Monday, September 27, 2010

Dark Ages

Having Netflix Instant, I've been working through some programs and movies that I might not have watched otherwise. One of those programs is Stargate SG-1. I had seen random episodes through the years but had not watched a whole season. I liked the show but just didn't take the time to follow it. Anyway, I saw an episode (called Enigma in season 1 that had a line that I found interesting:

We'd be colonizing space right now if it hadn't been for the Dark Ages. There was a period of over eight hundred years where science was heresy and anathema. Maybe they didn't have that set-back.” – Daniel Jackson on the reason for the Tollan’s superior tech.

The SG-1 team had found a human society that appeared to be at least 500 years advanced of ours despite the fact that their humans had originated on Earth (and thus should be no more advanced). Dr. Jackson was commenting on the reason for Earth society's stunted scientific growth. The quote is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, is it true? I believe so. Given an additional 500 or 600 more years, imagine the advancements in propulsion, computing, physics, etc. (assuming we haven't destroyed ourselves).

That's the fascinating thing about science fiction. Sci-fi poses questions about life in an entertaining way and broaches subjects that would seem controversial or preachy in another context. Stargate is by no means on the level of Battlestar Gallactica as far as relevance is concerned. But, in its own way, it didn't do too bad in that department.

The quote is interesting for another reason. Does it say something about the current state of science and religion? Are we working towards a modern Dark Age? There is rampant anti-intellectualism. Anyone that dares to to doubt the existence of God is pilloried. Science that doesn't agree with someone's worldview is dismissed. People of influence and power in our government and media make quotes such as these:

Rush Limbaugh: "Despite the hysterics of a few pseudo-scientists, there is no reason to believe in global warming."

Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell on Bill Maher's show:

O’DONNELL: You know what, evolution is a myth. And even Darwin himself –

MAHER: Evolution is a myth?!? Have you ever looked at a monkey!

O’DONNELL: Well then, why they — why aren’t monkeys still evolving into humans?

And on FOX News: "They are — they are doing that here in the United States. American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains. So they're already into this experiment."

And the always entertaining James Inhofe, global-warming denier par excellence:

" ... much of the debate over global warming is predicated on fear, rather than science. I called the threat of catastrophic global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,""

"I don't have to tell you about reading the Scriptures, but one of mine that I’ve always enjoyed is Romans 1, 22 and 23. You quit worshipping God and start worshipping the creation -- the creeping things, the four-legged beasts, the birds and all that. That’s their (the environmentalists') god. That’s what they worship. If you read Romans 1:25, it says, ‘and they gave up their God and started worshipping the creation.’ That's what we are looking at now, that’s what’s going on. And we can’t let it happen."

As Cincinnati columnist Ben L. Kaufman put it,

"In a nation accustomed to seeking simple answers to complex questions and a culture increasingly driven by belief rather than evidence, scientists today often are trying to communicate with the willfully deaf."

Something to think about. If rationality and reason are constantly subverted while belief and mysticism are elevated, are we diving headlong into another age of stifled development? Can our society survive another dark age?

"Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead." -- Bertrand Russell

Sunday, September 26, 2010


"I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect." -- Oscar Wilde

From Roger Ebert's Journal at the Chicago Sun Times, concerning Christopher Hitchens:

... The man can write. He has lived a life. He has seen for himself, making it a point to travel regularly to dangerous and wretched nations. He has been a man of political passion ... He takes his positions after a great deal of thought and he makes his reasons clear.

... shows himself as a man temperamentally driven to test his own opinions. He reasons instead of proselytizing. He exists as that most daring of writers, a freelance intellectual. He's a good speaker, can be funny, ... is passably good-looking, and is at no pains to be a charmer. He's popular because he's smart. He says nothing merely to be politic, although in some situations he may keep his meaning coiled well within.

We would all be lucky to be described in such a manner and to live in such a manner as to be deserving of the description.

"All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason." -- Immanuel Kant

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Political Song of the Day - We Shall Be Free by Garth Brooks

When the last child cries for a crust of bread,
When the last man dies for just words that he said,
When there's shelter over the poorest head,
We shall be free,

When the last thing we notice is the color of skin,
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within,
When the skies and the oceans are clean again,
Then we shall be free,

We shall be free ...

When we're free to love anyone we choose,
When this worlds big enough for all different views,
When we're all free to worship from our own kind of pew,
Then we shall be free,

We shall be free ...

And when money talks for the very last time,
And nobody walks a step behind,
When there's only one race and that's mankind,
Then we shall be free,

We shall be free ...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Movie Review: The Town

I checked out The Town this past weekend. I won't get too much into the plot, but to summarize: Lifelong friends rob banks in Boston -- One friend unexpectedly falls in love, sees a world outside his own limited world -- He wants to get out, but his past and his acquaintances seek to prevent it. As someone once said, "You can join the Firm, but you can never leave". We all kinda feel locked into our boring jobs and stale lives, but our impediments to change don't usually involve death.

The Town, written and directed by Ben Affleck and also starring, is without the artifice and sheen of a lot of the Affleck movies of the past (anything by Michael Bay). Like Wunelle said in his review, Affleck directorial style seems to have been influenced by Clint Eastwood. Strong praise indeed but not without merit. Eastwood films are not overly talkative, letting the setting speak. Eastwood films generally do not have your classic "hero", but more of an anti-hero. This film is no different. You are put in the odd position of rooting for sociopathic and violent thieves.

While the Eastwood comparisons are apt, I sense a bit of Scorsese influence as well. Affleck in his writing, in his choice of setting, and in his understanding of the dynamic between classes is very much evocative of how Scorsese is with New York/New Jersey and specifically the Italian-American community. Affleck's setting is obviously south-side Boston and has been used in all three movies that he's had creative input in (Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone, The Town).

After having seen Gone Baby Gone and knowing that Affleck is a competent director, I wasn't surprised by his effort here. But I was pleasantly surprised by his acting. Not that he hasn't shown talent there in the past, but it's certainly harder to find those few nuggets in a sea of bad material. He IS the lead actor in this one and has to hold his own among a bevy of talented actors including Pete Postlethwaite, Jon Hamm, Chris Cooper and most notably, Jeremy Renner. Renner explores some of the same off-the-rails type personality of his character in The Hurt Locker. He's undeniably talented, but I would be curious to see him in a more subtle drama just to see different parts of his talent. Not to shortchange the female talent, but Rebecca Hall is very good and Blake Lively (The Gossip Girl) is practically unrecognizable as a drugged up barfly.

The best scenes in the movie are the interactions between these great actors: Affleck and Cooper during a visitation of Affleck's character (Doug MacRay) to his father (Cooper) in prison; Affleck and Renner in a tense scene where MacRay tells his friend and partner James Coughlin (Renner) that he intends on leaving both his profession (robbing banks) and Boston; and the several scenes between MacRay and gangster Fergie Colm (Postlethwaite) in the latter's flower shop.

Is it the first heist movie ever? No. Has the premise been used before? Yes. But is it good? Undeniably. There is obvious craft used here. It's well-written, acted and directed with outstanding action scenes. It's gritty. It's not Hollywood. It's a story of revenge and a story of redemption. And it's one of the best movies I've seen this year. Grade: A-

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Political Songs of the Day: American Jesus by Bad Religion

American Jesus by Bad Religion

I don't need to be a global citizen,
'Cause I'm blessed by nationality,
I'm a member of a growing populace,
We enforce our popularity
There are things that seem to pull us under and
There are things that drag us down,
But there's a power and a vital presence
That's lurking all around

We've got the American Jesus
See him on the interstate,
We've got the American Jesus
He helped build the president's estate

I feel sorry for the earth's population
'Cause so few live in the U.S.A,
At least the foreigners can copy our morality,
They can visit but they cannot stay,
Only precious few can counter the barbarity,
It makes us walk with renewed confidence,
We've got a place to go when we die
And the architect resides right here

We've got the American Jesus
Bolstering national faith
We've got the American Jesus
Overwhelming millions every day

He's the farmers' barren fields, (In God)
He's the force the army wields, (We trust)
He's the expression on the faces of the starving millions, (Because he's one of us)
The power of the man. (Break down)
He's the fuel that drives the Klan, (Cave in)
He's the motive and the conscience of the murderer (He can redeem your sin)
He's the preacher on TV, (Strong heart)
He's the false sincerity, (Clear mind)
He's the form letter that's written by the big computer, (And infinitely kind)
He's the nuclear bombs, (You lose)
He's the kids with no moms (We win)
And I'm fearful that he's inside ME (He is our champion)

We've got the American Jesus
See him on the interstate
We've got the American Jesus
Exercising his authority
We've got the American Jesus
Bolstering National faith
We've got the American Jesus
Overwhelming millions every day

One nation under God(x10)


What are the characteristics of a theocracy?

"A nation or state in which the clergy exercise political power and in which religious law is dominant over civil law."

Now, I'm not going to use hyperbole and try to say we ARE a theocracy. But, don't you get the feeling sometimes that there is a large part of the country that wants us to move in that direction and are actively supporting leaders and candidates that believe exactly that?

You have nutters like Terry Jones threatening to burn Qurans, that some Republicans took their time to criticize:

Pastor Jones was a high school classmate of Rush Limbaugh in Missouri. Interesting.

And most recently, you have what any sane person would consider an absolute religious zealot, Christine O'Donnell, win the Republican primary for US Senate in Delaware. Someone who I have no love for and can't ever remember agreeing with, Karl Rove, called her for what she was and has been systematically criticized by every other prominent Republican (including the aforementioned Limbaugh). It's become a wacky world where George Bush looks like a moderate.

O'Donnell is a long-time religious activist with laughable beliefs on masturbation and sexuality in general. Here are just some of her greatest hits:

- 90s video of Christine O'Donnell explaining her crusade against the scourge of masturbation

- and O'Donnell on several of Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect programs

The weirdest thing is that a lot of Christians don't even consider her a zealot. That's you know when there is a problem with the direction of our country.

Vjack on Twitter put it this way:

In our political climate, I bet a Christian extremist who publicly advocated bombing medical clinics could win a GOP nomination.

And Josh Marshall from Talking Points Memo (joshtpm on Twitter)

US policy needs to empower moderate/peaceful elements within Republican party to isolate the radicals

If we are not a theocracy and there is separation of church and state, why does our President feel compelled to mention his Christian faith? What would the problem be if he WAS a Muslim or ... perish the thought ... an ATHEIST? Gasp!! The religious beliefs of one person should never inform the laws of everyone. We are going to become a backward, Creation-believing, science-denying, fundamentalist country no better than Iran if we don't start understanding this.

Woody Allen on masturbation: "it's sex with someone I love."

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Prayer, Deathbed Conversions, Cowardice

Very interesting commentary by the great writer, noted atheist and dying Christopher Hitchens in the newest Vanity Fair.

Hitchens has terminal throat cancer and Christians (and other religious sorts) have predictably different reactions to the news. Some see it as a punishment for his ungodly and profane ways. Others pray for his recovery, but not necessarily out of concern for his physical well-being ... or maybe I should say not as their first concern. They pray for the salvation of his soul.

Perhaps they are hoping for the frequent deathbed conversions that you hear of. He would denounce his life of impiety and irreverence. God truly IS good. But what worth is this kind of conversion? Why do sinners find God in prison? The same reason people do a lot of things ... fear. The thought of being alone and the fear that their life didn't mean anything scares people. And it should. But that should influence how you live your life, not what you do as the door is closing on your life. Those gestures are useless, meaningless, and cowardly.

"... Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice. Meanwhile, the god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe. I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better." -- Hitchens

Some of the most famous conversions are complete fabrications, most notably Charles Darwin's. It may be comforting to think that Darwin would renounce all that he believed before meeting his maker, but it simply wouldn't be true. Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins professing their faith at the end would make good press, but it should provide comfort to none. They themselves say it won't happen (Dawkins on Maher).

Pray for him if it suits you. He might even appreciate it:

"I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They don’t do any good, but they don’t necessarily do any harm. It’s touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that I’ve got my just desserts … I wish it was more consoling. But I have to say there’s some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that I’m in their prayers, and I can only say that I’m touched by the thought."

I am not offended by someone saying they pray for me if something ill has befallen me. You mean well. But let that prayer be its own reward. Hoping for a conversion by Hitchens, me, or anyone is not really about us ... it's about you.

Talking about praying for someone publicly and even parading one's piety around like a badge of honor is something Jesus would not agree with:

… And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

But you see it all the time. I don't believe in God, but I do know that hypocrites and self-aggrandizers like Sarah Palin, Pat Robertson, and Glenn Beck don't know the mind of God any more than I do. And the surest proof that God doesn't exist is that these type of people haven't been struck down by Him.

So, in those last days, if you hear of Christopher Hitchens accepting God, don't believe it, or at the very least question his sanity. He'll "continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until it's hello darkness my old friend.":

"As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business, though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be 'me.' (Bear this in mind, in case of any later rumors or fabrications.)"

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Arizonans get what they deserve

Cars I snapped pics of in the last week:

I have no problem with bumper stickers that might say something negative about a sitting president (I may have had one of my own in the past).  But the Kenya bumper sticker turns something that might just have been making fun of a president's intelligence into something racist.  Would a white president get similar treatment if their ancestors were from England or Ireland?  I don't think so.  At the very least, even if the sticker isn't racist, it indicates the owner is a "birther".  And that's a whole different kind of bat-shit crazy.

With constituents like this, is it any wonder we have idiots like this (incumbent governor Jan Brewer)?

It's not too much of a surprise that Sarah Palin is a big supporter and has stumped for Brewer.

"The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity." -- Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The *BIG* Book Meme

Copied from This Week @ the Library….. (by way of CK at Seeking a Little Truth)

1. Favorite childhood book?

Cannot really remember before about age 10. Early teens is when I got heavily into sci-fi (Heinlein, Herbert, Clarke, Asimov). So, probably Dune, but did not read that until I was about 15. I guess that's not really a "childhood book".

2. What are you reading right now?

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Briane Greene and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

3. What books do you have on request at the library?

I'm a book hoarder, not a book borrower. The wife and kid use the library all the time.

4. Bad book habit?

Like CK, it's buying more than I can read.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library


6. Do you have an e-reader?

Nope. Have tried out several (Kindle, iPad).

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?

One fiction, one or two non-fiction

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

Not frequency, but certainly in what I read. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't influenced at least a little bit by what some of my blog friends are reading and recommending.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)

Pull Up a Chair by Curt Smith. It's a biography of Vin Scully, who I love. But Smith seemed to be more in love with his own writing than in Scully.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?

Probably The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

I'll try a few a year that I wouldn't normally read if someone recommends them.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?


13. Can you read on the bus?

Sure, but haven't rode the bus in awhile.

14. Favorite place to read?

Living room near several of my bookcases.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

I have no problem with it as long I know the person and I know they are serious about reading the book they are borrowing.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?

Definitely not.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

Duh, no.

18. Even in college textbooks?

I did not, though I certainly had used books that were plenty marked up.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?

English. I wish I knew other languages.

20. What makes you love a book?

Detail and the sense that you are not just part of some formulaic book.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

If a book inspires me to do something or change something, then I usually feel that it will do the same for someone else.

22. Favorite genre?


23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

I used to read a lot more history books, but have gotten out of the habit. I read books that talk about history indirectly, but not specifically.

24. Favorite biography?

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer or Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?

I know these books are helpful to some people and would not want to minimize that. But, I can't ever imagine reading one. If you are motivated enough to buy one, then you probably don't need it in the first place.

26. Favorite cookbook?

A couple of vegetarian ones I picked up.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

Oddly, Collapse by Jared Diamond

28. Favorite reading snack?

Trail mix.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

Can't remember any.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

I generally don't read book reviews. The exception is those by my blog friends. And I generally agree with them.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

If you are willing to recommend a book, then you should be willing to criticize another.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

Right now, Swedish. It would be cool to read ... Dragon Tattoo in its native language.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

I hope I'm a little intimidated by most books. I need the challenge.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

Believe it or not, I've never read On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. I just expect it to be a little dated and too detailed to be enjoyable.

35. Favorite Poet?

I never really read poetry.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

When I was checking out books, probably just 1 at a time.

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?

A few.

38. Favorite fictional character?

Aragorn in Lord of the Rings

39. Favorite fictional villain?

I like books where the villain is really internal. The main character is fighting against his/her own demons.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

I don't think I really read anything different than I normally would.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.

Probably about 6 months in college.

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.

The previously mentioned Vin Scully biography.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?


44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?

Probably the Golden Compass. I didn't out-and-out hate it, and I liked the casting. But there was way too much of characters explaining the story.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

I think $70 or $80.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?

Non-fiction to get an idea of the scope of the book. Never with fiction.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?

I usually feel compelled to read books I've started. But if I know I'm really not going to like it, I'll stop in the first chapter. I won't wait till I'm halfway through it.

49. How do you keep your books organized?

Sections by subject and alphabetically within them. But, of course, I buy so many that at any one time, there are a bunch of random books sitting around the house.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

I keep 'em.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

I'm pretty sure I'll never read a romance novel.

52. Name a book that made you angry.

I can't think of one off the top of my head.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?