Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Don't Shoot Your Eye Out!

It's that time of year again -- time for Don't Shoot Your Eye Out! Actually, www.dontshootyoureyeout.com isn't up yet, so I wonder if it's not quite that time of year yet according to Office Max (who sponsors the game).

Mmmm...timewasters....

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Favorite New Blog

FAIL BLog — a blog for pictures and movies of epic FAILs.

My favorite so far.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Buncha Losers

Well, it's official: Senate Democrats are total losers.

Seriously, folks? Lieberman? Really?

Feh.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Scalzi His Cred With This Geek

John Scalzi lists some stuff he wants, including an update to Descent. Descent was one of the few video games I lost time to for a long time. It's one of the few things that would get me to buy a game console.

Mmmm...six-degree-of-freedom controls....

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Our Next President

A wonderful series of photos of our next president at the Boston Globe. (My favorite is #27.)

(Via BoingBoing.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes, We Can

Holy shit. I woke up this morning and Obama was still President-elect. It actually seems real now.

Yes, we did!

I'm looking forward to another long, national nightmare of peace and prosperity.

Breathe.

I feel like I can breathe again.

Now, to go sleep the sleep of the just — or at least the sleep of the victorious.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Another Reason to Love Samuel L. Jackson

Because he narrated this No-on-Prop-8 ad.

Please consider donating to No On Prop 8.

And I sure wish that Obama would point out loudly that his parents would have been legally prohibited from marrying in a lot of states in 1961, and thus Prop 8 should go down in flames.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

PZ Myers Understands the Fundies

PZ Myers has figured out that the homophobic fundamentalist Right Wing is really writing slash SF.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

XKCD vs. the New Yorker: Cartoon-Off

I expect that the XKCD vs. The New Yorker cartoon-off will be all over the place by tomorrow (if it isn't already), but I figured I'd link to it anyway.

(Via Neil Gaiman.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pointy-Haired-Boss-ism of the Day

ME: "We can't do what you're asking with the current technology. In order to do what you're asking for, we'd have to invest a large amount of time. Please explain why you need it in order to justify the amount of work that would be involved."

PHB: "Here is my .02 on what we need to get working to release our project on schedule. I'd like to propose that we make this work now so that testing may be completed."

(That's a direct quote from the PHB, by the way.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Stupid Phone Polls

What kind of polling outfit has a phone poll that asks you to rate something (like your likelihood of voting) on a scale between 1 and 10, and then fails to tell you how to specify 10 on a touch-tone keypad? ("1" then "0" didn't seem to do it.)

It seems a lot easier to do 1 to 9 or 1 to 5.

Feh.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Mavericks Called. They Want their Name Back.

I had not known that the word maverick comes from someone's name — and the Mavericks are fire-breathing Texas liberals who are pissed at John McCain.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bérubé is Back

Michael Bérubé is blogging again.

(And there was much rejoicing.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

We're Doomed

Time to move away from the coasts: Arctic Sea "Foaming" with Methane?.

(I think I just figured out why the fundies "don't believe" in global warming -- they actually do, but they want it to happen so that godless, degenerate, "elitist" coastal cities are inundated.)

Why We Should All Love Dan Savage

Because he wants to be Sarah Palin's Gay Friend.

UPDATE: other people also want to be Palin's GBFF.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Can We Trade in Biden?

Can we trade in Biden for Marcy Kaptur (D-OH)? To see what I mean, watch this.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Has the LHC destroyed the World Yet?

Here are a few answers.

 

For the curious, the HTML on those is quite funny.

(By popular (sic) demand.)

Agreeing with the Rude Pundit (again)

The Rude Pundit[1] exhorts Obama to crush McCain over the recent "Obama wants to teach kids about sex before they learn to read" ad.

I couldn't agree more, but want to add that the right person to really take a baseball bat to these people is Bill Clinton. It'd also be a great way for him to get his mojo back.

And while he's at it, he should smack Lynn Westmoreland a few times.

Mr. Clinton, it's time to step up and serve your country.


[1] NSFW. Strong language, mature themes. In other words, stuff that makes Republicans whine.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

But She's a "Hockey Mom"!

So Sarah Palin is a racist and a sexist meanie.

Projected effect on the presidential race: zero.

(McCain making an incredibly nasty joke about Chelsea Clinton or laughing when a supporter refers to Hilary Clinton as "the bitch", hasn't seemed to hurt him. And Lynn Westmoreland [of "I can't name more than two of the 10 Commandments but I want to post them everywhere" fame] called Obama "uppity" on the record. So I'm not sanguine about any of this doing anything other than motivating the troglodyte Right.)

Best "Obvious" Upgrade Ever

You know how really amazingly smart inventions sometimes look blindingly obvious in retrospect?

Boingboing links to 3-outlet power plates.

Brilliant. And retrospectively obvious.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Thanks but No Thanks, Coca-Cola

Consider this a product warningreview.

So Coca-Cola decided to make a bottled iced tea, Gold Peak Tea. It's slickly packaged (although their website has sounds playing, argggh), but the tea itself ... well, I couldn't actually tell, because the artificial sweeteners or the preservatives (or some Mystery Ingredient) make it have an incredibly nasty aftertaste. I found it undrinkable.

If I'm still drinking caffeinated beverages (I'm trying to get back off the caffeine) the next time I buy bottled iced tea, I'll stick with Nantucket Nectars or Honest Tea. They actually use sugar, not high fructose corn syrup, and it tastes like, well, tea.

Feh!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Does a Bear — in the Woods?

If — is "play with wolves", then the answer is yes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In Case You Had any Respect Left for Cokie Roberts

Cokie Roberts is supposed to be one of our Serious Pundits, and yet she somes up with this steaming load of crap on ABC's This Week (Crooks and Liars has has the video):

ROBERTS: Yeah, that he has certainly come nowhere near closing the deal. As we've talked about before, in this year that should be such a Democratic year given all the other indices, he is tied in the polls and stage-sided in the polls and going off this week to a vacation in Hawaii ... this does not make any sense whatsoever. I know his grandmother lives in Hawaii and I know Hawaii is a state, but it has the look of him going off to some sort of foreign, exotic place. He should be in Myrtle Beach, and, you know, if he's going to take a vacation at this time.

Not that I've had a lot of respect for her in many years, but this really got rid of any remnant. "I know Hawaii is a state." Ye gods.

(Via a good snarky take-down by Hunter at Daily Kos.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Scalzi Beats Me To It Again

Scalzi posits a Zombie Rhyming Contest.

This is a followup to this post, which links to this image. I've been meaning to do this:

egrep 'r(ain|ane)s?$' /usr/share/dict/words

and come up with my own version, but Scalzi beat me to it.

My favorite is favorite poem format: "QUATRAIIIINS!"

Kathy Griffin = Alice from Dilbert???

Wait. What? Kathy Griffin did the voice of Alice on the short-lived 1999 attempt at an animated Dilbert series?

I blamecredit raven for hooking us on Kathy Griffin.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mental Whiplash

Thinking one is starting to play Evanescence's Fallen, and missing by one slot on the iPod, and accidentally playing Enya's Watermark.


(Yes, I have some Enya on my iPod, and not just on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Want to make something of it?)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bad Actor, Smart Parent

Via Salon.com's "Broadsheet" blog: Amanda Peet isn't as annoying as I thought. I may have to start categorizing her as "smart person, bad actor".

The issue? She smacked down Jenny McCarthy (okay, perhaps an instance of using an elephant gun on a mosquito) over the issue of childhood immunizations (McCarthy blames them for her son's autism). Peet apparently said that people who don't immunize their children are "parasites" because they're taking advantage of the fact that nearly everyone else has immunized their children. She has since apologized for the use of the "parasites" word, but hasn't backed off her basic point.

I believe that people who do not immunize their children are freeloaders (my choice of word is a little less nasty than "parasite" but perhaps meaner in terms of judging intentions) — they can only get away with this because the nasty diseases are kept at bay by everyone else being immunized. Yes, there are risks associated with immunizations (autism, though, has been shown again and again to not be one of them); but those risks are very small in absolute terms, and they're even smaller when compared to the alternative: if enough people don't vaccinate their kids (and "enough" may be as small a number as 15%), then we could easily see epidemics of diseases that we thought were conquered in the US during the 1950s.

I predict that within the next ten years, some hyper-crunchy (Waldorf or similar) no-one-here-is-immunized school will be laid low (or worse, wiped out) in a viral outbreak that would have been prevented by simple immunization. I just hope that that event will end this anti-immunization fad once and for all.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Oral History of the Internet

Vanity Fair has a big article with interview snippets from Internet luminaries from the 1950s through the 2000s: "How the Web Was Won".

They talk to a lot of the obvious (to geeks) people like Vint Cerf and Paul Baran, so they clearly did their homework. I just wish someone had mentioned Jon Postel and W. Richard Stevens.

My favorite quote from the article:

Marc Andreessen:When Al Gore says that he created the Internet, he means that he funded these four national supercomputing centers. Federal funding was critical. I tease my libertarian friends—they all think the Internet is the greatest thing. And I’m like, Yeah, thanks to government funding.

Friday, July 04, 2008

I Always Wondered About Jesse's Collection of Little Shoes...

Jesse Helms is finally dead. And good riddance.


For those of you who don't know the reference in the title, please go listen to Bill Hicks — the good stuff is about 01:50 to 02:50.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Right Wingers: Computers Are Hard

People For the American Way's "Right Wing Watch" caught the American Family Association search-and-replacing things. (I won't spoil the surprise.)


I found this via salon.com's "War Room" blog, but it's now showing up everywhere.

PZ Myers' take on it is funny — the footnote is quite incisive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Unclear on the Concept

So the Pew Research Center has released their Religious Beliefs & Practices / Social & Political Views: Report 2, titled

Religion in America: Non-Dogmatic, Diverse and Politically Relevant

The thing that's getting headlines is that 57% of Evangelical Christians say that their denomination isn't the One True Path To Heaven.

But the real head-scratching "Hunh?" moment is in the third table, where it lists who believes in a Personal God, an Impersonal Force, and "Other/Don't Know", for a bunch of different groups. These three sets of believers are combined into the "NET Believe in God" column.

The "Atheist" row has 21% "NET Believe in God": 6% believe in a Personal God, 12% in "Impersonal Force", and 3% "Other/Don't Know".

Um. Uh.... People? Just what do you think "atheist" means, anyway? Maybe they thought it meant "eighth-iest"?


Credit goes to my boss for pointing me at this.

(My) Stupidity of the Day

In a case that reminds me of Clever Passwords Consider Harmful, I have discovered once again that I am an idiot.

I managed to forget my home PC password, so I had to go fetch my laptop, log into my server, and look in my encrypted password file. This is stupid enough, but when I looked up the password, I discovered that this particular password had been generated from a song.

THE SONG I WAS LISTENING TO.

Sigh.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Addendum to Clarke's First Law

Clarke's Laws are famous; the first one is

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Today, after a discussion about what could have caused a network outage in one of our various offices (I suggested a localized power problem in the building but my boss thought that couldn't possibly be it — and he was wrong), I propose a new addendum based on Clarke's First Law:

When someone suggests a way something could go wrong with a complex system, they're almost certainly right; when someone responds that that could never happen, they're almost certainly wrong.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Straight Talking" John McCain Called His Wife a C***

Possibly the best political video so far this season.

(I knew he'd done this, but this is far more effective than reading about it. And it's funny! NSFW, but funny!)

(Even funnier, YouTube put a John McCain 2008 ad on the page!)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Are You Voting Republican?

Here are some reasons why some people are voting Republican.

(Via Dan Savage.)

More Physics References

XKCD does some funning with physicists and other scientists. (Make sure you read the image "alt" tag that you see when you put your cursor over the image.)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Can't ... Resist ... Funniest ...Video ... Ever

Snowball the cockatoo dancing to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust".

The Spouse and I have been watching this several times a day for several days now. It just gets funnier. The first time watching it, I had to ration it to ten seconds or so every 20 minutes to keep from gasping to death.

Make sure to watch the last 25-30 seconds, even if you skip to it.

Department of Barely-Sub Text

So they're doing statue of MLK, and apparently it's disturbing the US Commission of Fine Arts:

A powerful federal arts commission is urging that the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. proposed for a memorial on the Tidal Basin be reworked because it is too "confrontational" and reminiscent of political art in totalitarian states.

This is from the commission that approved a Riefenstahlian WW2 memorial.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Your Moment of Physics for Friday

Synchronization of five (coupled) metronomes. Extremely cool.

(Thanks to my brother-in-law for passing this along to me.)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Serious Babylon 5 Nerditude

So. Volume 15 of the Babylon 5 script books just came out, and according to the blurb on the page linked above, it includes

BREAKDOWN OF THE ENTIRE 5-YEAR STORY ARC WITH SINCLAIR
"For over ten years, fans have asked 'What would Babylon 5 have been like had Sinclair stayed?' After we finished the movie, but before we got the series going, WB asked to see a breakdown on this five-year arc thingie. So I wrote a six or seven page, single spaced outline of the entire five years with Sinclair still in place. The document makes for fascinating reading when compared with the series as it developed. Not only that, but the same document has a brief outline for A POTENTIAL BABYLON 5 SEQUEL SERIES, which would have been entitled BABYLON PRIME."

The arc document is insanely different from what actually happened on B5. This is true even for Season 1, and JMS claims in his introduction to it that he wrote it at the beginning of Season 1 (i.e. after "The Gathering").

If you'd rather read this on your own, or just don't want to know, don't read any further, to save yourself from alternate-world B5 spoilers!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The only Big Events that survived basically unchanged are (a) B4 reappearing for a few hours (i.e. "Babylon Squared"); (b) Delenn turning human and getting involved with Sinclair (not Sheridan, who doesn't exist here); and (c) Kosh revealing himself (all angel-ly) to save Sinclair (who is falling from the core shuttle) at the end of Season 2.

The entire Vorlon/Shadow conflict looks different. The flip-side of "Babylon Squared" (what we know as "War Without End") is listed as happening in "Babylon Prime" — the sequel series — and Babylon 4 would be timeshifted to the future, not the past. Some of the plot points that did survive occur much later — it looks like the original arc only covered through what happened in Season 3 or a bit of Season 4 of B5 as it aired. It ends totally differently (and seriously downbeat). There's no "Sleeping in Light" 20-years-later equivalent.

Sinclair's girlfriend/fiancee, Catherine Sakai, does not end up going to Z'ha'dum, as I expected (I had only recently realized that she would have been the equivalent of Anna Sheridan, which is a bit of a "duhh" moment for me; I'm slow) — instead, she gets mind-wiped in some vague fashion (not linked to the Shadows). The Shadows don't get revealed, according to this memo, until Season 4. Season 5 includes the Minbari warrior caste restarting the Earth-Minbari war, and destroying B5 at the end of the season. The end of the season and the series sees Delenn and Sinclair, with their love-child in tow, on the run from basically everyone, including Earth.

!

Then the memo goes into a "Babylon Prime" sequel series, which includes stealing Babylon 4 (which is actually a space cruiser as well as a station, which makes little sense to me), what looks like the Shadow War, and a bunch of other stuff, some of which echoes what ended up in the B5 series.

I actually thought (and maybe still think) that this memo was a joke, it's so insanely different from the show that aired.

Actually — it's not so much the differences per se — it's more how JMS always seemed to imply that he knew exactly how things were going to go, and that they didn't change that much.

E.g., from the Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5's page for "Sleeping in Light":

On GEnie, 11 April 1992:
A few days ago, I sat down with our line producer, John Copeland, and production designer John Iacovelli, and we were talking about the need to move quickly on some stuff, and how painful the process is to have the whole story in your head, already told, really, and then have to make it all over again so we can put it on film. "You think you've got it bad," I noted, "I've already worked out the last scene in the last episode of the last season (#5)...and I've still got to make Movie #1." They called me on it and asked what that scene was. Just to see their reaction, I told them. They looked at me as if I'd suddenly sprouted three heads and feathers. It was worth it. (Happily, they're sworn to secrecy.) It was also good because I think that, even without filling in the beats in between, it gave them a good sense of where the series was going to go.

— according to the "arc memo", the end (of the sequel series) is Sinclair fishing quietly on some uninhabited world. Which doesn't seem all that interesting, really.

And then there's this other quote from the Lurker's Guide page for "Sleeping in Light":

"What this boils down to is... is the ending you envisioned at the start of Babylon 5 the same today as it was then?"

For the most part, yeah...it's gotten a bit refined over time, the way it always does the closer you get to it...it's like seeing a mountain from a great distance, then closing in until you can make out the details. But basically, yeah.

Which means that either JMS is way more flexible, mentally, than I ever knew, or he's just put a huge one over on us. I guess we'll see.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Michael Bérubé Strikes Again

Michael Bérubé just posted a very good essay on the candidates and their disability policies. I really miss when he posted things regularly. I miss his snark, especially. Here's a good example from the most recent post:

So I thought I’d write a little something about the candidates’ policy positions on disability, because apparently (a) no one knows that the candidates have policy positions on disability and (b) policy positions on disability are not as important as flag pins. Granted, disability policy never swings an election. And why should it? Unless you yourself have a disability, or unless you know someone with a disability, or unless you’re concerned about things like employment or health care, or unless you might get sick or injured someday, or unless you’re planning on aging, disability policy is irrelevant to you.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Onion Headline I Expected but Didn't See

After The Onion displayed headlines like "Ringo Next" after George Harrison died, and "Ebert Victorious" after Gene Siskel died, I really did expect them to have a headline like "Gun Pried" after Charlton Heston died.


UPDATE (2008-04-10) Apparently I spoke too soon. Later that day, this showed up. I'd love to claim credit for nudging them to do it, but it's so obvious.

Why Introverts Don't Like IM

Speaking as a generally introverted person, and someone who really doesn't like IM or high interrupt rates, this seems about right to me.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Modest Proposal (Financial Services Edition)

Wow. The New York Times finally noticed today that financial services CEOs are getting off without much in the way of consequences for messing everything up. Nice of them to catch up to, oh, 1997.

Molly Ivins liked to point out that modern capitalists wanted to "privatize profit and socialize risk". I'm not sure if she coined the phrase (which the NY Times Editorial Board sort of uses, but not quite) but she's the first person I first saw use it.

My Modest Proposal for fixing the insanely eff'd up incentives here ("let's take crazy risks with other people's money -- if we win, we're rich, if we lose, the Fed will bail us out" -- see also moral hazard) is this:

If the Federal Reserve or some Governmental Body bails out any company, then the CEO, President, CFO, Board of Directors, etc. (everyone who is listed in a 10-K filing) immediately forfeits all income, savings, property (which will be put toward paying off shareholders) and must file for personal bankruptcy. Without the help of any lawyers.

I think that'd be a strong dis-incentive to eff up the company and then beg for mercy at the public trough, don't you?

Battlestar Galactica Cast Presents the BSG Top Ten List

Top Ten Reasons to Watch Battlestar Galactica this Season.

UPDATE: you apparently have to click on the little "camera" icon just above the text of the list in order to see the video. I can't find a URL to do that for you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Boston: Central Front on the War on Terror

Go Boston! Fight the Terrists!

Rush-hour manhunt for terrorists on T revealed as mistake:

Peter Watchorn is a professional harpsichordist, an Australian-born US citizen, and a 21-year resident of Cambridge. He was very surprised last week when he was mistaken for a terrorist.

Sigh.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Obligatory XKCD Shout-Out

I am a former physicist, and a big fan of Richard Feynman[1], so I have to link to today's XKCD.

[1] Too bad I couldn't convince The Spouse to name The New Cat "Feynman".

Friday, February 29, 2008

Some People Shouldn't Be Allowed to Program

I refer specifically to whoever programmed the A/C units installed in a certain (not to be named) colocation facility. They were programmed to reboot once a month, at at 23:59 on the last day of the month, and restart at 00:00 on the first of the month. Last night, February 28th, at 23:59, they shut down, and today, February 29th, leap day, they did not restart at 00:00. We can only assume they would have restarted tomorrow, March 1, at 00:00.

Sigh.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bérubé is back

Michael Bérubé is back, blogging occasionally at TPM Cafe. This makes me very happy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wrong Movie Title

Newsweek's cover this week is John McCain vs. the right wingers who hate him:

(That's the best image I could find on their web site.)

The text is "There Will Be Blood", with the subtitle "Why the right hates John McCain".

I do wonder if the Newsweek cover editor thought of using "No Country For Old Men" instead.

I'd like this to be the year of "No Presidency for Old White Men", myself.

Friday, January 11, 2008

While I'm Bashing Hillary....

Let's remember one of Molly Ivins' last columns: I Will Not Support Hillary Clinton for President, which sums it up pretty well.

Don't get me wrong, I'll pull the lever (okay, fill in the bubble; we have optical scan here in Massachusetts) for Hillary if she's the nominee. But still. It'd be nice to not have Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton. You know, not an aristocracy.

Why I Read Scalzi

Scalzi unloads with both barrels on the current political situation. My favorite bit:

These are reasons that I can’t help but think the GOP would rather face Obama than Clinton in the general election: because I doubt she’s as unpopular as some folks want to believe, and also, when it comes right down to wallowing in the pig shit and going after your opponent with a splintery baseball bat, no one does it better than the Clintons, and the GOP is out of practice dealing with an opponent who not only hits back but is out to break your fucking skull. Obama’s already been marked as someone who wants to take the high road, which is to say, he’s a sitting duck for a smearing, and we all know how the GOP loves a soft target. The Clinton’s aren’t going to put up with that crap. The first 527 to try to Swift Boat Clinton is likely to get its collective ass handed to it.

If Hillary would actually campaign on a platform of "I will break their fucking skulls if they get in my way", I might actually feel inclined to vote for her. But she (and Bill too) has shown time and again that she's willing -- eager -- to triangulate when she doesn't even need to (e.g. co-sponsoring flag burning amendments or voting to call Iran's Revolutionary Guard (Iran's Army) a "terrorist organization"). Sure, the Clintons will pull out the knives to get elected -- but will they do so to fight for an actual policy agenda once elected?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Jane Austen, Vampire Slayer?

We got our monthly PBS Home Video catalog a day or two ago. It's got Jane Austen all over it, since PBS is showing all the various Jane Austen movies/miniseries this month. On the cover is a truly creepy picture from the cover of the Persuasion DVD:

(Source.)

It's a little less obvious in this digital picture, but the catalog cover version makes the woman (presumably Anne Elliot) look like a vampire from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show. It's fairly spooky.

Now, let's see, where was the Slayer while Jane Austen was writing? A Buffy/Jane Austen mashup sounds like it'd be fun...but clearly I am not the only one with this idea, as this google search nets 63,000 hits.

F, it's Warm

It's 64° F here. In January. Less than a week ago, it was 6° F

Next up: rains of frogs.


In other climate news, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby this past weekend continued his streak of being a schmuck by basically saying "it's cold! This disproves global warming!" This is the sort of breathtakingly inane, willfully ignorant, and most of all cliché statement that should automatically trigger derisive laughter. Others in this category include "I'm not          ist -- some of my best friends are         ", "gay marriage undermines heterosexual marriage", and "I went to college in Boston" to faux-humbly obscure that one went to Harvard.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Are Mormons any Funnier than Christians?

Today's New York Times Magazine has an article about Mitt Romney, Mormonism, and politics. The the article doesn't really add much to my knowledge or understanding of Mormons and politics, but then again I'm a political junkie, and live in Massachusetts, where Mitt Romney was governor (and where he lived for 30 years, raised his kids, and now slags on as part of his protean campaign for the Republican nomination).

The article does include one paragraph I found very thought-provoking:

Still, even among those who respect Mormons personally, it is still common to hear Mormonism's tenets dismissed as ridiculous. This attitude is logically indefensible insofar as Mormonism is being compared with other world religions. There is nothing inherently less plausible about God's revealing himself to an upstate New York farmer in the early years of the Republic than to the pharaoh's changeling grandson in ancient Egypt. But what is driving the tendency to discount Joseph Smith's revelations is not that they seem less reasonable than those of Moses; it is that the book containing them is so new. When it comes to prophecy, antiquity breeds authenticity. Events in the distant past, we tend to think, occurred in sacred, mythic time. Not so revelations received during the presidencies of James Monroe or Andrew Jackson.

I've wondered about this aspect of religion-in-public-life before. Is there any rational (as opposed to merely rationalized) basis for mocking the Mormon or Scientologist religious stories (or, for that matter, those of Heaven's Gate or other cults) but not those of mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and so on?

Full disclosure time: I'm an atheist. I find the supernatural/theological content of most religions to be bunk. (Aram says I worship the top quark, which is metaphorically true -- I suppose this makes me a Unitarian physicist.) I was raised in a fairly standard mainstream Protestant Christian (Presbyterian, to be exact) household, and to complete the stereotype, I am a preacher's kid.

I do feel an urge to give a something of a pass to older religions, at least to the followers thereof who don't take their founding texts literally. The question is: is this merely familiarity? Antiquity giving a patina of respectability? Or is it the actual content? Or something more meta?

It might be the content. Both Mormon and Scientologist "history" make some fairly silly factual/historical claims (with L. Ron beating Joseph Smith on the silliness meter, but he had the advantage of being a science fiction writer). The stories of Jesus of Nazareth are actually much less miraculous than the stories of Genesis. Don't get me wrong -- the Christian Gospels are full of miracles, but they're all relatively small in scale. Raising the dead is pretty amazing, but it was one guy, not millions. Walking on water is cool, but it's again, one guy. Loaves and fishes and water into wine? Both one-time, one-gathering things. And even the Resurrection? One guy, one-time event. Compared to Moses (parting the Red Sea, Ten Commandments [all various versions], plagues, etc.), Jesus' miracles are pretty darn local. ("Think globally, miracle locally"?) If you take away the miracles (or take them as metaphor, or whatever), though, there's actually a fair amount of story left.

Aside: one of the things I find weirdest about fundamentalist/literalist Christians is how much (i.e. basically all) of their issues (e.g. with evolution) are from the Old Testament. As Lewis Black put it, "it's not their book!".

So maybe it's not the content specifically -- Jesus visiting the lost tribes of Israel over in North America after the Resurrection, or Thetans visiting Earth in DC-9-resembling spaceships parked in volcanoes, aren't all that much crazier than Great Floods or Red Seas Parting, or the whole Garden of Eden thing. Maybe it's the literalism. I find Christian Biblical Literalism to be ludicrous in the abstract and scary in the concrete, and I have similar responses to both Mormonism and Scientology. (By the way, I do not consider it coincidental that Romney is running for President fairly soon after Tom Cruise jumped the couch. There's nothing like a newer cult/religion to legitimize a slightly older one by contrast.)

But I think it's more than just literalism vs. metaphor here. I think it really comes under the heading of presentism. I guess I consider anything after the Enlightenment to be part of the modern "now", and wonder how anyone in the modern era could ever take something like the literal claims of Mormonism or Scientology seriously. And I'm willing to give a pass to older established religions because People Back Then were ignorant and superstitious, lacking Our Modern Perspective.

The only wiggle room I see for getting out of my self-diagnosed Presentism is to say that since we don't actually know with good documentary evidence how most of the well-established religions started, People Back Then might not have taken things as literally as we assume, while we know a lot about the start of Mormonism and Scientology, because they're within modern historical (and in the case of Scientology, living) memory. But I think that's a pretty weak wiggle.

And since I find literalist adherents of older established religions to be as silly as literalist Mormons or Scientologists, I guess that settles it for my position: all religions are full of historical claims that are deeply sily and at odds with the evidence of the world. Anyone who takes those claims literally is choosing willful falsehood over evidence-based science. That's their choice. It's not what I'd want for myself, and it's certainly not what I want in a President.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Thanks, Blogger

Apparently, in Blogger, if you save a post, and then post it later, the timestamp is stuck at save-time, not post-time, so your post shows up below any more recently-started posts. That sucks.

I refer to this review of Charles Stross's latest books. So even though it's below my more recent post, that's actually new.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

F, it's Cold

10° F here now, going down to 6 overnight. I expect that the gas company will be very happy that I will be paying them a huge amount of money this month.

Zetetical was just whining about flying to Florida from 50° weather in the Northeast. Quitcher whining. But no rubbing it in!

Obligatory political jab: this is the first time this winter that our temperature (in ° F) has gone below George W. Bush's approval rating (in batshit-insane percent).

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Book Reviews: Stross Stuff

I've recently read Charles Stross's latest two books, Glasshouse (June 2006) and Halting State (October 2007). I read Halting State first.

Halting State is a virtual-world whodunit, centering around a virtual bank heist inside a MMORPG. The novel's structure is three intertwined second-person narratives (apparently a nod to second-person text adventure games). The three plot threads work fairly well, but the second-person viewpoint doesn't work as well as it could have -- I found at least two (and sometimes all three) of the characters basically interchangeable. It's a fun near-future romp in the fields of Charlie Stross's mind, but it's not his best book. (I feel like he took some experimental chances for this one but they didn't fully work. But good for him to be taking chances.)

Glasshouse is a seriously disturbing book (or at least I found it so). The first-person (present-tense) narrator, Robin, is a veteran of the Censorship Wars (during which the wormhole/teleporter network was hacked by seriously Bad Guys) who has had a big chunk of his memories removed surgically in an attempt to -- well, he's not sure, since he can't remember. While in a rehab environment, he joins an "experimental anthropology" study wherein he and other humans will be put inside an isolated environment and will try to recreate late-20th century culture (since by the 27th Century when the book takes place, history has been mostly blasted into oblivion).

It takes the first quarter or third of the book to get Robin into the experiment (complete with a new, female, body and a new name, "Reeve"), at which point the whole novel becomes an astonishing and stomach-churning investigation into both the social structure of a stereotypical 1950's U.S. suburb and social experiments. The investigators mix panopticon surveillance (thus the Glasshouse of the title) with social status incentive structures that make the Stasi seem like your neighborhood Girl Scouts. Some of the other participants take to the experiment like ducks to water and turn into the worst kind of people -- think high school "popular kids" raised to the Nth power. I was forcefully reminded of the Stanford Prison Experiment, and Stross even places a "Zimbardo protocol" reference in later (Philip Zimbardo ran the Stanford Prison Experiment). (Somewhat unrelated to the story, there seem to be a large sprinkling of Cordwainer Smith references in the book.)

Robin/Reeve quickly realizes that something is seriously wrong with the experiment and starts making plans to escape. I won't spoil any more of the plot, but I will say that it unfolds very effectively and concludes satisfyingly.

Bottom line: Halting State: fun, but it will date quickly like most near-future SF. Glasshouse: highly recommended unless you still have nightmares about high school social structures.

Attend the Tale....

The Spouse and I saw Sweeney Todd the other day. It's really good. Gruesome (in ways that the stage version can't be), but really good.

Johnny Depp, I forgive you for dating Winona Ryder.

Johnny Depp can actually sing. Helena Bonham Carter can mostly sing, though her voice is a bit thin for the part of Mrs. Lovett. The kid they got to play Toby is fantastic. Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin is, well, Alan Rickman.

My only complaints: no "Ballad Of Sweeney Todd" (apparently it's "too theatrical" -- they apparrently filmed something but ended up not putting it in), not even over the end credits; too many shots of Sweeney Todd's victims' bodies falling down into the basement (it's the landing part of that that clearly was giving Tim Burton the Happies); and not enough Anthony Stewart Head (who is in there for about three seconds; he was originally going to be part of the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" chorus but that didn't work out).

Highly recommended. But not for the faint of stomach.