Saturday, April 29, 2006

Look up ahead: it's Jesus

(Wrote this on the last trip, but forgot to post it here.)

Driving out to St. Louis, one must pass that giant white cross in Effingham. It's astonishingly big. And white. And cross-shaped. It's not in front of any church or anything. It just sits there saying, "Hello, I'm a giant white cross. Wouldn't you like to try Jesus today?"

It turns out that, not only is that cross not unique, it's not even the largest of its kind. It turns out that, just outside Groom, Texas, there's another, even larger, one. If the Effingham one is tacky, this one is the grandaddy of tacky. This is the level of tack that glow-in-the-dark plastic Virgin Mary statues strive to be. If the higway billboard is to be believed, this is the largest such cross in the world.

At least the Effingham cross doesn't have -- and I kid you not -- a gift shop at the base. A place where, I suspect, you can buy all the Lost Behind books, replica crucifixion nails and Savior-flavored lollypops your little heart desires. If you told me there was literature there on how evolution was all a lie thought up by evil, liberal, university scientists, well, I wouldn't be one bit surprised.

I just don't see the purpose behind all this. I think I remember reading that the guy behind the crosses (they are done by the same person or organization or whatever) said they're so some truck driver driving along can see them and get a warm, fuzzy feeling, remembering that he's Saved.

I just don't buy that. I suspect that these (presumably conservative and evangelical) Christians really think unbelieviers will be driving by and have a Saul-to-Paul, blinding conversion experience. Basically, smack their foreheads and exclaim, "I could have had a Jesus!" It's very patronizing, really. But then again, the whole evangelical movement is pretty patronizing.

It seems unfathomable to these people that we Hellbound unbelieviers are that way, not because we've never heard the Good News, but because they don't believe it. They seem to think that all they have to do is tell a heathen that he is saved, he will see the light, and they will be responsible for rackinq up another point for God's side on the Holy Scoreboard.

Then he will need to spend lots at the gift shop.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

What Robin Hood drank

I was cleaning out a lot of old Gourmet magazines off my shelf today, and thought of this. This is a recipe that I made long, long ago. I love the name of this drink, and the whole idea. The weird thing is that I can't find it anywhere on the web, or even at the Gourmet archives at epicurious.com. I can't really remember if it was any good or not. So without any further ado, I give you...

The Sherwood Forest Cocktail

0.5 cup water
2 whole cloves
6 juniper berries, crushed
zest of 1/2 lime
2 teaspoons honey
a 1-inch piece cinnamon stick
1 cup blackberries
0.25 cup light brown sugar
2.5 cups ice
a bottle of sparkling wine

In a small saucepan, bring the water to a boil, and remove from heat. Add the cloves, juniper berries, zest, honey, and cinnamon stick, and let cool. Pour through a fine sieve into a blender, and add berries, sugar, ice and blend until smooth. Sieve again. (At this point, it can be put into the fridge for a few days.)

To serve, put 3 Tbsp. of the puree into a Champaign flute, and fill with the sparkling wine.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Goodbye...

It looks like, not only has the wise and maybe not-quite-all-knowing IL Pundit given up blogging, but his blog name has already been claimed by someone else. No clue what he or she is trying to do with it, though. So he is gone from the blogroll.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

BNN

This is turning into your 24-hour Bambenek news blog.

Archpundit has jumped on the Bambenek creationism train, giving him a righteous smackdown in one of his latest entries.

AP picked up on it from That's News To Me!, who has also commented.

And here's the best part: In the News to Me comments, John wonders why people who disagree with him "hate America." Yeah, that's it. People who are pro-science hate this country. I know I'm not real fond of baseball, apple pie, or my Mom, either. The most ironic part is that this is the same Bambenek that was complaining about ad hominem attacks over at Squire's blog.

Someone should revoke Bambenek's invitation to the adult table.

UPDATE: The comments at Archpundit's post are amusing, too. But come on, AP, take the gloves off; tell us how you really feel.

It's all just fodder for the blog

After yesterday's post, my fingers ached and I just didn't want to hear the word "Bambenek" for a while. Perardi points out that there is a debate on gay marriage going on tonight (which I won't make because it starts in nineteen minutes) in which everyone's favorite conservative will taking part.

I hope it's better researched that his DI column on gay marriage this week. I just can't face going over his arguments yet again, but I'll point this out:

Marriage [without sex] becomes merely an economic relationship wherein the parties organize themselves for mutual financial benefit.

Sigh. For most of human history, that's what marriage has primarily been. Marriage for financial and political gain for oneself and one's family is the ages-old definition of "traditional" marriage. Marriage as an emotional relationship and commitment is a radical and recent change.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

This week's exercise in futility

Local arch-conservative John Bambenek complained last week in his Daily Illini column that the university doesn't offer a course in intelligent design. Clearly, he says, this is because intelligent design is being stifled by closed-minded scientists who just won't give ID a fair shake and ban it “from the classroom with all the zealotry one would expect to find at a book burning." Squire, more on the ball that I am, caught this before I did, and responded to Bambenek's columnhere, here, here, and especially here. Bambenek stops by in the comments, but doesn't really make a coherent argument. His column drew one letter to the editor, then another one, and also sparked a post by another local blogger.

I’ve long been of the opinion that arguing with creationists is a waste of breath, since there is no refutation to their argument, no matter how correct, that will cause them to change their position. That’s because it’s based in emotion, not reason.

From some of the things I’ve seen Bambenek mention in his column and in other places, it seems he’s of the opinion that ID proponents have actual, scientific claims and theories that just aren’t getting considered by scientists. What he doesn’t know, or isn’t willing to admit, is that the entire Intelligent Design movement was invented by creationists -- not just to discredit evolution -- but to reframe science and the entire study of the natural world so that it is consistent with their view of God. Any discussion of ID is incomplete without understanding it. But for right now, I’m going to work under the assumption that Bambenek thinks ID proponents have some good, genuinely scientific ideas that aren’t getting the attention they deserve. His column is still wrong.

So, I’m going to turn the rest of this blog post to looking at what Bambenek wrote in his April 12 column:

Ward Churchill said in a recent appearance on Fox News that professors should be in the business of "challenging assumptions" and presenting "opposing points of view." He summed up what a university should be.

Right off the bat, a conservative invoking Ward Churchill immediately makes me wary. The guy is a bit of a kook, and is usually mentioned only by conservatives to paint liberals as anti-American.

In the intelligent design debate, we can clearly see that the University fails to live up to the ideal. Intelligent design is disregarded as "religious nonsense" and banned from the classroom with all the zealotry one would expect to find at a book burning. The charge? Challenging established orthodoxies.

Right there, Bambenek is wrong. Where has anyone suggested that intelligent design not be taught in schools because it "challenges established orthodoxies?" The problems with intelligent design are numerous and far-reaching, but the fact that it is unconventional is not one of them.

By denying intelligent design any space in the academy (at times with less than ethical means), they have declared that there are forbidden questions that may not be asked. The placement of restrictions on the question of how life began is the same behavior that fundamentalists visited upon science leading up to the Scopes Monkey Trial.

There's one accusation of unethical behavior on the part of scientists, but no explanation or description of what he's talking about. One thing he doesn't mention is the unethical behavior of evolution deniers, like lying about having a doctorate and cheating on your taxes. Note here that Bambenek is implying that evolution describes the "question of how life began."

Fundamentalists allowed no question of six-day Creationism. Decades later, the scientific community has returned the favor. They have come full circle and become what they hate.

Not content with simply ridiculing it out of the realm of inquiry, some have brought the force of law to bear with the ACLU. It is interesting to see the so-called defenders of liberty suggest that in order to protect freedom, free inquiry cannot be allowed. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. You know the drill.

I don't see anyone, including the ACLU, saying that research into intelligent design can't be allowed. There really isn't any, of course, but that's not the issue here. Bambenek's complaint in his column is that the university doesn't have a course teaching intelligent design. There's a significant difference between not allowing "free inquiry" and deciding what gets taught in a classroom to students. We don't have classes on theories that are incredibly controversial -- and that's a major understatement in this case -- regardless of the field of study.

The foes of intelligent design like to throw out the charge that it is not scientific. If by scientific you mean "capable of being confirmed or disproved by observation or experiment" then you would be correct. But you would also be stating that evolution as a theory of creation is not scientific. Evolution as a biological force is easily observed. Evolution as a theory of creation, however, is completely flaccid. The primordial soup theory is novel and interesting but, at best, it is a theory that fits the facts. It has never been observed or tested and cannot be. We have never seen life come from non-life. There is a strong metaphysical case to be made for that being the way it played out, but it's firmly in the realm of metaphysics, not science.

Again, Bambenek gets science fundamentally wrong. Science isn't always about direct observation. That would be great if it were always available. Sometimes, you have to infer your results from available data. That's how we know about things that haven't been directly observed, like the existence of the electron, continental drift, star formation, and the Revolutionary War.

I want to turn to Bambenek's criticism of "evolution as a theory of creation." Evolution says nothing about "creation." I'm going to assume good faith here, and assume Bambenek is simply confused about the distinction between evolution and abiogenesis. Evolution is the gradual change in species over time. Abiogenesis is the about the generation of life from non-living matter. Make no mistake, they are completely different things. Creationists like to conflate the two because abiogenesis is, admittedly, a lot more sketchy than evolution. Note, however, there is no course at the university on abiogenesis, as far as I can find.

I'm glad that Bambenek concedes that "evolution as a biological force" is easily observed. That's all that evolution is, the gradual change of one species to another. Unfortunately for his argument, that’s exactly what Intelligent Design denies! ID proponents especially hold to the belief that that Homo sapiens did not evolve from other life forms, but was created in its current state. All the Australopithecines and other Homo species have nothing to do with us biologically, they say. The whole point of intelligent design is that species are static, and growth and change are not possible.

They argue that evolution is scientifically complete and therefore, by exclusion, eliminates intelligent design. The irony is that while they use this argument, science itself doesn't believe that it has all the facts on evolution. With the discovery of tiktaalik roseae - essentially a fish with feet - last week, scientists lavished accolades on finding one of the "missing links."

Why celebrate an established fact? When I search for a burrito, I don't shout "Eureka!" when I cross the threshold of Dos Reales. The answer is simple - there are gaps and limitations in what we know about where we came from. That is why we're still searching.

Sigh. Why was the discovery of Tiktaalik so lauded? Creationists are always complaining that the fossil record is too incomplete to show evolution from one species to another. So this is one more piece of evidence that shows a chain of development from early species to now. Unfortunately, it's an old chestnut that creationists complain about missing links not connecting gaps between species, then when one is found, they then complain that there are now two gaps!

Furthermore, Tiktaalik isn’t just a cool fossil. Science isn't about just going into the lab and measuring a bunch of voltages, and writing a paper about what you found. The real, fundamental power of science is that we can make predictions about what we don't know based on what we do know. Tiktaalik wasn't just a fossil that someone found, it was a fossil that was predicted, and then found. Someone said, "Based on what we know about X and Y, there should be a Z out there somewhere." And then someone went out and found Z. Tiktaalik isn't just a "fish with feet," it's a clear link -- one of the "transitional forms" that creationists are always saying don't exist -- between fish and four-legged animals. (More on Tiktaalik at The Lancelet.)

If Bambenek lived in a world where fundamentalist Christians vehemently denied that Mexico and Mexican food existed and said that Mexican restaurants were just a figment of Ronald McDonald's imagination, he might just yell "Eureka" when finding a burrito. We are fortunate, however to live in a world that flows with queso and salsa.

The underlying conflict is just another battle of the same war fought in many different fields in the modern experience. The two camps can be summarized as "man is made in the image and likeness of God" and "God is made in the image and likeness of man."

Instead of trying to search out the truth free of presuppositions, science chooses arguments and theories that make the assumption that God must not exist. Anything challenging that assumption is labeled heresy and discarded, quite unscientifically. That's why theories that aliens brought life to Earth are O.K. while intelligent design is not.

Now Bambenek starts getting metaphysical. I'm tempted to ask if God has an appendix and if so, what's it for? And why does he need platelets? But I won't.

Science does not “choose argument and theories that make the assumption that God must not exist." What science does is choose explanations that make sense without needing to turn to those that require the existence of God. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest explanation is likely to be the correct one; given two explanations, one that makes no claims about God, and one that does, the one that doesn’t say anything about God (but still adequately explains the data) is the one that we should use. When lightning strikes, we attribute it to well-understood electrostatics, not the righteous anger of the Lord.

Anyway, no one important seriously makes claims about panspermia that I'm aware of. Ironically, it's a valid theory, since it is theoretically testable. Imagine if (after inventing warp drive or something) we start visiting other planets, find life, and start measuring how similar it is to our own planet. Now, imagine measuring genetic drift, not between races and across continents, but between alien races and across star systems. It is something that would be testable. Intelligent design's concept of "Poof, let there be mankind..." well, I'm just not sure how you could test something like that.

Is there a class on intelligent design at the University? (I couldn't find one). If not, why not?

The intellectual mind is not served by denying any challenge to assumptions and rejecting opposing points of view without consideration. For those interested in learning more on intelligent design, please attend the talk on it at 7 p.m. on April 18 in the Lewis Lounge at Newman Hall.

Pity, I never noticed that bit about the talk until it was too late.

Actually, I assume that intelligent design is covered, at least briefly, in the many courses at the university that deal with evolution. It would be difficult to teach such a subject without at least mentioning it. It was covered in mine, and that was more than a few years ago. Just to give you an idea of the scale and importance of evolution, and how well-studied and fundamental it is to modern science, there are fourteen classes taught that deal with evolution in one form or another, and that's just in the Department of Animal Biology.

There isn't a class on intelligent design for the same reason there aren't classes in the Political Science department on World Politics and the Bible Codes, in the Economics department on Predicting the Stock Market through Astrology, or classes in the College of Medicine on The Flow of Qi Through the Human Body. We don't teach courses on things that are not accepted by the mainstream community. This is probably less true in the humanities, where it's harder to determine which things are "true" and which things aren't. But evolution isn't subjective like ethics or philosophy, it's actually a science. Why isn't Bambenek complaining about the lack of courses covering cold fusion or the hydrino?

Friday, April 14, 2006

I'm a grandfish!

My fish have had babies! From what I've read, platyfish often come from the fish store already pregnant. I assure you that, once they're here, they're always chaperoned when in the presence of fish of the opposite sex, so I know there certainly was nothing fishy going on in my tank.

Anyway, I now have two little baby fish. One is much bigger than the other; I figure they were born at different times. I'm not sure if they have the same mother, or if two have spawned at the same time. The bigger one is pretty much entirely orange and yellow in coloration at the moment. The smaller one is about the size of a grain of rice, and has the same black tail as the ones I got from Sailfin.

UPDATE: Just noticed a third, even tinier fish. Must be something in the water.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Getting my kicks

One thing I do like about traveling across the country is getting to see so much of it. Not just the geography (which is impressive in and of itself), but how different parts of the country are different; how they are the same.

Nevada has gambling. Lots of gambling. Gambling in an Arby's in a truckstop. Some of the casinos cater specifically to truckers, even. This isn't Las Vegas I'm talking about, either, but northern Nevada, like Reno and parts east. Hardly affluent areas. I couldn't help wondering if the gambling draws lots of money out of the local economy, or if those regions would be even worse off without it.

Avoiding the Sierras and their accompaning snowstorms means going south through Arizona, New Mexico, and some of Texas. That's the old Route 66. We're spoiled to the idea of the interstate highways, but it wasn't lonq ago that the idea of a single highway stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles was a new and significant undertaking. Only a few a decades before that, imagine being a trucker having to go all that way before such luxuries as well-maintained roads, radios, public bathrooms, air conditioned vehicles, and seat belts. Not too long before that, it was done by people in horse-drawn wagons. I'm glad I live now.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Two cents on immigration

... just not my two cents.

With all the immigration noise going on lately, it seems to me that this letter in the NY Times is the best and most succinct analysis I've seen:

The value of the illegal immigrant to our economy is his illegality. If you understand this fact, you understand the problem.

So long as he retains his illegal status, he can be paid less, denied health care and dismissed at will. This is what those corporations that employ undocumented workers value the most. And this is why a "guest worker" program will never succeed.

When today's illegals become tomorrow's federally recognized guest workers, the jig will be up. Because of their legitimate status, guest workers will have to be treated like human beings. This will not sit well with those employers who thrive on illegals today.

By adopting a "guest worker" program, we will be creating millions of legitimate workers, and those hard-pressed employers will be forced to seek out (and "invite" into our country) another illegal group willing to be paid less, denied health care and dismissed at will.

George Moss
Columbus, Ohio, April 10, 2006

Monday, April 10, 2006

"Forensic vagina inspectors"

This is positively chilling. The NY Times has a feature today, Pro-Life Nation, about abortion (or rather the lack of it) in El Salvador. The new South Dakota abortion law, subtitled "Let's see if we have enough Supreme Court judges under our belt to overturn Roe v. Wade," makes an exception for the life of the mother, but not for her health. It also doesn't criminalize getting an abortion, just providing one. El Salvador will put both the doctor and the woman in prison, possibly for up to 30 years. It not only makes no exception for the mother's health, but not even if the abortion is necessary to save her life. It's enshrined in Article I of their constitution.

Go read the article. It's an easy read, and it's important.

The array of exceptions that tend to exist even in countries where abortion is circumscribed — rape, incest, fetal malformation, life of the mother — don't apply in El Salvador... Abortion is now absolutely forbidden in every possible circumstance. No exceptions.

[El Salvador] has not only a total ban on abortion but also an active law-enforcement apparatus — the police, investigators, medical spies, forensic vagina inspectors and a special division of the prosecutor's office responsible for Crimes Against Minors and Women

The consequences for this are positively stunning. Not only does it mean that there is an active back-alley abortion trade, but women experiencing the inevitable complications are afraid to receive medical treatment because their doctors will report them to the police.

This insanity continues to the point where doctors can not even treat an ectopic pregnancy.

Unattended, the stuck fetus grows until the organ containing it ruptures. A simple operation can remove the fetus before the organ bursts. After a rupture, though, the situation can turn into a medical emergency.

According to Sara Vald├ęs, the director of the Hospital de Maternidad, women coming to her hospital with ectopic pregnancies cannot be operated on until fetal death or a rupture of the fallopian tube... She described the hospital's practice. "Once we determine that they have an ectopic pregnancy, we make sure they stay in the hospital," she said. The women are sent to the dispensary, where they receive a daily ultrasound to check the fetus. "If it's dead, we can operate," she said. "Before that, we can't." If there is a persistent fetal heartbeat, then they have to wait for the fallopian tube to rupture.

I'm not upset at this because it's a peculiar law in an exotic country. I'm upset because this is what the Republican Party wants to turn our country into.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

More traveling notes

  • Rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee this time. Largest thing I've ever driven. Not overly comfortable. But at least I think there is now an oil well in Iraq that has my name on a little brass plaque in front of it.
  • It has this GPS map system that guides you from place to place, much like having Google Maps or Mapquest constantly on. I could get used to something like this. Not sure how useful it would be in an area I was familliar with, but on a trip like this, where every place is new, it's quite useful.
  • Fifteen miles to the gallon? Are you kidding me?
  • $3.29 a gallon? Are youfucking kidding me?
  • Berkeley: Fairly urban, crowded, and surprisingly dingy, especially a mile away from the campus. Not my first choice for someplace to live, especially at Bay Area prices.
  • Last night I woke up and couldn't remember if I'd locked the car door or not. I hate that. I checked and, yes, it was unlocked. Fortunately I'd left the big, red "Steal Me" sign in the trunk. Now if only I could remember if I'd turned the coffee maker off before I left home...

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Ugh, more traveling.

Back again. Sigh. The last for a while, I certainly hope.

But I came home to find a new, itty bitty fish in my tank. It looks like one of the plays had a baby. Possibly multiple babies. We won't discuss what happened to the little guy's brothers and sisters. Anyway, it's cute. Pictures coming soon. Does this mean I'm a grandfather or just a fish pimp?

UPDATE: Here is a photo of the baby.