Friday, November 28, 2008

Rock and Roll Means Well

Drive By Truckers, The Hold Steady, Wiltern I went to see The Hold Steady and Drive By Truckers at the Wiltern on Tuesday night.  I've been a fan of DBT for quite a while now, but I wasn't expecting a tremendous show from them.  The Truckers are a band for whom the crowd is extremely important.  Unfortunately, LA just doesn't have the fan base that they need to really get the ball rolling (damned LA posers).  I've seen them in LA twice now, and both times they were technically excellent but the magic wasn't there.  I enjoyed every minute, nonetheless.  Now when I saw them in July at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach...well, that was a special show.  It cost me a $150 pair of Ecco's, but was well worth it (and is another story altogether).

For The Hold Steady however, LA is filled with fans, and they came out in force for this concert.  I've only recently really started listening to their music, and I like it; but for me the live show clenched their place in my playlist.  What a powerful performance.  The music was performed perfectly, the energy was high, and the crowd was pumped up.  I highly recommend seeing them live.

The highlight for me was the finale where both bands came out on stage.  Now, DBT rocks no less than three guitars, The Hold Steady adds two more, plus Shonna Tucker picked up a six-string for a change for a total of six guitars.  (BTW, Shonna if you read this, I have a huge crush on you.  Just so's ya know.)  Not once, though, did the six guitar thing get out of control.  The combined bands performed a version of DBT's Let There Be Rock and covered Robbie Robertson's Look Out, Cleveland.  But for me the highlight was the cover of AC/DC's Ride on, which was spectacular.

All in all, a fantastic show.  If you get a chance to see either band, take it - great musicians and great music.

We'll see y'all at the rock show.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Daniel Henninger and the War on Christmas

 I normally find the Wall Street Journal to be an enjoyable read.  I'm fiscally conservative and WSJ really has some great writers.  However, Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the editorial page, has written a piece of absolute tripe that I hope WSJ at least regrets publishing.  In this piece, Mr. Henninger (can I call you Danny? Thanks) makes two completely unsubstantiated claims.  First, that there is a wholesale movement away from the use of "Merry Christmas" as a midwinter greeting (ostensibly to "Happy Holidays" since he doesn't actually state what he thinks people are saying), and this trend is due to actions by the atheist community. Second, there is a connection between this and the current financial crisis.

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

The stupid, it burns.

Seriously?  I don't know very many people who avoid saying merry christmas.  I still say merry christmas and I'm an atheist.  So do most of my non-religious and jewish friends.  The truth is, Danny, most atheist don't give a rat's ass whether you say merry christmas, happy holidays, happy chanukah, merry solstice or happy kwanza.  It just doesn't make a huge difference in our lives. (Now, if you want to put a nativity scene up at your local city hall we might take issue, but for other reasons entirely.)  Businesses might choose to use happy holidays in their advertisements because, well, they're run by businesspeople who realize that they probably have both christian and jewish patrons.  For example,


"We also use the word 'holiday' in our outreach to customers, as many of our store displays and other marketing efforts cover more than one holiday from Thanksgiving to New Year's and stay in place throughout the entire holiday season from November through January," Home Depot spokesman Ron DeFeo wrote in a statement to AFA.  (source)

It’s just easier to say one thing than to try and address all winter holidays separately.  Note that Mr. DeFeo didn't mention any concern for the atheist opinion, because the vast majority of companies don't even consider what we want when crafting marketing strategies.  

So I think the first point is weak at best.  Sure my conclusion is based on a small sampling, but you can do a little research for yourself and see how many of your friends and colleagues still say merry christmas.  Christmas is not under attack.    Feel free to use whatever phrase you like.  We promise not to pay any attention.

That leaves the second point. In order for the argument to stand, point one must be valid.  So let me grant point one as true.  Where to begin regarding point two then?  To say that this is a strawman is to insult scarecrows around the globe.  It is completely unsupported by any data or evidence in the article.  If Danny had bothered to look, there is plenty of evidence that the more secular of the developed democracies exhibit substantial “moral” behavior.  In fact, there have been entire books written on that very subject.  Take Phil Zuckerman’s “Society Without God: What the least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment for example.  In this book, Zuckerman explores morality in the Scandinavian nations of Norway and Sweden where the vast majority of the population exhibit at most a “gentle agnosticism”.  The last time I checked, these countries were not the ones who allowed the construction of a financial house of cards based on poor management by powerful mortgage and insurance firms.  That was the US, the most christian nation on the planet.  Some of these countries did jump on the bandwagon (Iceland being a prime example), but they didn’t start this mess.  We did.

If you want to examine a worldview that might lead one to taking on a mortgage that one knows is too large, let’s look at “prosperity theology.”  The wiki entry for this topic lists more than 25 tele-evangelists who espouse this morally bankrupt concept, including Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, and Joel Osteen.  These charlatans have followings in the tens of thousands, many in the economic brackets that are most affected by the current crisis.  I’m not going to describe this theology in any detail, but I think anyone who believes that their piety entitles them to a big house or a fancy car is a poor moral example.  And don’t get me started on The Secret.  What a barrel of bollocks.  Oprah, baby, what the fuck are you thinking?

So I think it’s safe to say that being more rational and educated isn’t the cause for making poor financial choices.  Those who believe that god will take care of them regardless of their poor choices will continue to get exactly what they deserve.

Be well,


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Science education - we're doing it wrong

As a fan of all that is sciencey (not a word, I know), I feel fortunate to live in what is considered the most scientifically advanced society that has ever existed. However, I think there is a distinct movement in the US away from science as part of the foundation of our worldview.  Whether you're talking about the introduction of non-science into the science classroom or the backlash against "elite" university-educated leaders, knowledge-seeking and rationality seems to be in decline.

I want to give you a frightening example of where this attitude is leading. produces cartograms of the world based on specific data.  So instead of a country's size on the map being based on physical landmass, it is based on its ranking within a particular data set.  In their own words:
'The maps presented on this website are equal area cartograms, otherwise known as density-equalising maps. The cartogram re-sizes each territory according to the variable being mapped.' 
The particular cartogram below

'...shows the growth in scientific research of territories between 1990 and 2001. If there was no increase in scientific publications that territory has no area on the map.

In 1990, 80 scientific papers were published per million people living in the world, this increased to 106 per million by 2001. This increase was experienced primarily in territories with strong existing scientific research. However, the United States, with the highest total publications in 2001, experienced a smaller increase since 1990 than that in Japan, China, Germany and the Republic of Korea. Singapore had the greatest per person increase in scientific publications.'

© Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan).

As you can easily see, the US (we're the small, purple part on the left) is growing more slowly than both the EU and Asia in terms of scientific research publication.  You might be saying to yourself, " Nice map, but who cares?"  We should all care.  The US has been slowing moving away from it's traditional manufacturing roots for decades.  All you have to do is look at cities like Gary, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or numerous other rust belt cities to know that.  One area that has been a growth engine is biotech.  Companies like Amgen, Genentech, and Chiron to name a few helped to kick off a vibrant and dynamic industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people across the country in high-paying jobs.  Their partnerships with universities large and small provide critical funding for research and help to commercialize breakthroughs that might otherwise languish in lab notebooks when the researcher is unable (or unwilling) to find the capital necessary to bring it to market.  The fundamental driver for all of this is basic research.  I'm not talking about the big, well-known, sexy research projects like to human genome project or the LHC (which is in Europe).  I mean that post-doc in a basement microbio lab of a state university where the lab benches are quite literally covered with instruments, incubators, and water baths and there's always a funky odor that's a cross between autoclaved TSB and some kind of alcohol.  These are the people who work for next to nothing on bioremediation by common soil organisms or quorum signaling by pathogenic E. coli.  And the culmination of their research is, FSM willing, a publication.  That's it.  If it's a good journal, it might help get a grant to keep their project going another year or so.  Those publications are where we are falling behind, according to the cartogram above.

If this type of research continues moving out of the US, there will be dire consequences.  Singapore is leading the way.  Their culture emphasizes a strong, disciplined focus on science and it is reaping rewards.  Their rate of publication is growing faster than ours.  Their government is giving heavy tax incentives to biotech companies who move operations to Singapore, and companies are taking them up on that.  In fact, the government of Singapore has invested billions in research and development campuses where academia and industry can collaborate on cutting edge technologies.  

We need to wake up.  Investment in science education must be a priority.  The past eight years have been a drought and we desperately need a downpour.  If you want jobs to replace the millions that will be lost when the auto industry collapses, look to the biotech and tech sector.  Write your congressperson or senator and let them know that you expect a change in direction, that you are tired of being told that our consumer culture will save our economy, and that you will be watching their actions closely.

Be well,


Friday, November 14, 2008

Happy belated birthday Carl, whatever star you are.

Carl Sagan (Nov 9 1934-Dec 20 1996)

We are all the stuff of stars.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Did someone turn over a rock?

If you grew up watching Laverne and Shirley, you'll probably remember how whenever they would say the names of their upstairs neighbors Lenny and Squiggy, the latter would come barreling through the the door of their basement apartment with cheesy "hello," trailing his dopey companion behind. Well, I just experienced the equivalent of saying Squiggy.

Just a few days ago, I was reading something about Ted Haggard, the bisexual founder of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. You remember Teddy. He built a cult of personality around spewing sanctimonious bull shit and proclaiming the return of our nation to it's "christian roots." Then it came out (no pun intended) that he was having sex with a male prostitute who also happened to be his meth dealer. 

Good times. 

I don't like Ted. Perhaps that's not fair since I've never met him, but I'm OK with that. I've seen and heard enough to be comfortable. It's guys like him that convinced their congregations to give large sums to the anti-gay marriage groups here in California.
"We don't have to debate about what we should think about homosexual activity. It’s written in the Bible." - Ted Haggard in the documentary Jesus Camp.
Just because you would rather just have fleeting one night stands doesn't mean all gay men want that, Ted. Some would like to get married and have a committed relationship.

Oh well, at least he's out of the public eye now. Can't do so much damage from his sexuality reprogramming retreat.

Well, yesterday morning I was at the gym before work and there's Teddy on Good Morning America, big as life on the flat panel TV above the bikes. I couldn't have been more surprised if he whipped open the door coming from the aerobics room with a cheesy "hello!" springing from his lips. What is this guy, a vampire? Does it take a wooden stake to get rid of him for good? He was spouting some crap about being sexually abused, once, when he was seven. Yeah, that's why he did it.  It's all the pent up pain and frustration.  You know what, Ted? Fuck you. You must have a pair the size of cantaloupe. Take some personal responsibility, you bilious jackhole. Thousands of kids are abused each year. Sometimes the abuse goes on for years. Some go on to abuse kids themselves or sink into addiction, but most pick up the pieces, find a way to get whole again, and move on. Most decidedly do not have homosexual relationships with their masseuse/prostitute while simultaneously married (to a woman) and preaching against the sin of homosexuality.

You are a unique and special snowflake, my friend.

Then I get to work and check the news feeds. Guess who else is "breaking their silence" by giving an interview to a West Palm Beach news station. Mark Foley.

Sweet fancy jeebus, it's raining assholes.

You might remember that Foley (the Lenny to Haggard's Squiggy) was guilty of "abusing his paige-a-day calendar" as I once heard it described.  Foley also blamed his actions on being molested, this time by a priest. At least Foley's story pans out since the priest in question admitted the abuse.  I find Foley to be no less odious than Haggard.  Why can't these guys stay away.  No one is interested, except Good Morning America apparently.  Or maybe Haggard could just admit that he's attracted to men.  It really wouldn't be that big of a deal.  But instead, they've repented and recovered and are better christians than they were before (difficulty: low).

I think they're both lying, for which they've clearly demonstrated a gift.  I'm waiting to see what happens within the evangelical community with Haggard.  He's obviously making a comeback bid.  I wonder how long it will be before his book comes out?

Be well,


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A tale of two cultures

I saw something very interesting today in two news items. The first is a UPI item about the closing of the gender gap in Norway, which ranked first in the list of countries examined in a report from the World Economic Forum.  The US ranked 27th.
The Report examines four critical areas of inequality between men and women:
1. Economic participation and opportunity – outcomes on salaries, participation levels and access to high-skilled employment
2. Educational attainment – outcomes on access to basic and higher level education
3. Political empowerment – outcomes on representation in decision-making structures
4. Health and survival – outcomes on life expectancy and sex ratio
So Norway, one of those godless Scandanavian countries, recognizes the value of women in their society, whatever role they may take, and supports them. Providing a full year of paid maternity leave is just one example.  I can't help but think that perhaps the secular majority (up to 70% of the population reports a lack of belief in a god) may help that along since there is little reliance on scriptures that extol the subservience of the wife to the husband. Focus on the Family, just so you know, is not big in Norway.

Contrast this with what is going on, and has been going on for centuries, in Afghanistan.  The Taliban were no slouches when it comes to control.  They know that an ignorant population is easier to control through fear and propaganda.  So they put all the boys through religious indoctrination, and forbid females from any education at all.  Since the US invasion and the fall of the Taliban, girls have been allowed to return to school.  Well that just won't do, will it? CNN reports that a group of schoolgirls in Kandahar were attacked by men on motorcycles wielding squirt guns full of acid.  Two of the girls were blinded and several others were badly burned simply because they wanted an education and a chance for a better life.

Christopher Hitchens has called the education and empowerment of women the one sure way to relieve poverty and suffering in a society.  With one of the world's highest per capita GDPs, very low unemployment, and extremely low violent crime rates, Norway is doing its best to prove Hitchens right.  I only hope that Afghanistan can someday break free of its crippling theocracy and come to see women as the full partners in society that Norway does.  

And at the same time, the US has some serious work of its own to do with respect to the equality of women.  We congratulate ourselves on having a woman nominee for the Democrat presidential ticket and another for vice president on the Republican ticket.  Let's not forget that we are quite late to the party on this one.  Many countries in the EU have had women leaders: Margaret Thatcher (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany), Edith Cresson (France), Anneli Tuulkki Jaatteenmaki (Finland), Gro Harlem Brundtland (Norway),  plus others in Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Israel, and Portugal.  Even countries with large muslim populations have had women leaders: India, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.  Sri Lanka has the honor of the first female Prime Minister ever, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.  So let's not pat ourselves too hard on the back just yet.

We as a country still have a long way to go.  We are not Afghanistan, obviously.  But we are not Norway either.  While I do not relish the thought of putting up with Sarah Palin's divisive rhetoric again, she does have a shot at being the first major party female presidential candidate in 2012. I have to believe that's a small step in the right direction.

Be well,


You, too, can be a Mormon it or not.

In a bizarre article on CNN this morning, Jewish holocaust survivors are apparently pissed off at Mormons over the practice of posthumously baptizing holocaust victims into the Mormon cult.

Baptism by proxy allows faithful Mormons to have their ancestors baptized into the 178-year-old church, which they believe reunites families in the afterlife.

Using genealogy records, the church also baptizes people who have died from all over the world and from different religions. Mormons stand in as proxies for the person being baptized and immerse themselves in a baptismal pool.

I know the magic underpants wearers are less reality based that typical xtians, but this just seems too strange even for them. So basically what they're saying is that, despite the fact that the LDS has a very strict code of behavior and beliefs, you can still end up in heaven regardless as long as one of your descendents is Mormon and puts you in some sort of baptismal raffle.

Congratulations! Despite your murdering and thieving ways, you get to spend eternity in heaven with your family (who, by the way, you've never met).

It is a truly strange world we live in.

Be well,


Saturday, November 8, 2008

Mormons and Prop 8


I was listening to NPR last night (I know, we godless infidels love our NPR) on the way home and a local station was doing a spot from the Mormon temple in West LA. Turns out there was a rather large protest going on over the passage of Proposition 8. In case you’re not from Cali or just haven’t been paying attention, Prop 8 amended the constitution of our state to define marriage as one man, one woman. Prop 8 passed with a lot of help from the Mormon church leadership who encouraged their cult* members to donate money, lots of money, to the Yes on 8 campaign. They also funded advertising that lied, but I guess that’s not a sin. It’s all very confusing.

The part that caught my attention was the interview with a woman who described herself as struggling actress who moved here from Utah. She is a Mormon and she voted for Prop 8. Nothing interesting so far. She had come out to the protest last night because she wanted to let everyone know that her religion is a religion of love and that she has no personal animosity for homosexuals. She even baked some banana bread. Awwww. I’m all misty.

She went through the typical tripe about the sanctity of marriage since god created it when he put Adam and Eve on the earth (young-earth creationist alert!), and we have no right to redefine what god created.

The interviewer, being a member of the elite liberal media, Katie Couric’d her a little. He went on the offensive and asked her (I’m paraphrasing here) if she knew that there was a separation of church and state in this country and if it was OK for the state to make clearly religious distinctions in it’s constitution. Here’s the most telling part of the interview. There was that pause that I’ve come to recognize in so many instances where this topic comes up. What she wanted to say was, “What separation?” Instead, she ignored the question altogether and said something to the effect that we’ll have to agree to disagree.

Incredible. I guess she has forgotten that her cult is only 150 years old (give or take) and that in it’s early days, everyone else thought it was a cult, too. In fact, some christian sects believed mormons to be worshippers of satan. Today, mormons are simply looked down upon by the older cults like the aristocracy would view the nouveau riche. However, her cult would not exist today if it wasn’t for that little thing called the establishment clause.

So it comes down to this, in my mind. If “marriage” is a purely religious construct, then the state has no business issuing marriage licenses. Let the state issue civil union licenses for all. If you want a marriage certificate, visit your local church, temple, synagogue, mosque, etc. Then the sects can get on with arguing over who’s marriage certificate is better, and my state can get out of the business of discrimination.

Be well,


*Lest you unfairly charge me with inflammatory name calling, let me give you some classic defining characteristics of a cult:

Exposes members to intense physical or emotional stress, often through group worship experiences and rituals
Offers the inductee simplistic answers to all their problems
Offers the inductee unconditional love as long as they remain faithful
Encourages ingroup and outgroup thinking
Encourages members to eliminate relationships with those not part of the ingroup, with the exception of prosthyletizing.

You can decide for yourself.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Two more days.

In two days we will see whether Californians amend the state constitution with the most blatantly discriminatory addition in our state's history. I don't think I can say it any better than our good friend SLJ.

Separate but equal is still separate. I hope Californians do the right thing.

Be Well,