Friday, September 25, 2009

Sierra Club Service Trip

I just finished Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food this week and watched a couple of great documentaries: Food, Inc. and The Age of Stupid. I wrote about the first two of those here and will have something on The Age of Stupid in a week or so.

I'm going to be off the grid (maybe) for about the next week, though you would scarcely be able to tell since my blog posts have been so infrequent anyway. I'm going on a Sierra Club service trip to the Audubon Research Ranch in southeastern Arizona. This is the same place I went 4 years ago and talked about here:

I had a blast on that trip and am going this time with 3 friends I made then. Lest you think it was all work, we were drinking every night.

If I remember correctly, the cell phone coverage was a bit spotty. But if I can, I'm going to twitter and post some stuff to my Facebook page while I'm there. If not, I'll have some pics and a story when I get back.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Blog Roundup

Some of my favorite blogs and their recent posts:

I saw Inglorious Basterds a few weeks ago, liked it, but was confused on how to review it. Wunelle allayed my doubts:

Cyberkitten found this great graphic of Charles Darwin. I've decided I have to get the t-shirt of this:

Fellow movie lover Sadie has a couple of nice reviews (old and new):

Laura with some nice pics of Chi-town and life there:

That's it for now. This is what I do when I'm not clever enough to write something for myself. Thankfully you guys are.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ignorant boisterous free speech is OK, but silence is not?

You'll have to forgive me, I'm confused. It's OK to for an elected official to yell at the President during a speech, and it's OK to carry guns, be rude and yell at town hall meetings, but it's not OK to exercise your free speech by not saying anything and by merely staying seated? What kind of bizarro country are we? I didn't sign up for this.

TRENTON, N.J. — Three teenagers who say they were tossed from a New Jersey ballpark over their refusal to stand during the song "God Bless America" are suing the minor league Newark Bears.

The boys argue that their constitutional rights were violated when they were asked to leave Newark's Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium on June 29 by Bears' president and co-owner Thomas Cetnar.

Cetnar acknowledged the boys were asked to leave but declined to say why. He also has denied making some statements attributed to him in the lawsuit.

The boys — Millburn High seniors Bryce Gadye and Nilkumar Patel, both 17, and junior Shaan Mohammad Khan, 16 — sued in federal court on Friday seeking unspecified damages.

According to the lawsuit, the boys were seated behind home plate when the song began playing. Once it ended, they say Cetnar approached them yelling.

"Nobody sits during the singing of 'God Bless America' in my stadium," the lawsuit quotes Cetnar as saying. "Now the get the (expletive) out of here."

... "The boys weren't trying to make any political statements, they just didn't get up," he said. "No one gave them an ultimatum. The song was sung, it was finished, then they were thrown out."

..."I think what makes it so horrible is that they were publicly humiliated for exercising a right that was guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution," Gadye said ...

And don't tell me it's the national anthem. God Bless America is not our anthem. I do stand during the Star Spangled Banner. I've got no problem with that. It's a matter of civic participation, rooted in ritual and has been performed at least semi-regularly at ballgames since the 1890's. God Bless America, however, is overtly religious and has only been played with any type of regularity at ballgames since 9/11.

If you ask me, Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land is a much more fitting anthem. Let's see ... on the one hand, we have a couple of "anthems" that glorify religion (specifically Christianity) and war. On the other hand, we have a song that talks about the natural beauty of our country and of brotherhood. The last couple of verses of This Land is Your Land are even oddly prescient (considering they were written in 1956):

"... As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me."

I'm grumblin' and wonderin' indeed.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Charles Darwin film 'too controversial for religious America'

"The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so." -- Sam Harris

Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin's "struggle between faith and reason" as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.

The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution., an influential site which reviews films from a Christian perspective, described Darwin as the father of eugenics and denounced him as "a racist, a bigot and an 1800s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder". His "half-baked theory" directly influenced Adolf Hitler and led to "atrocities, crimes against humanity, cloning and genetic engineering", the site stated.

The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites, with a typical comment dismissing evolution as "a silly theory with a serious lack of evidence to support it despite over a century of trying".

Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of Creation, said he was astonished that such attitudes exist 150 years after On The Origin of Species was published.

"That's what we're up against. In 2009. It's amazing," he said.

"The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about. People have been saying this is the best film they've seen all year, yet nobody in the US has picked it up.

"It is unbelievable to us that this is still a really hot potato in America. There's still a great belief that He made the world in six days. It's quite difficult for we in the UK to imagine religion in America. We live in a country which is no longer so religious. But in the US, outside of New York and LA, religion rules.

"Charles Darwin is, I suppose, the hero of the film. But we tried to make the film in a very even-handed way. Darwin wasn't saying 'kill all religion', he never said such a thing, but he is a totem for people."

Creation was developed by BBC Films and the UK Film Council, and stars Bettany's real-life wife Jennifer Connelly as Darwin's deeply religious wife, Emma. It is based on the book, Annie's Box, by Darwin's great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, and portrays the naturalist as a family man tormented by the death in 1851 of Annie, his favourite child. She is played in the film by 10-year-old newcomer Martha West, the daughter of The Wire star Dominic West.

Early reviews have raved about the film. The Hollywood Reporter said: "It would be a great shame if those with religious convictions spurned the film out of hand as they will find it even-handed and wise."

Mr Thomas, whose previous films include The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, said he hoped the reviews would help to secure a distributor. In the UK, special screenings have been set up for Christian groups. is a site that gave GI Joe 4 stars because, as they put it, it gives "A very strong moral, light Christian worldview of good vs evil, honor vs treachery, etc., with a very strong patriotic presentation of the military as it protects civilization from violent evil forces". Not content with just reviewing that movie, they had to preach, "America is unlikely to fall to a military strike. What Hitler and Stalin could not impose on us with their armies we are accepting peacefully because we are morally weak. More than super-troops in accelerator suits, America needs Christians willing to defend the right to life, the true meaning of marriage and the moral values that make our civilization civil. " That is perhaps the most unintentionally funny review I have ever read.

More unintential levity on their site is the link to donate: Link to donate: "Donate: Help us bring God's light to an industry with much darkness." worries about protecting against the forces of darkness, but darkness is exactly what it is breeding. It promotes ignorance over openness, misunderstanding over insight, mysticism over enlightenment. The worse kind of stupidity ... ignorance couched in righteousness.

It'd be easy to write off this site and those that sponsor and use it as the fringe or "fundamentalists". But they're not. This is mainstream Christianity. That's the scary thing. God bless America.

"Only 28 percent of Americans believe in evolution; 68 percent believe in Satan." -- Sam Harris

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Book Review: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

I FINALLY finished a book that I've been reading for awhile, Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. Pinker is a popular scientist who spoke at the Origins Symposium that I went this last year (though I didn't get to see him). His particular field of expertise is experimental psychology. This particular book delves into how humans developed the capacity for language.

It's an exhaustive book and hits on the common forms of all languages regardless of the supposed level of sophistication of the speakers. It's very interesting in that he demonstrates how many forms of slang are actually more internally consistent forms of communication than the supposed arbitrary rules of style that all languages try to stick to. But these styles are really moving targets and are no more right than the slang. Many things that start out as slang eventually end up in the language. He really rails against the intellectual snobbery of supposed language experts that have no more claim to what "proper" English is than anyone else does.

The Language Instinct is most engaging when it compares different languages and when it talks about how children progressively pick up language. When it lost me was actually earlier in the book when it talks a bit too much about "phonemes" and "word structures" and so on. It's basically equations for linguists. Just a little too close to feeling like I was back in college.

Another part of the book I like is how he describes that the development of language was just another biological process in humans created by natural selection:

" ... the pains that have been taken to portray language as innate, complex, and useful but not a product of the one force in nature than can make innate complex useful things"

He is, of course, referring to natural selection. Pinker's assertions are in marked contrast to some linguists, like Noam Chomsky, who believe that there is a hard-wired universal grammar among all languages that is a by-product of other adaptations instead of an adaptation in and of itself.

"Since biological systems with signs of complex engineering are unlikely to have arisen from accidents or coincidences, their organization must come from natural selection, and hence should have functions useful for survival and reproduction in the environments in which humans evolved (This does not mean, however, that all aspects of mind are adaptations, or that the mind's adaptations are necessarily beneficial in evolutionarily novel environments like twentieth-century cities)."

So language, and other things that humans do, were processes that in our evolutionary past were useful for our survival. Pinker even speculates about others:

"I would guess that most other human "cultural" practices (competitive sports, narrative literature, landscape design, ballet), no matter how much they seem like arbitrary outcomes of a Borgesian lottery, are clever technologies we have invented to exercise and stimulate mental modules that were originally designed for specific adaptive functions."

All very heady stuff. If you want an introduction to Pinker's work and a little different take on evolution, you could do worse than The Language Instinct. I recommend this book.

"Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground." -- Noah Webster

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Zombie health care

The people that are perpetuating these fabrications don't want to admit who the real zombies are ... themselves. It's an echo chamber with the Grover Norquists of the world at the top, with the Frank Luntz's as framers of the message, and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh as the snake-oil salesmen.

I know every generation thinks that it was better before when they were younger, that there is a reduction in civility in the current generation. Maybe I'm getting old, but I'm starting to think that now also. I hope I'm wrong.

The very technology that I'm trying to embrace (Facebook, blogging, Twitter, smartphones) is also the technology that is enabling astro-turfing and manufactured discontent. I mean, this indignation about Obama's speech to children this week is the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard. Every President that has ever existed has spoken to students and told them the virtues of staying in schools and setting goals. If I have one person come up to me, e-mail me, or post something on their Facebook page about boycotting the speech, I swear I'm going to go Evil Dead on their ass because I will be convinced they are the very incarnation of the walking dead.

"But I don't care darling, because I love you, and you've got to let me eat your brains." -- Return of the Living Dead