. What science emphatically is not is an absolutist system of belief. Rather, it is constantly subject to rearrangement and change as our collective knowledge increases. How can we make progress in science if what we believe today cannot be shown tomorrow to be somehow wrong or at least incomplete? Religious knowledge is in principle eternal, but scientific knowledge is by its very nature provisional.

Being human, some scientists clearly like to bask in an aura of authoritativeness, and certainly nothing is more intimidating to the average person than the stereotypical image of a white-coated figure covering a blackboard with incomprehensible symbols. But in actual fact, scientists are in pursuit of knowledge about mundane realities and are not in the business of revealing timeless truths. And because science is self-correcting, its practitioners can often find themselves pursuing blind alleys.

Some scientists who dispute Darwinian theory apparently do not understand or accept this distinction between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge. Interestingly, many such people are involved in the physical sciences and engineering, areas in which hypotheses tend to be more directly testable than are hypotheses in biology. Indeed, intelligent design, which is offered as an alternative to evolution by natural selection, is essentially an engineering concept. But just look at nature with an engineer's eyes: undoubtedly it works, but this does not mean that organisms are optimized in the way that an intelligent engineer would strive to ensure. There is no better way to illustrate this than by considering our own much-vaunted species, Homo sapiens. As a result of our upright, bipedal posture, we surfer a huge catalogue of woes, including slipped disks, fallen arches, wrenched knees, hernias, and aching necks. No engineer, given the opportunity to design human beings from the ground up, would ever dream of confecting a jury-rigged body plan such as ours. But our innumerable afflictions can be understood as the consequence of adapting an ancestral four-legged body to a new, bipedal lifestyle.

Rather like the myriad infuriating versions of Windows, we humans have been cobbled together from preexisting components. Of course, there may be upsides to this, too. Thus I would guess that our extraordinary human consciousness results not from any specific structures we have acquired but rather from the complex accretionary history of our brain and its consequent untidy nature. Artificial intelligence--specifically because it is engineered--is unlikely ever to match our own strange but unique brand of smarts.

Given the current social climate and the unease that science often engenders, scientists would do well to insist on educating students better about what the profession actually involves. For if our young people think of science as monolithic and authoritarian, they are likely to have excessively high expectations for it and to be disappointed by the inevitable cases in which scientific hypotheses turn out to be wrong. Evolutionary theory is deficient because it is "just a hypothesis"? If so, then we might as well throw out all of science, for the same is true of all scientific knowledge.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Britons Tire of Cruel, Vulgar US: Poll

by Agence France Presse

July 3, 2006

People in Britain view the United States as a vulgar, crime-ridden society obsessed with money and led by an incompetent president whose Iraq policy is failing, according to a newspaper poll. The United States is no longer a symbol of hope to Britain and the British no longer have confidence in their transatlantic cousins to lead global affairs, according to the poll published in The Daily Telegraph.

The YouGov poll found that 77 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the US is "a beacon of hope for the world". As Americans prepared to celebrate the 230th anniversary of their independence on Tuesday, the poll found that only 12 percent of Britons trust them to act wisely on the global stage. This is half the number who had faith in the Vietnam-scarred White House of 1975. A massive 83 percent of those questioned said that the United States doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks. With much of the worst criticism aimed at the US adminstration, the poll showed that 70 percent of Britons like Americans a lot or a little.

US President George W. Bush fared significantly worse, with just one percent rating him a "great leader" against 77 percent who deemed him a "pretty poor" or "terrible" leader. More than two-thirds who offered an opinion said America is essentially an imperial power seeking world domination. And 81 per cent of those who took a view said President George W Bush hypocritically championed democracy as a cover for the pursuit of American self-interests. US policy in Iraq was similarly derided, with only 24 percent saying they felt that the US military action there was helping to bring democracy to the country. A spokesman for the American embassy said that the poll's findings were contradicted by its own surveys.

"We question the judgment of anyone who asserts the world would be a better place with Saddam still terrorizing his own nation and threatening people well beyond Iraq's borders," the paper quoted the unnamed spokesman as saying. "With respect to the poll's assertions about American society, we bear some of the blame for not successfully communicating America's extraordinary dynamism. But frankly, so do you (the British press)."

In answer to other questions, a majority of the Britons questions described Americans as uncaring, divided by class, awash in violent crime, vulgar, preoccupied with money, ignorant of the outside world, racially divided, uncultured and in the most overwhelming result (90 percent of respondents) dominated by big business.

[I actually blame quite a few of these beliefs on the American shows we see on our TV screens. If they're not crimes shows they're horrid 'reality TV shows that are designed to show people in the bad light.]

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Poster Time.
Equipose: Balancing Skepticism and Objectivity

From Austin Cline for About.Com

Being skeptical means engaging claims critically and with doubts. Being objective means not pre-judging a claim and allowing for the possibility of coming to accept it as true, if good enough reasons are provided. People should be both skeptical and objective, but it's possible for them to come into conflict if one isn't careful. In the January / February 2006 Skeptical Inquirer, David Koepsell writes:

An initial standpoint of objectivity is central to the skeptical approach. In research and medical ethics, we call this standpoint “equipoise” (Macrina 2000).

Equipoise means beginning one’s research, investigation, or diagnosis without bias. Equipoise is essential so that the investigation can be pursued adequately, as bias can influence data acquisition. If an investigator begins acquiring data with an aim toward finding something in particular, then one is apt to discard some data, or misinterpret data, even potentially unconsciously, in order to confirm one’s hypothesis. There are numerous historical examples of how a lack of equipoise can influence data collection, and has done so sometimes disastrously.

Unfortunately, this sort of problem occurs without one even realizing it. Of course people have beliefs they want to be true — it’s rare that people want to be wrong, after all. This is why the scientific method relies so heavily on peer review: we may seek out confirming evidence while ignoring data that counts against our beliefs, but our peers may not. Our peers may see what we don’t see.

Of course, equipoise requires an attitude of non-dogmatism. The only thing we are dogmatic about as skeptics and scientists is the method of the sciences itself. This method necessarily begins with doubt, so that we begin a scientific investigation without a presupposition about its outcome. Skeptics or scientists who set out with the assumption that a particular thing is impossible must be open to having that assumption falsified. A dogmatic belief that a particular phenomenon is impossible is itself unscientific, because falsifiability is one of the cornerstones of scientific hypothesis. Thus, a true scientist and a good investigator begins with an objective standpoint, where he or she may have any original assumptions proven wrong by the data.

It’s easy and perhaps common for skepticism to become a bit too dogmatic about some phenomena being impossible. Given how much time has been spent on testing some of them, this can be quite understandable. Just how often do we need to look at astrology or psychics again? Nevertheless, investigators need to try to be objective and fair. Equipoise does not mean utter agnosticism. Most scientists agree that faster-than-light travel, for instance, is impossible due to well-tested and understood laws of nature. Thus, if someone claims to have invented a faster-than-light engine for space travel, scientists are rightly skeptical. Investigators of any phenomenon should be guided in their assumptions by already well-established laws of nature. So far, the laws of nature have been helpful methods of prediction, control, and understanding of the world and its forces and ought not to be lightly cast aside.

It is understandable and preferable, therefore, not to remain completely agnostic about those well established laws. On the other hand, there have been times when old assumptions about the laws of nature have required refinement and, rarely, abandonment. Therefore, our initial skepticism about claims that contradict well-established laws of nature is understandable, but is not final when we approach a phenomenon for investigation. We cannot simply dismiss such claims, despite our skepticism, and must therefore ensure our equipoise when investigating claims that seem counterintuitive or supernatural. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect: although one may be very skeptical at first, that skepticism must be tempered by the willingness to change one’s mind later on. Being skeptical and open-minded at the same time isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Book Meme

I don’t normally ‘do’ memes… but how could I resist one on books?

One book that changed your life?

Whilst I can’t think of any single book that affected my life the way the question implies there are a few books that have heavily influenced my life – or at least my beliefs. They are 1984 by George Orwell (which helped to shape my politics) and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (which confirmed my belief in Evolution and bolstered my growing atheism).

One book that you have read more than once?

I tend not to read books more than once, even the good ones. I just haven’t got the time & there are SO many other books yet to read. However, I have read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife & The Amber Spyglass) twice so far and intend to read them again. They are some of the best books I’ve ever read.

One book you would want on a desert island?

The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Enough reading for years & years.

One book that made you laugh?

I don’t read ‘funny’ books as I’ve discovered that book humour doesn’t really work for me so I drew a blank on this one.

One book that made you cry?

Some books have made me sad (at least in parts) because I do tend to get attached to the characters if they’re drawn well. I can’t remember actually crying whilst reading a book though.

One book you wish had been written?

Some years ago I read a superb fantasy novel called The Werewolves of London by Brian Stableford. In it several of the characters were trying to acquire a book called The True History of the World. The book held the secrets of what is really going on. How the world was created and what the plans of its creators are. For years I wanted to find that book & wished that it was real. [waits for comments about The Bible – grin].

One book you wish had never been written?

I’ll probably get shot down in flames for this – and I guarantee some eye-rolling at least when I say The Bible. The world would certainly be a different place without it and arguably a better one too.

One book you are currently reading?

‘One’ book? Yeah right. Anyway, I’m reading The Magic Goes Away Collection by Larry Niven. But I’m also reading a history book on Witchcraft, a biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, a book on Network Security, a book on Anthropology and a book by Che Guevara (amongst others).

One book you have been meaning to read?

Lots. I have a huge backlog of books yet to read and it can be quite a task deciding what to read next. But if I have to pick one….. it would be The Carnival of Destruction by Brian Stableford. It’s that third book in a trilogy and took me several months of tracking down on the Internet to find it as its out of print. Funnily the other two books were both in print. Go figure.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Just Finished Reading: The Sundering by Walter Jon Williams

This is the middle book in the Dread Empires Fall trilogy [have you noticed that everything seems to be a trilogy these days?]

Taking place in the far, far future it continues the story of the slide into chaos and civil war of the 10,000 year old Empire of the Shaa. With the death of the last of the galactic ruling race a power vacuum is created that some other alien races are all too eager to fill. The Terrans in particular have other ideas and the ensuing arguments soon degenerate into a shooting war. Two heroes emerge out of the chaos – Lord Gareth Martinez, a despised provincial Peer and the Lady Sula, a woman with a mysterious background.

I really enjoyed the beginning and end of this book. Unfortunately it did sag rather a lot in the middle. The first third [chocked full of space battles] concentrated on the exploits of Martinez as he reshaped the hopelessly outdated tactics of the loyalist fleet, the end third concentrated on Sula as she learnt the art of armed resistance to the capitals new occupying power. The middle third concentrated far too much on the Empires internal politics and the love lives of the main characters. It wasn’t awful, but it was pretty boring. However, the other two thirds more than made up for this shortcoming.

As a sociologist [by training] I’m always interested in the construction of alien or future societies. Here Williams appears to have written the British Empire ‘large’ with tales of Peerage and patronage. Not exactly radical but it works quite well in context. Not a bad book and I’m certainly looking forward to part three – but not the best thing Williams has written to date.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The Way Americans Like Their War

by Robert Fisk for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

June 3, 2006

Could Haditha be just the tip of the mass grave? The corpses we have glimpsed, the grainy footage of the cadavers and the dead children; could these be just a few of many? Does the handiwork of the United States' army of the slums go further? I remember clearly the first suspicions I had that murder most foul might be taking place in our name in Iraq. I was in the Baghdad mortuary, counting corpses, when one of the city's senior medical officials, an old friend, told me of his fears. "Everyone brings bodies here," he said. "But when the Americans bring bodies in, we are instructed that under no circumstances are we ever to do post-mortems. We were given to understand that this had already been done. Sometimes we'd get a piece of paper like this one with a body." And here the man handed me a U.S. military document showing with the hand-drawn outline of a man's body and the words "trauma wounds." What kind of trauma is now being experienced in Iraq? Just who is doing the mass killing? Who is dumping so many bodies on garbage heaps? After Haditha, we are going to reshape our suspicions.

It's no good saying "a few bad apples." All occupation armies are corrupted. But do they all commit war crimes? The Algerians are still uncovering the mass graves left by the French paras who liquidated whole villages. We know of the rapist-killers of the Russian army in Chechnya. We have all heard of Bloody Sunday. The Israelis sat and watched while their proxy Lebanese militia butchered and eviscerated its way through 1,700 Palestinians. And of course the words My Lai are now uttered again. Yes, the Nazis were much worse. And the Japanese. And the Croatian Ustashi. But this is us. This is our army. These young soldiers are our representatives in Iraq. And they have innocent blood on their hands.

I suspect part of the problem is that we never really cared about Iraqis, which is why we refused to count their dead. Once the Iraqis turned upon the army of occupation with their roadside bombs and suicide cars, they became Arab "gooks," the evil sub-humans whom the Americans once identified in Vietnam. Get a president to tell us that we are fighting evil and one day we will wake to find that a child has horns, a baby has cloven feet. Remind yourself these people are Muslims and they can all become little Mohamed Attas. Killing a roomful of civilians is only a step further from all those promiscuous air strikes that we are told kill 'terrorists" but which all too often turn out to be a wedding party or -- as in Afghanistan -- a mixture of "terrorists" and children or, as we are soon to hear, no doubt, "terrorist children."

In a way, we reporters are also to blame. Unable to venture outside Baghdad -- or around Baghdad itself -- Iraq's vastness has fallen under a thick, all-consuming shadow. We might occasionally notice sparks in the night -- a Haditha or two in the desert -- but we remain meekly cataloguing the numbers of "terrorists" supposedly scored in remote corners of Mesopotamia. For fear of the insurgent's knife, we can no longer investigate. And the Americans like it that way. I think it becomes a habit, this sort of thing. Already the horrors of Abu Ghraib are shrugged away. It was abuse, not torture. And then up pops a junior officer in the United States charged for killing an Iraqi army general by stuffing him upside down in a sleeping bag and sitting on his chest. And again, it gets few headlines. Who cares if another Iraqi bites the dust? Aren't they trying to kill our boys who are out there fighting terror.

For who can be held to account when we regard ourselves as the brightest, the most honorable of creatures, doing endless battle with the killers of Sept. 11 or July 7 because we love our country and our people -- but not other people -- so much. And so we dress ourselves up as Galahads, yes as Crusaders, and we tell those whose countries we invade that we are going to bring them democracy. I can't help wondering today how many of the innocents slaughtered in Haditha took the opportunity to vote in the Iraqi elections -- before their "liberators" murdered them.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

My favourite places: Alnwick Castle

Alnwick Castle is a castle and stately home in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. Yves de Vescy, Baron of Alnwick, erected the first parts of the castle in 1096. It was built to defend England's northern border against the Scottish invasions and border reivers and it has been owned by the Percy family, the Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland since 1309. The first Percy lord of Alnwick restored the castle and the Abbot's Tower, the Middle Gateway and the Constable's Tower survive from this period.

The 6th Earl of Northumberland carried out renovations in the 16th century. In the second half of the 18th century Robert Adam carried out many alterations. The interiors were largely in a Strawberry Hill gothic style which was not at all typical of his work, which was usually neoclassical. According to the official website a large amount of Adam's work survives, but little or none of it remains in the principal rooms shown to the public, which were redecorated in an opulent Italianate style in the Victorian era.

The castle consists of two main rings of buildings. The inner ring is set around a small courtyard and contains the principal rooms. This structure is at the centre of a large bailey. As the central block was not large enough to contain all the accommodations required in later centuries, a large range of buildings was constructed along the south wall of the bailey. These two main areas of accommodation are connected by a link building. There are towers at regular intervals along the walls of the outer bailey. About a sixth of the bailey wall has been reduced almost to ground level on the bailey side to open up views into the park. Stable and service yards adjoin the castle outside the bailey; these would not have existed when the castle still had a military function.

The castle is in good repair and used for many purposes. It provides a home for the present Duke and family and offices for Northumberland Estates, which manages the Duke's extensive farming and property holdings.

The castle is used as a stand in for the exterior of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films (though the wide angle images are computer generated). It has previously been a location used in Blackadder I, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.

[The above from Wikipedia].

This is a wonderfully complete castle - rather than the usual ruins - and certainly feels just a like a castle ‘should’ in your imagination. I’ve been there a few times whilst visiting friends in the North and we had lots of fun just wandering around the huge grounds and hallways litered with ancient artifacts and works of art. It’s a superb place to visit – and not only if you’re a Harry Potter fan! If you like castles (and what’s not to like) you’ll love Alnwick – pronounced ‘Ann-ick’ by the way [grin].
Britain 'had apartheid society'

From BBC News

18 July 2006

An apartheid society existed in early Anglo-Saxon Britain, research suggests. Scientists believe a small population of migrants from Germany, Holland and Denmark established a segregated society when they arrived in England. The researchers think the incomers changed the local gene pool by using their economic advantage to out-breed the native population. The team tells a Royal Society journal that this may explain the abundance of Germanic genes in England today.

There are a very high number of Germanic male-line ancestors in England's current population. Genetic research has revealed the country's gene pool contains between 50 and 100% Germanic Y-chromosomes. But this Anglo-Saxon genetic dominance has puzzled experts because some archaeological and historical evidence points to only a relatively small number of Anglo-Saxon migrants. Estimates range between 10,000 and 200,000 Anglo-Saxons migrating into England between 5th and 7th Century AD, compared with a native population of about two million.

To understand what might have happened all of those years ago, UK scientists used computer simulations to model the gene pool changes that would have occurred with the arrival of such small numbers of migrants. The team used historical evidence that suggested native Britons were at a substantial economic and social disadvantage compared to the Anglo-Saxon settlers. The researchers believe this may have led to a reproductive imbalance giving rise to an ethnic divide. Ancient texts, such as the laws of Ine, reveal that the life of an Anglo-Saxon was valued more than that of a native.

Dr Mark Thomas, an author on the research and an evolutionary biologist from University College London (UCL), said: "By testing a number of different combinations of ethnic intermarriage rates and the reproductive advantage of being Anglo-Saxon, we found that under a very wide range of different combinations of these factors we would get the genetic and linguistic patterns we see today. The native Britons were genetically and culturally absorbed by the Anglo-Saxons over a period of as little as a few hundred years," Dr Thomas added.

"An initially small invading Anglo-Saxon elite could have quickly established themselves by having more children who survived to adulthood, thanks to their military power and economic advantage. We believe that they also prevented the native British genes getting into the Anglo-Saxon population by restricting intermarriage in a system of apartheid that left the country culturally and genetically Germanised. This is exactly what we see today - a population of largely Germanic genetic origin, speaking a principally German language." The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Bill to pave way for women bishops

From Ekklesia - 02/03/06

A bill is to be introduced to the House of Commons that would pave the way for the consecration of women bishops in the Church of England. Ekklesia has learned that the Bishops (Consecration of Women) Bill will be introduced in two weeks time by Chris Bryant MP, who was himself ordained, and formerly a curate in the Church of England.

The MP, who is a former chair of the Christian Socialist Movement of which Prime Minister Tony Blair is also a member, is proposing the amendment of the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993 which currently makes it unlawful for women to become bishops. Bryant told Ekklesia that the new bill was aimed at the removal of the legal bar on women bishops and could be an important indication of Parliamentary support for a move by the Church of England to allow their consecration.

Bryant has made no secret of his support for women bishops. Speaking in the House of Commons previously Mr Bryant said; "Men and women are equal. They should be equal under the law and, for that matter, in religion. We look forward to women being ordained as bishops and the Church agreeing to that."

Thursday, August 10, 2006

No Choice When It Comes to License Plates

By Jennifer Fox for AlterNet.

July 1, 2006.

Now that anti-abortion "Choose Life" license plates are legal in some states, I wonder where's the "Choose Choice" option? On Monday, June 26, the Supreme Court refused to tackle a lawsuit about the matter, ensuring that the "Choose Life" plates -- which originated in Florida -- remain legal in Louisiana, Tennessee and the few other states where they have grown in popularity. Proceeds from the plates have raised about $4 million for anti-abortion organizations. And according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, if an organization so much as lists abortion as a post-pregnancy option, they won't receive any proceeds.

Despite strong interest, pro-choice license plates only exist in Montana (and as a decal in Hawaii). If you Google "anti-abortion license plates," all sorts of articles pop up about how they are legal in 13 states -- there's even ordering information. But searching for "pro-choice license plates," you get a smattering of the same stories about anti-abortion plates, a few articles about design contests for a pro-choice plate and a few articles about how states like Tennessee allow anti-abortion plates but refuse to authorize pro-choice ones. According to a Law.com article, Sen. Gloria Butler, D-Ga., sponsored an amendment for a "pro-family, pro-choice" license plate in the Georgia Senate, but dropped it when Republican senators proposed an alternate amendment that would channel funds from the pro-choice license plate to adoption agencies instead of Planned Parenthood, as Butler wanted. In fact, those same senators specifically prevented any group that provided abortions from receiving any license plate revenue. Apparently they missed the point that a license plate for choice should aid organizations that actually advocate choice.

Republican South Carolina Sen. Mike Fair came up with what he evidently saw as a solution to the debate. In 2005 he introduced a bill to the South Carolina general assembly that would allow for a "Choose Death" license plate. (Yes, he was serious). Of course, the proceeds wouldn't go to nonprofit organizations advocating abortion as an option -- the funds would go to the Department of Mental Health, where they would be "used for post-abortion trauma counseling for females who have chosen to have abortions."

As if the modern pro-choice movement isn't being shafted enough, the anti-choice license plate depicts two crayon-doodled happy children as artwork. Why do anti-abortionists have the right to use smiling children as propaganda? Were they "lucky" enough to have happy, stable lives -- or were they born into poverty, to an unprepared mother or a couple that simply didn't want kids? If it's ever actually manufactured, a pro-choice license plate could have smiling kids on it, too. Maybe they would smile because they knew that one mistake doesn't have to irrevocably change their lives, or because their right to reproductive freedom is protected -- for now. Or maybe they would just be smiling at the irony that an actual abortion is legal but a license plate supporting one isn't.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sacrifice Liberty For Security? Not Without a Fight

by Jay Bookman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

May 15, 2006

This is supposed to be America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. But I'm beginning to have my doubts, about the free part and the brave part, too. This America, this increasingly strange America, is looking more and more like the land of the cowed and the home of the silent. In this America, we have a military agency, the National Security Agency, secretly tracking and analyzing every phone call or e-mail that is sent or received by hundreds of millions of American citizens, with records of all of those calls retained forever. And in this America, millions and millions of people profess to be quite comfortable living under a government that wants to know who every one of us is talking to, and has the technology to realize that ambition.

It will keep us safe, some Americans have responded. Only those with something to hide should be worried, others have said. But then again, we all have something to hide, don't we? My something may be different than your something, but we all have something we would rather keep to ourselves — the things we read or watch, the things we do or think or buy, the people we talk with or the Web sites we visit. . . .

Admittedly, there is a reason for that willingness to let government vastly expand its oversight of our lives, and that reason is fear of terrorism. But there is always a reason, isn't there? There is always some threat to security that is said to justify the surrender of liberty to government. In every nation that has ever lost freedom to government, there has always been a reason. There was a reason that the soldiers of King George III burst into the homes of colonial Americans without warrants or reasonable cause. And back then, there were also those who saw nothing wrong with that practice, who believed that only those who had done something wrong had anything to fear.

Fortunately, our Founding Fathers thought otherwise, enshrining that belief in the Bill of Rights to guarantee that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." In Stalin's Soviet Union, they had a reason for government monitoring — fear of capitalist imperialists. In today's China and North Korea, they have a reason as well. In George Orwell's "1984," the reason was the threat from Eastasia or Eurasia. "There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment," Orwell wrote. "How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time."

But a strong people, a free people intent on remaining free, does not accept those reasons as sufficient. They are willing to accept the danger as the price of their liberty. Our fathers and mothers and their fathers and mothers were such people. We tell ourselves that we today are still that people. We still celebrate ourselves as willing to fight and die for freedom, but the evidence accumulates that we are not. The infinitesimal danger that any one of us might be killed in a terror attack — a danger much smaller than that of getting killed by crossing the street — is enough to send too many of us scurrying to toss liberty onto the bonfire in the vain hope that the sacrifice might make us safe.

But this is about more than civil liberties, as precious as they might be. These violations of constitutional rights are made possible because of a still more fundamental problem: The system isn't working; the checks and balances built into government by our Founding Fathers have been dismantled. Congress has passed laws to ensure that any spying on the American people is conducted appropriately and within the Constitution; the executive branch simply proclaims it will not be bound by those laws. Lawsuits have been filed alleging that the spying is illegal and unconstitutional; the executive branch refuses to allow those suits to be heard by the judicial branch, on grounds that the programs are national secrets and not to be questioned. At every turn, it seems, every mechanism to rein in the executive or make it accountable to the people has been frustrated.

Two events of last week demonstrate just how far down this road we have traveled. First, the U.S. Justice Department announced it had been forced to drop its own internal investigation into the legality of warrantless wiretapping. The federal government had refused to give its own lawyers the security clearances needed to conduct such an internal analysis, so the effort had to be abandoned. Then Gen. Michael Hayden, the president's nominee as CIA director, told members of the Senate that he might be open to allowing debate on legalizing warrantless wiretapping, an ongoing practice that violates federal law. "I'm willing to consider trying to bring the NSA wiretap program, as it exists now, under federal law," Hayden was paraphased as saying by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois who cited the statement as an encouraging sign of compromise. Think about that. A government official says he might be open to allowing Congress to debate such things. More chilling still, the much-abused Congress is pleased by that new "flexibility."

And the compromise in question? Congress would be allowed to legalize what the executive branch has already decided to do anyway. We need to have a fight about all this. It won't be pleasant, it won't be fun, but we need to hash it all out in a down and dirty political brouhaha. As the party in opposition, the Democrats need to lead that fight using every tool at their disposal. It may be that today's Democrats lack the guts for such a battle. If so, then they also lack the guts to lead this country, and I fear to think where that would leave us, forced to choose between one party with no courage and another with no brains or perspective. But if we have that fight, and if at the end our craving for security proves stronger than our love of liberty, I guess I would want to know that, bitter as that knowledge would be. At least then it would be clear where this nation stands, or more accurately, where it cowers.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Big bang pushed back two billion years

04 August 2006

From New Scientist

Our universe may be 15% larger and older than we thought, according to new measurements of the distance to a nearby galaxy. Researchers led by Alceste Bonanos at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, US, used data from telescopes including the 10-metre Keck-II telescope in Hawaii, US, to measure the distance to a pair of stars in the Triangulum Galaxy. The team used light, velocity, and temperature measurements to calculate the true luminosity of the two stars, which eclipse one another every five days. By comparing this intrinsic luminosity to their observed brightness, the team calculated that the galaxy lies 3.14 million light years away from us. Surprisingly, this is about half a million light years farther than previously thought.

Measuring astronomical distances is not simple. Distant, bright objects, for example, can look the same as closer, dim ones. So astronomers have built a ladder-like system that starts by using several independent methods to accurately determine the distance to nearby objects. They then use these measurements to define a more distant cosmic yardstick, and so on. “In every step, you accumulate errors,” says team member Krzysztof Stanek at Ohio State University in Columbus, US. “We wanted an independent measure of distance – a single step that will one day help with measuring dark energy and other things.” Gauging distances by observing a binary star has cut out those extra steps, says team member Norbert Przybilla at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. "This is the farthest distance that anyone has been able to measure directly," he told New Scientist. "It's the cutting edge of what can be done with these telescopes."

Earlier measurements were based on calculations using the Hubble constant, a measure of the expansion rate and age of the universe. The new observation implies that the value used for the constant is off by 15%, says Przybilla. That suggests the universe is 15% larger, and 15% older than previously thought. Recent estimates have put the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years, and the new research suggests it may actually be 15.8 billion years old. "Our result hints that there may be something interesting happening with the Hubble constant," says Przybilla. But he cautions that the study reports only one distance measurement. "We need to follow this up with more measurements."

Monday, August 07, 2006

Don't Bow To God's Bullies

By Rev. Jim Rigby for the Huffington Post

June 15, 2006.

Whereas American theology was born out of a hope for democracy, much of it is wedded to a picture of Christ as a benevolent dictator. Should we be surprised that a hierarchical cosmology would produce hierarchical churches and nations? Should we be surprised that religious nations that picture Christ as a loving dictator have produced conquistadors, inquisitors and crusaders? What else could they produce? As the tree is, so shall be the fruit. The word "Lord" was not in the original Bible. It is an English word from feudal times. Whereas the Greek word kurios had a range of meanings, from a title of respect to a title of leadership to a name for the sacred, the English translation "Lord" refers specifically to a male European land baron. Many people have softened that interpretation in their own minds, but in times of great stress, such nuance falls away and many Christians seek a white male king. He may be called "Pope" he may be called "the decider President," he may be called "televangelist," but the title only masks what he is, a benevolent (or not so benevolent) dictator.

Neither Calvin nor Luther spoke English, but they helped the Popes lay the groundwork for the view of God as a cosmic dictator. From Popes, Luther and Calvin we have some of the ugliest slurs ever recorded against women, intellectuals and those who refused the church's message. How did Christians hold slaves, oppress women and slaughter nonbelievers? Perhaps they could not see Christ in non-male, non-European, and non-Christian people because they were limited by their theology. Their "Christ" was merely a glorification of the most powerful member of their own culture. To picture God in terms of power is also one of the great bait-and-switch gimmicks of all time. People within the power hierarchy proclaim that God is the ultimate authority, and then appoint themselves as God's interpreters and enforcers. They are God's humble bullies. It has been one of the most successful con games of all time.

The real Jesus was born illegitimately. He called himself "the human one." Just like Buddha, his authority came from truth, not power. He taught whoever has love has God. He said those who work for the common good are his church. The real Jesus was an anarchist. He spent his life refusing to claim power over anyone. He said that God is understood in terms of love not power. We add nothing to the majesty of "the human one" by adding a throne or a crown. If he did not want to rule over others in life, why should he want it in death? That is why Jesus is called "lamb of God"; he spoke not as the king of the universe, but from its heart. If you want to know why Americans are so frightened and why we are attacking anything that would challenge our dominance over others, read the Bible. Like Cain we have murdered members of our human family. Even when we silence our victims, the ground beneath our feet cries out against us.

Today's church lifts its arms to praise Christ wearing liturgical garments woven in sweatshops. So called "Christian America" is still a nation built on the work of slaves. We do not see them because they toil invisibly in other countries. Today's church doles out bits of charity from booty stolen from God's powerless people the world over. Anyone who claims to believe in a just God, or even in justice itself, has to know at some level that the prayers for liberation coming from third world countries will be heard and answered. At some level, people of faith have to know that unless America repents of the sin of empire we are a doomed nation. Whatever prophetic voices survive in the church must take a message to the mainstream denominations. "We are guilty of our leaders' crimes. Just because we are silent and passive does not mean that we are innocent. If we have any status in the power hierarchy, we are partially responsible for its misdeeds." I realize that most of the church consists of wonderful and compassionate people, but that does not matter if we turn over our power to those less charitable. The moderate mainstream church is helpless against fundamentalism because it is built on a nuanced version of the same cracked foundation of a theology of power.

Whether or not we can change America in time to avoid a political and ecologicalapocalypse, it is never too late to do the right thing. All of us can begin to plant seeds of a better future for our children's children. For Christians today, that means suffering the consequences of refusing to bow to the dictator Christ of this culture

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Poster Time.
Dog destroys £40,000 Elvis teddy

From the BBC.

Thursday, 3 August 2006

A £40,000 teddy which used to belong to Elvis Presley was among scores of toy bears destroyed when a dog meant to guard them went on the rampage. Dobermann Barney was looking after the rare Steiff bear, named Mabel, which had been loaned for an exhibition at Wookey Hole Caves near Wells, Somerset. The dog ripped the head off the bear and attacked scores of other teddies. Barney's owner could only suggest that the bear had a rogue scent on it - or that Barney had become jealous of it. The bear, made in Germany in 1909, was bought at auction in Memphis, Tennessee, by Somerset aristocrat Sir Benjamin Slade.

Wookey Hole general manager Daniel Medley told the BBC: "About 100 bears were caught up in this frenzied attack, some were merely little chews, whereas some of them had some quite devastating injuries. "Heads pulled off, arms, legs here and there, it was a total carnage really. I've never seen such a mess, there was stuffing, fluff and bear bits everywhere."

Barney also caused an estimated £20,000 damage to other bears in the collection. Security guard Greg West, who was on duty at the time, is at a loss to explain what happened to make Barney go so "berserk". Mr West, 36, of Totterdown, Bristol, said: "Barney has been a model guard dog for over six years. I still can't believe what happened. Either there was a rogue scent of some kind on Mabel which switched on Barney's deepest instincts, or it could have been jealousy - I was just stroking Mabel and saying what a nice little bear she was."

The attraction said Barney's future with them was "uncertain".

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Just Finished Reading: When the Wind Blows by James Patterson

James Patterson is best known for his Alex Cross detective novels (Cross excellently played by the superb Morgan Freeman in ‘Kiss the Girls’). But here he tries his hand at Science Fiction – and does a pretty good job for an amateur [grin].

The story starts with FBI burn-out case Kit Harrison apparently on vacation. Kit is, however, investigating a case against the direct orders of his superiors, a case involving the murder of geneticists and rumours of secret labs illegally experimenting on human subjects.

Rather swiftly we are thrown into a world where conspiracy is mixed in with conspiracy, where friends become enemies and where children are commodities sold to the highest bidder, a world where knowledge is a death sentence.

This is certainly not a great work of literature but is more than entertaining enough. The characterisation is good (though I squirmed somewhat at the ‘romance’ bits) and Patterson presented some interesting ideas. This is a very visual book where locations, people and action are easily rendered in the mind. You could almost smell the smoke and felt the need to dodge the bullets.

The character of Max is particularly well done. Patterson obviously has children to draw them so well and I defy anyone not to like and envy her. When I read a book I want to care about the characters involved. After all if you don’t care about the people why bother paying good money to read about them? I cared about the people in this book and will enjoy reading the next in the series – which is excellent as I’ve already bought it! A good holiday read.
Cartoon Time.

Friday, August 04, 2006

UN Urged to Host World Summit on Nukes

by Thalif Deen for the Inter Press Service

June 2, 2006

UNITED NATIONS - An international commission on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has urged the 191-member U.N. General Assembly to convene a world summit on disarmament, non-proliferation and terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The proposed summit of world leaders should also discuss and decide on reforms to improve the efficiency of the U.N. disarmament machinery and make it more effective, says a report by the 14-member commission headed by Hans Blix of Sweden, a onetime head of the U.N.'s arms inspection team in Iraq. "After 50 years of (the U.S.-Soviet) cold war, we even see the risk of arms races involving new types of nuclear weapons, space weapons and missiles," says the study titled "Weapons of Terror." The Blix team, officially called the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, has advanced 60 concrete proposals on how the world could be freed of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

"So long as any state has such weapons -- especially nuclear arms -- others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain in any state's arsenal, there is a high risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. Any such use would be catastrophe," the study warns. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which has expressed strong reservations over nuclear disarmament, is also not likely to support any proposal for a world summit on disarmament. Asked whether such a proposal was practicable, John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyer's Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS: "For it to happen, I think it would require a new administration in Washington that was prepared to join and enlist the world in new efforts (at nuclear disarmament)."

But he pointed out that the Blix Commission's proposal usefully revives the idea for an international conference that was floated in a different form by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this decade. Despite the end of the cold war over a decade ago, the study says, stocks of WMD "remain extraordinarily and alarmingly high": some 27,000 in the case of nuclear weapons, of which about 12,000 are still actively deployed. "Weapons of mass destruction cannot be un-invented. But they can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons already have been, and their use made unthinkable," says the study. The commission has concluded that the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is not beyond the world's reach. But it still lacks the political will to do so.

The five declared nuclear powers -- who are also veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- are the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. At a second level are the world's three new nuclear powers, namely India, Pakistan and Israel. At a third level are two potential nuclear powers, Iran and North Korea, while two suspected WMD programmes -- in Iraq and Libya -- have been declared eliminated. "For too long now," said Burroughs, "Americans have been hearing the message that nuclear weapons are unacceptable in the hands of rogue states and terrorists." But the Blix report "rightly says that these catastrophic devices are dangerous in anyone's hands; that the problems of existing arsenals, potential spread, and potential acquisition by terrorists are all linked; and that the problems can be solved only by a comprehensive approach leading to elimination of all nuclear weapons."

Fundamentally, the solution embraced by the Blix Commission, "and long advocated by my organisation is that proliferation must be reversed where it began: in the United States," Burroughs added. In a statement released Thursday, Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation said the report is a ‘wake-up call’. “The Commission clearly holds the United States largely responsible for the present crisis. By walking away from tried and true arms control treaties, and by launching an illegal preventive war in the name of 'counter-proliferation', the U.S. has seriously undermined international law and endangered international security," Cabasso added.

One of the major recommendations of the commission is that all governments must accept the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that was agreed 10 years ago. The treaty states that those possessing nuclear weapons must reduce their arsenals and stop producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium for more nuclear weapons. At the international level, the Commission calls on the 15-member U.N. Security Council to make greater use of its potential to reduce and eliminate threats of weapons of mass destruction -- whether they are linked to existing arsenals, proliferation or terrorists. "It should take up for consideration any withdrawal from or breach of an obligation not to acquire weapons of mass destruction," says the study.

Asked if this proposal would fly -- in view of the fact that the Security Council also includes the world's five declared nuclear powers -- Burroughs told IPS: "This is extremely interesting and important." On the one hand, the Commission clearly sees the potential for the Security Council to build upon what it did in resolution 1540 on preventing non-state actors from acquiring and trafficking in WMD. On the other hand, he said, the Commission is aware that the Security Council lacks in accountability and legitimacy. "So their solution is for the Council to do more consultation and be more transparent, pending reform of the Council to make it more representative and lessen the dominance of the existing permanent members. I certainly support those steps. But I don't think that the world -- or the United States -- should give up on the approach of negotiating multilateral agreements of which all states can feel ownership," Burroughs added.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Science and Religion, Still Worlds Apart

By George Johnson for The New York Times

April 9, 2006

One October day in 1947, the director of the local bank in Marksville, La., woke to find that hundreds of fish had fallen from the sky, landing in his backyard. People walking to work that day were struck by falling fish, and an account of the incident by a researcher for the state's wildlife and fisheries department later found its way into the annals of scientific anomalies — phenomena waiting to be understood. Fish falls have also been reported in Ethiopia and other parts of the world. Whether they are hoaxes, hallucinations or genuine meteorological events — maybe fish can be swept up by a waterspout and transported — scientists are disposed to assume a physical explanation. The same kind of scrutiny is accorded to miracles — fishes and loaves multiplying to feed the masses and the like. But as two research papers published this month suggest, looking to science to prove a miracle is a losing proposition, for believers and skeptics. Either you devise some mechanism to explain it away, as one of the studies attempts to do, or you show, as in the other, that no scientific basis exists. The skeptics continue to trust in science, and the believers in miracles. Science and religion become neither closer nor more distant, raising the question of just what the research was supposed to accomplish.

This month in The Journal of Paleolimnology (the science of prehistoric bodies of water), oceanographers from Florida State University and Hebrew University proposed a complex mathematical theory showing how "Ekman fluxes," "geostrophic flow" and other factors might have allowed a patch of ice to form amid the warm waters of the Sea of Galilee, allowing Jesus to walk across. A decade ago, in The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, two of these scientists, Doron Nof and Nathan Paldor, offered an explanation for another biblical event, the parting of the Red Sea. Under the right conditions, their model showed, winds blowing along the Gulf of Suez could have swept away the waters just in time for the Israelites to escape the pursuing Egyptians, who would have drowned in the ensuing flood.

Other relics and events get the same kind of treatment, with reports regularly emerging on what X-ray fluorescence spectrometry or carbon-14 dating says about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Last year, a National Geographic television series, "Science of the Bible," featured researchers working to establish the plausibility of the New Testament's account of the crucifixion and the disappearance from the tomb. These investigations often have the appeal of a good detective story, but it is never quite clear what to make of the results. Should believers be encouraged when a miracle is corroborated, lending credence to a holy text, or disappointed that what seemed to be a case of divine intervention might have been the outcome of natural forces? A miracle, as the Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, is "a violation of the laws of nature." Finding that something is scientifically impossible would only make it more miraculous that it occurred.

This month's second study, appearing in The American Heart Journal, presented a negative result: cardiac patients who were prayed for had no better chance of recovery than those who were not. There wasn't even a placebo effect. Even worse, patients who knew they were being prayed for actually did worse, possibly because of performance anxiety. However disappointing the outcome of the $2.4 million project was to the researchers and their sponsor, the John Templeton Foundation, most believers are likely to remain unfazed. One of the coauthors of the study, Dean Marek, a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., noted that the study involved people praying for patients they did not know. Personal prayers and those from loved ones, he ventured, may prove more powerful. As he told a New York Times reporter, "You hear tons of stories about the power of prayer, and I don't doubt them." That is all the evidence most believers would require.

This has always been the quandary. Science and religion are not playing by the same rules. No laboratory finding can compel a person to give up what is taken on faith. Even if the study had involved friends and family members, a negative outcome would not have led many people to stop saying their prayers. Scrutinizing so delicate a process might disrupt it, some no doubt would reason, as when you draw too near a dandelion and explode its seeds with your breath. In the 1902 book "The Varieties of Religious Experience," William James gave what he considered the broadest and most general definition of religion: "The belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." For all the advances science has made in the century since — relativity, quantum mechanics, computational theory — it has not found a way to measure the immeasurable, or prove that it cannot exist.