20080829

Some chick from Alaska? Seriously?!

I know that sounds horribly sexist, but come on! You know John McCain did not pick Sarah Palin as his running mate because of his deep and enduring respect for feminism. Palin is Dan Quayle with a vagina.

What I mean by that is that Quayle was selected as the running mate of George H.W. Bush not because of his qualifications, but because he was a (supposed) pretty face meant to woo women. Palin is intended to woo a particular kind of woman: Hillary Clinton’s professionally disaffected supporters – aka, the PUMA people.

Palin is a stunt. A 42-year-old, one-term congressperson from Alaska who doesn’t even know what the VP job entails. This, from a campaign that cannot stop taking potshots at Barack Obama’s supposed lack of experience. McCain has met her only once; there is no way that he could consider her a legitimate VP nominee. It is only that “special” qualification between the legs that matters, though, to a campaign and a party (and a political movement) that seems to grow more and more childish by the day.

The sad thing is that the Palin stunt just might work. The PUMA people are so petty and vindictive in their anger that they have promised to vote for McCain out of spite. This, even though they’ve pretty much demonstrated they have no clue what the man’s positions actually are. McCain hates Obama, too; that’s good enough for them.

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20080820

Hiatus

Just temporary, I assure you.

You see, I am going to be moving. Halfway across the country, as a matter of fact. My first concern once arriving at my new home will be to find somewhere to live. Once that's taken care of, I will arrange to have internet access installed, because I cannot stand to be away from it for too long. It may be a couple of weeks before I'm online again.

I know I promised the third part in my creationism series, but I just haven't been able to work on it. It will be some time in September before it is posted. My apologies if you were looking forward to it.

I will let you know when I'm back online. See you soon-ish.

20080817

Racism and creationism series - update.

My post on Pangaea and Creation was accepted for the current issue of the Carnival of the Godless at Letters from a Broad.

The third part in my series was originally planned for this weekend. I’ve not had time to work on it, though, so it might be a couple more days before it is posted. It is my favorite of the three, though, and pulls a lot together, so a quick, shoddy job just won’t do. It will be worth the wait, though. No hints this time.

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20080813

Racism and creationism (part two of a series).

Part one in this series can be read here.
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Contemporary creationists would have you believe that they represent a line of thought that stretches back for millennia. In fact, creationism is a relatively modern development, having emerged at the end of the 19th century. This same period saw the rise of Christian fundamentalism, another unique development in the history of Christianity.

It is true that earlier Christians had regarded the Biblical account of creation as true. However, post-Reformation Christian theologians and philosophers had been surprisingly open-minded in their approach to scripture. When empirical evidence contradicted their understanding of the Bible, they regarded themselves as having failed to interpret it correctly. For them, it was not a choice between Biblical literalism and scientific evidence. They would exhibit a theological humility that fundamentalism and creationism would utterly reject.

Creationism is merely an aspect of fundamentalism, in which every word of the Bible (even the parts that contradict the other parts) is regarded as literally true. Fundamentalism arises when a culture undergoes a sudden and massive change that undermines its prior social position. Such change may come from internal or external forces, but it always involves a rejection of modernity and rationalism. Creationism represented just such a flight from reason. It would drive the development of fundamentalism, and would remain its most fervent ideal.

Creationism arose as a cultural force in the post-Civil War south. Prior to the Civil War, the southern economy had been based on the slavery of black Africans. To rationalize this form of slavery, southerners had internalized the belief that whites were inherently superior to blacks. The form of Christianity to which they subscribed had adapted to fit this social system – for instance, it had magnified the importance of two Old Testament concepts in particular to justify racial inequality: the “Mark of Cain” and the “Curse of Ham”.

The south’s defeat in the Civil War may have ended slavery as a legal institution in America, but it did not bring to an end a racism that had become so deeply ingrained in southern culture that it formed the foundation of white southern identity. Thus, following the withdrawal of federal troops from the south, white southerners would reinstitute slavery in the form of the convict lease (chain gang) system and racial segregation.

Their defeat in the Civil War, however, had shaken their confidence, and the growing popularity of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was a threat to their very identity. If Darwin were correct, then whites and blacks were biologically equal; worse yet, they were related via a common ancestor, and shared the same developmental lineage. For a culture that regarded even a single drop of “black blood” to be an indicator of inferiority, this was an outrage.

Creationism developed in the racial miasma of the late 19th-century south, and emerged fully formed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Creationists manipulated the law in many states to prohibit the teaching of evolutionary theory, and were prepared when John Scopes went on trial for teaching evolution in 1925. In the decades since, creationism would serve as the spearhead of Christian fundamentalism.

The Civil Rights Movement would threaten southern identity once again in the decades following World War II. Newly divorced from the Democratic Party (which white southerners had embraced en masse following their defeat by Republicans during the Civil War), racist white southerners would be wooed by a very different incarnation of the Republican Party in the sixties. The Southern Strategy would result in an influx of racists into the Republican Party, who brought their fundamentalist beliefs with them, and gave them a national stage for their ideas.

The goal of the fundamentalist movement was nothing less than a return to an idealized past in which its ideals were supreme – a goal shared in common with all varieties of fundamentalism. As its most emotional issue, creationism was used in an attempt to attract followers outside the fundamentalist base. Until this point, creationists had primarily worked at the local and state levels; they would continue to do so, of course, but their new access to the Republican political apparatus allowed them to make creationism a national issue for the first time.

Open expressions of racism were no longer socially acceptable, and an open message would have worked against the fundamentalist agenda anyway. Creationism was overhauled so that its racist core was no longer obvious, but its origins in racial hatred remained lurking below the surface. The Ku Klux Klan had embraced creationism openly during its heyday, and modern white supremacists would do the same. Creationists willing to endorse continental drift in an effort to avoid an African origin do the same. Creationists continue to use the term “monkey” to refer disparagingly to human ancestors; this is a rather obvious “dog-whistle”, as is obvious from even a cursory perusal of racist propaganda from throughout the 20th century.

Of course, most people who endorse creationist beliefs do not do so out of racism. In a terrible irony, even a large segment of traditionalist black Christians endorse creationism. Although these individuals are not motivated by racism themselves, they have endorsed a belief that arose from hatred, and serve the interests of religious leaders who know full well the implications of their beliefs.

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20080812

Correction to "Evangelicals and their voting preferences".

It appears that I made an important error in my last post describing the findings of a survey by the Barna Group. My error did not affect my ultimate conclusion. However, I did mischaracterize the nature of the Barna Group itself, and I would like to correct that here.

In doing my research, I did not do third-party research into the Barna Group. That was a mistake. Therefore, I overlooked a very important fact: the Barna Group itself is an “evangelical” organization. The Wikipedia entry of its founder, George Barna, describes the group’s position as follows:

The Barna Group conducts opinion polls, which are generally interpreted from an evangelical perspective, and often cited within evangelical circles. His research has revealed "a radical gap between what we heard Christians professing they believed and the values and the lifestyle that grew out of the values.” [Emphasis in original]

That is supposed to be favorable. Indeed, the entire entry is written to be sympathetic toward Barna, and yet its content is damning. It describes someone who targets children for proselytization due to their “spiritual vulnerability”, and who rejects anyone whose views of Christianity do not align with his own views (he has even penned a book entitled Pagan Christianity to describe such individuals).

I was wrong in ascribing legitimacy to the Barna Group; it is, instead, a prime example of the fundamental propaganda program blurring the lines between extremist and mainstream Christianity. The Barna Group is not attempting to dispel the illusion that fundamentalist Christians are more numerous than their vocal activism would suggest; instead, it is conducting a test of ideological purity. Nonetheless, the results of its survey confirm that the beliefs it represents appear to be a diminishing social factor in the United States.

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Evangelicals and their voting preferences.

UPDATE: Important correction to this post. Please see here for additional information about the Barna Group.

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Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist looks at the results of the latest political survey conducted by the Barna Group. The survey breaks down voters into religious groups and asks them who they are planning to vote for in November (and if they intend to vote). Mehta provides a useful chart breaking down the numbers in the survey. It shows that every religious group, including atheists and agnostics, tilt heavily in favor of Barack Obama, except for one group: evangelical Christians.

The Barna Groups breaks down the evangelical results into two categories, based on whether they self-identify as evangelicals, or whether the Barna Group classes them as such. Both groups lean toward McCain, but there is an interesting disparity between them.

Among self-identified evangelicals, 37% report that they will vote for Obama, while 39% say they will vote for McCain, with 23% undecided.

Among those classified by evangelicals by the Barna Group, only 17% report that they will vote for Obama, while 61% say they will vote for McCain, with only 14% undecided.

Also interesting, using self-identification, almost 40% of Americans adults consider themselves evangelical, whereas, using the Barna Group’s questions, only 8% fit that definition. Among the first group, 83% say they will vote in November, while 90% of the latter say they will vote.

These are staggering differences, and they raise a number of questions. The questions themselves are rather non-controversial, and I would imagine even a large number of mainstream Christians would answer them in the affirmative:


  1. Say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today

  2. Indicate they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior

  3. Say their faith is very important in their life today

  4. Believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians

  5. Believe that Satan exists

  6. Believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works

  7. Believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth

  8. Assert that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches

  9. Describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today

Being classed as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended.

A number of scenarios come to mind to account for the discrepancy. It is possible that there is bias in the Barna Group’s results. However, if that were the case, it would seem to be working against the Christian ministries they represent. Bias could only be found if one were claiming them to be intentionally underreporting the percentage of evangelicals in America, but, as you read above, the questions they ask are non-controversial, and would point away from this possibility.

I also considered that evangelicals may be falsely reporting their affiliation and voting preferences in order to skew the results; I have referred to fundamentalist Christianity as a reactionary cultural movement in the past, and this would not surprise me. However, if that were the case, then one would expect the results to be even more biased in favor of McCain. Even if McCain is not particularly popular among evangelicals, his positions would certainly be more in line with their own.

The only reasonable conclusion bears out something that I have asserted for some time, and the reason that I do not use the term “evangelical” to refer to right-wing, activist Christians myself: there is a difference between fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Evangelicals represent a much broader range of social views than fundamentalists, and are more tolerant, open-minded, and respectful of the views of others. The blogger Slacktivist is one such evangelical who has nothing in common with the hard-liners.

Fundamentalist Christians, long known as the Religious Right or Christian Right, are a different breed altogether. The inheritors of the reactionary social movement that arose from the union of white southern segregationists with the Republican Party in the 1960s, they constitute a vocal and dangerous cultural movement. Their preference for John McCain, whose opposition to abortion and gay rights fits into their social agenda, makes him their preferred candidate, and their overwhelming intention to vote indicates their activist bent.

Furthermore, fundamentalists have made a concerted effort to have themselves identified as representatives of “normal” Christianity, blurring the line between themselves and more numerous mainstream Christians. Given that their activities have caused the term “fundamentalist” to take on negative connotations, they have attempted in recent years to rebrand themselves as the more moderate-sounding “evangelical”. It is unfortunate that outside groups, from the Barna Group to the Pew Forum, have fallen for this in an attempt to avoid giving (manufactured) offense.

What this study reveals is that the core of the fundamentalist Christian movement is in tatters. Only 8% of Americans can be classified as belonging to it, using even the broadest and least damning criteria. They still possess a lot of power, but their social influence has diminished considerably. This should be heartening for people who hope for a better future for America.

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One from the vaults: From Neuromancer to the Singularity.

This post was originally written over a year ago. It serves as a great foundation for future posts on the cyberpunk genre and technological change. I am republishing it with only a couple of minor edits.

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The foundations of cyberpunk were laid in the late seventies (though precursors go all the way back to the fifties - e.g., Alfred Bester). However, William Gibson's Neuromancer, published in 1984, was the archetypal cyberpunk novel. Ironically, as much as Neuromancer was responsible for the development of the cyberpunk genre, it also laid the seeds of its decline; few of the later authors to work in the genre would go beyond the tropes established in Neuromancer, and the genre would become overwhelmed by its cliches.

As much as Gibson wrote the archetypal cyberpunk novel, Neal Stephenson wrote the ultimate one: Snow Crash. Stephenson then wrote the archetypal postcyberpunk novel, The Diamond Age. Unlike cyberpunk, which was typically set in a relatively concrete future, postcyberpunk novels, if set in the future at all, take an ironic approach - e.g., Charles Stross.

Throughout most of the history of science fiction, authors have predicted the future in a very linear fashion. For example, during the fifties, it was commonplace for authors to predict space travel and flying cars as common elements of the future. Forget that flying cars are a terrible idea anyway, and that space travel fizzled out because it was boring; other than these elements, the future for these authors was little different from their present. Even in the cyberpunk of the eighties, the future was still a linear development of the present. However, predicting the future has gotten very difficult.

Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave was the bible of the cyberpunk movement. In this book, Toffler analyzed the history of human civilization and how it was affected by technological development. Each major technological advance set in motion a "wave of change" that radically altered society. The first wave was the Agrarian Revolution; the second was the Industrial Revolution. The focus of the book was on the Third Wave, which would be driven by the development of computers and information technology; the Internet is one of its direct results. The thing was that the waves were occurring at an ever-accelerating pace: the Agrarian Revolution had taken perhaps 200,000 years, whereas the Industrial Revolution happened less than 2000 years later. The Third Wave happened only a couple of hundred years.

What this meant was that the Fourth Wave would likely happen in only a couple of decades; in fact, the Fourth Wave would happen even before the Third was complete. The Fifth Wave would occur almost immediately. It would no longer be possible to predict what the future would look like.

Add to this confusion Gordon E. Moore. Moore's Law states (very roughly) that computers will grow more powerful at a geometric rate, doubling their computing power with every generation, while every generation would last only half as long. Eventually, this rate of development would reach infinity; by analogy with black holes, this event was named the technological singularity. Just as it is impossible to predict what happened beyond the event horizon of a black hole (a gravitational singularity), it is impossible to predict what will happen after the "event horizon" of a technological singularity.

Vernor Vinge (who coined the term "technological singularity") originally predicted its occurrence around 2030. Ray Kurzweil also used this date. However, Eliezer Judkowsky of the Singularity Institute considers this time frame conservative, and predicts that the Singularity will occur around 2021. Thus, we are perhaps only a decade away from the point at which human civilization and human nature itself undergo the most radical change yet.

This, I believe, is responsible for the recent dearth of science fiction dealing with the future. Even pioneers Gibson and Stephenson have turned their sights elsewhere - Gibson to the present, and Stephenson to the past (though both continue to brink a (post)cyberpunk style to their material). It is also responsible for the resurgent popularity of fantasy in literature and film.

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20080811

Presidents gone wild!

This picture is going to be all over the internet – well, the liberal part of it, anyway – tomorrow. It’s our beloved George W. holding up the American flag at the Beijing Olympics…backwards. Duh!










I’ll let others fret endlessly over the flag itself. I want to draw your attention elsewhere, to this woman at the bottom:










Look at the expression of surprise on her face!









Just what is George doing with his penis?

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Pangaea and creationism (part one in a series).

Part two in this series can be read here.
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Last month, Deb linked to an article at Scientific American about a DNA study tracing the migration patterns humans across the earth. The study itself was uncontroversial, merely providing additional support for something that has been known for over a century: that humans originated in Africa, and, from there, spread across the globe.

Deb was bemused and angered by some of the commenters on the SciAm article. You see, it didn’t take long before the creationist pile-on began. In only the third comment, one commenter rejects out of hand the African origin of humanity; in the next post, he or she “explains” his or her “reasoning”, in an incoherent comment which mostly revolves around oil deposits in Asia. Near the end, however, he or she makes an oblique reference to a theory that would seem out of place in creationism: Pangaea.

It may come as a surprise, but some creationists have embraced the theory of continental drift – and Pangaea in particular – to support their beliefs. To be fair, not all creationists subscribe to this idea. However, it appears to be popular enough to warrant a response from numerous creationist organizations.

According to these “tectonic creationists”, two verses in Genesis refer specifically to Pangaea and continent drift. The first of these is Genesis 1:9, which reads:

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

[Emphasis mine] This is said to refer to Pangaea. The second verse is Genesis 10:25, which reads:

And unto Eber were born two sons: the name of one was Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided; and his brother's name was Joktan.

[Emphasis mine] This is said to refer to continental drift. It takes little effort to explain why all this is nonsense. The first verse cited is severely distorted by this brand of creationist, and the second is taken wildly out of context. Genesis 1:9 refers rather simply to God forming order out of chaos, a commonplace motif in Near and Middle Eastern religions. Genesis 10:25 refers not to a literal division of the terrestrial landmass, but to the social upheaval that occurred in the wake of the events at Babel.

Why creationists would embrace Pangaea and continental drift to argue against evolution? After all, neither of these concepts fits easily into the Biblical framework; they must be shoehorned in, and mutilated in the process. Just for starters, Pangaea was not the “original” supercontinent, but only the latest in a long series of supercontinents; nor will it be the last. Furthermore, plate tectonics is driven by incredibly violent energies below the earth’s crust; if these were released within the span of a single human lifetime, they would destroy all life on the planet.

It is true that creationists have been forced to mutilate other ideas in order to fit them into the fundamentalist framework. Creationists typically deny the true age of the universe by claiming that the speed of light has slowed since the time of creation. There is a difference between the speed of light and plate tectonics, however: the former is obvious, whereas plate tectonics is non-obvious and could easily be ignored within the context of a 6000-year old earth. Dragging the latter theory into the mix does the creationist no favors, and makes him look rather desperate in the process.

Finally, as I mentioned above, plate tectonics and continental drift are non-obvious phenomena, and most people could go their entire lives without having the slightest inkling that the continents move around. The evidence in favor of these theories is conclusive, but hardly the sort of evidence that demands everyday attention.

In contrast, evolution by natural selection is supported by an extraordinary amount of evidence, and new evidence accumulates daily. Evolution has successfully passed the many tests to which it has been put, and it has made reliable predictions for both laboratory and real-world settings. Furthermore, evolution is rather obvious, and Darwin’s theory was only one in a long series of theories that attempted to explain the biological similarities in nature – earlier theories that, I must add, did not result in the same level of controversy Darwin’s received.

Obviously, creationists find evolution offensive in a way that they do not find plate tectonics. The latter theory is impersonal; it says nothing about human nature. Evolution, on the other hand, does address human nature, and it was not long after the theory was proposed that one of its implication for human origins was understood. It was this implication that led to the development of modern creationism, and that drove its development for nearly a century. Pangaea and continental drift are merely the latest attempt to avoid facing that implication, one that most people accepted long ago.

I will discuss that implication in my next post in this series, but I will give you a hint: it involves blood – specifically, one drop of it.

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Primary and secondary purposes: just not getting the difference.

John Gruber provides an analysis and comparison of recent memos from Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer. He’s mainly interested in the style of the memos, but I noticed something revealing in an except he provides from Ballmer’s.

In discussing Google, Ballmer makes the following statement:

We continue to compete with Google on two fronts — in the enterprise, where we lead; and in search, where we trail. In search, our technology has come a long way in a very short time and it’s an area where we’ll continue to invest to be a market leader. Why? Because search is the key to unlocking the enormous market opportunities in advertising, and it is an area that is ripe for innovation.

[Emphasis mine] No. Search is about search. As in, searching for information. That is the first and foremost purpose of a search engine, and it is why users use them. Users do not turn to Google – or any other site – to be served ads.

That is something that Google understood from the start, and that Microsoft – and a host of other companies – simply do not get.

Google does offer ads on its search pages (and in other services, such as Gmail). They are simple textual ads, though. They do not affect the speed with which the page loads, or distract from the primary purpose of the page. They can be easily ignored while the user does what he or she visited the page to do.

Other companies, however, regard content as secondary to advertising. It is noteworthy that, on many pages all over the internet, the ads load first, followed by the content – the reason you went to the page in the first place. Sometimes, a flash ad will then pop up over the content. Even short magazine articles are divided over multiple pages: each page loads more ads.

And this problem is not just limited to the internet. Television has become a platform primarily for serving advertisements; programming is secondary (and often hidden behind an annoying animated ad).

For all its faults, Google understood that forcing users to view advertisements is not the way to attract them. The advertisers may have the big money, but it is users who have the eyeballs advertisers are seeking. Disrespecting users by treating them not as individuals, but as resources to be exploited, will only drive them away. Eventually, the eyes glaze over the ads; there are too many to keep up with, and they all disappear as noise in the background.

Customers, whether they be computer users or TV viewers, will find alternatives to ad-laden sites or channels. In online search, that alternative was Google, which displaced prior king Yahoo, which was very useful until the ads became more important than the search itself.

In summary, Google did not get where it is because people use its services to view its ads. The ads are peripheral to the experience, and do not distract from it. If I had my way, there would be no ads at all (actually, I do have my way; thank you, AdBlock Plus and Customize Google), but I am more than willing to live with ads that treat me like a person, instead of just an itchy index finger.

Until Microsoft learns that, it will never dethrone Google. And the same goes for every company that treats content as secondary to advertising. All those advertising dollars drive the user away. You may think that’s a smart strategy in the short term, but, in a few years when you are an also-ran, you’ll realize that all the ads in the world are of no value if there is no one there to see them.

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20080807

Lesson learned the hard way:

Do not put a plastic shipping envelope in a shredder, no matter if it looks like it will go through or not.

I got the shredder working again, but it took two hours of using a knife, scissors, a screwdriver, and a pair of tweezers to get all the little shreds of plastic unwound from around the blades.

And I still have a pile of old papers to shred.

I won't be making that mistake again.

Faces everywhere.

Let’s take for granted for a moment that Jesus of Nazareth, aka, Jesus Christ, did exist. What then would be the odds that he was blond-haired and blue-eyed, as depicted in the picture in my last post (under the toast)?

Virtually none?

I’d go into it in more depth, but Brandon at the aptly named MyNameIsBrandon has already covered the topic more than adequately. I’d rather write about pareidolia.

Pareidolia refers to seeing an image, usually vague, in essentially random information. Multiple explanations have been offered to explain the phenomenon, but it seems to be rooted in the pattern-recognition faculties hard-wired into the human brain. Brains do not analyze every bit of information available from the environment; that would be extremely slow and usually wasteful of energy. Instead, the brain “samples” the information in the environment and attempts to fit it to a pre-existing pattern. That works well enough most of the time, though it leaves us susceptible to illusions.

Pareidolia is just such an illusion. It often takes the form of seeing a face, given the importance of faces in human development. Carl Sagan hypothesized that babies predisposed to recognize the faces of their parents would be more likely to survive. Faces also play a central role in learning, as students picks up visual cues from the expressions of their teachers.

Thus, we are very likely to see faces, and it takes very little information to produce a “face pattern” – a couple of dots for eyes and a line for the mouth, inside a roughly oval or circular outline. So we see a “man in the moon”. (Actually, I never saw it until a high-contract illustration pointed out what I was supposed to be seeing.) East Asians, by the way, see a rabbit. UFO enthusiasts and New Age types see a “face on Mars”, though they had to get all conspiratorial after later photographs showed the formation to be just a mesa.

Catholics see Jesus and Mary everywhere they turn. Protestants also see Jesus, but not so much Mary. Mary has appeared on the side of a building, on a fence, in a window, on a tree stump, in a grilled cheese sandwich, on the wall of a freeway underpass, on a piece of firewood, in an accumulation of chocolate drippings, in a piece of paneling, on a pizza tray, in a watermelon, and on a pebble.

Jesus joined his mother by appearing on a pretzel, and went on to appear by himself on a floorboard, on a wall, in the clouds, on a tortilla, on a Pizza Hut billboard, in a tree, on a brick, in a nebula, on a dental X-ray, in a frying pan, in a window, on a rock, on another rock, in some paint, in a shower, on a truck, in a fish bone, on a piece of pierogi, on a piece of sheet metal, in a hot chocolate spill, in a shrimp tail dinner, in a Chihuahua’s ear, in a couch, and in a bag of Doritos. Also, in a special appearance as his infant self, he appeared on a snail shell.

What do these pareidolic Jesuses have in common? They look like the one in that abysmal painting. Mary always looks like the one in another painting. If Jesus is hanging on a cross, it looks like still another painting. In the same way, when Christians (mostly Catholics) used to experience stigmata, they bled from the palms of their hands, just like it showed in all the paintings. After it was determined that the bones and ligaments in the hands are incapable of supporting the weight of the human body, and that Jesus would have had to be nailed to the cross through his wrists, the stigmata shifted to their newly assigned location.

Rather than seeing images of Jesus (or bleeding like Jesus) in a historically probable fashion, what these Christians see (or bleed) matches the cues in their environment. This strongly implies that these incidents are not “genuine” religious experiences; if they were, they would be independent of traditional Eurocentric stimuli. In the case of Mars-face enthusiasts, the pareidolia is often simply a case of wish-fulfillment, though severe cases may imply delusional tendencies.

The case would be complete – that pareidolia results from facial recognition faculties – if it weren’t for another species of pareidolia which throws a kink in it.

Muslims don’t see faces. The Quran forbids depictions of Mohammed, and God – i.e., Allah – is incorporeal. The Quran, however, does not prohibit writing their names, and Muslims go out of their way to write those names on everything, from mosques, to flags, to weapons and armor. So it should come as no surprise that, when Muslims experience pareidolia, they do not see images of their holy figures, but their names written in Arabic.

It doesn’t hurt that Arabic writing is cursive – that is, it consists of squiggly lines (which is not an insult; cursive Latin writing also consists of squiggly lines). Arabic is also highly mutable, and Arabic calligraphy has developed into an art form of its own. There are also far fewer squiggles in Arabic, supplemented by a lot of dots. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination, then, to see the name Allah (which is quite simple: three characters) or Mohammed (four characters).

So we have examples of Mohammed on the side of a sheep, and Allah inside a piece of beef, in some beans, in a tomato, on a fish, and on an egg. Oh, and on the other side that same sheep.

And, of course, there’s the monkey tree, a multi-faith pareidolic opportunity.

As for me, I see faces everywhere (except on the moon, oddly enough). Don’t tell that to my shrink, though. Pareidolia may be commonplace, but it it’s not Jesus, you might find yourself in a straitjacket.

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In honor of pareidolia:

Atheist Sees Toast in Picture of Jesus

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The box.

This is a “sweatbox”. It and other such “boxes” were used to punish prisoners, primarily those assigned to chain gangs, and primarily in the southern United States. When confined in such a tight space in hot conditions, a prisoner will rapidly experience dehydration; this was not a side-effect, but the very purpose of such confinement. Similar devices were specifically intended for the purpose of torture, as discussed in this article about Vietnamese POW camps.

This image comes from a timeline posted on the website of the Florida Department of Corrections; the accompanying text reads:

The infamous sweat box is a small enclosure, so small a single man barely had enough room to sit. A man could stand up and would often stay in the box for two days with two or three other men.

The use of the sweatbox was ruled inhumane decades ago, but its illicit use continues. This article discusses the use of such a sweatbox in 1998 to punish a judicial critic in Alabama.

According to CNN, the US military has released images of what it calls “segregation boxes” used to confine Iraqi prisoners. The Raw Story has video showing all three released images. The boxes measure as little as three feet by six feet, making lying down impossible and sitting difficult. It is hard not to see these pictures and not immediately think of sweatboxes and the abusive chain-gang system with which they were associated.

US military spokespeople avoid the issue of whether the use of such boxes constitutes torture; the spokesman quoted in the Raw Story article merely assures us that prisoners receive food, water, and access to toilets. Then again, the same was largely true of chain-gang prisoners, and few would dispute that the device then constituted torture. A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch is quoted as expressing concern over prisoners held in such devices under conditions of extreme heat, but, once again, we are reminded that that was their historical purpose.

Do I even have to mention that, in the US south as in Iraq, the people who spent most of the time in such devices were a shade darker than the people who locked them inside?

It is remarkable that such devices could be used without anyone in a position of authority being outraged over the historical parallels. This is what happens when the people in charge are utterly lacking in morals; they know the history of these devices, but they just don’t care.

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FeedBurner sucks.

FeedBurner does not work.

If you have subscribed to this blog using FeedBurner, and - somehow - receive this post, please use another method to subscribe. I recommend using the Atom link at the bottom of the page, the Subscribe link in Firefox 3, or the custom Subscription link available for Google Reader under the Goodies tab (go to Settings, click the Goodies tab, and simply drag the Subscription link to your toolbar).

I have been testing FeedBurner by using its feed as well as the Atom feed. The Atom feed is much faster, and the FeedBurner feed still hasn't delivered my last post. (Theoretically, FeedBurner should be using the Atom feed itself, so I have no idea what it is doing.) I assure you that I inserted the FeedBurner code according to the instructions (I will delete in in a week's time, after this post has had time to propagate (assuming it does so)).

FeedBurner has failed to respond to my request for help, left on their discussion board over a week ago. I do not expect this problem to be resolved.

I have deleted the FeedBurner link, and will explore other easy subscription options. Personally, I prefer the Google Reader subscription link (under Goodies), but that only applies if you are using Google Reader.

I have no idea how many readers this will affect, since FeedBurner has provided different subscriber tallies every day I've used it. I would like to offer my apologies for any inconvenience; though the problem originates with FeedBurner, it was I who chose to use it. I regret that choice now.

My apologies...

...to anyone who has been waiting for a new post. As I mentioned last week, my back was killing me. That seems to have passed, fortunately: I went back to sleeping on the floor, making me wonder if I will ever get it through my head that, no matter how comfy the bed may be, the floor is still better for the back.

I've also felt uninspired. That's not to say that big and important things have not happened recently, but none have captured my imagination. I do have two articles in draft form, but I've decided to do additional research on one; the other is part of a massive project, and I can't decide the best way to start.

I'll be back shortly. Until then, please try to carry on as if there weren't a great, gaping hole in your reading day.

20080802

Securing the borders to secure the presidency.

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a clarification of its rules regarding the seizure of laptop computers at the US border. Anyone entering or leaving the United States may have his or her laptop searched, without evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing. The contents of the laptop’s hard drive may be copied for later analysis. The laptop itself may be seized and removed to another location for further analysis.

Absurdly, the agency claims that this did not violate the privacy of Americans!

The rationale provided for this draconian procedure is that it is intended to fight terrorism. Of course, everything nowadays is intended to fight terrorism, no matter how invasive and outlandish. Take, for instance, the Transportation Safety Administration’s idea of forcing all airline passengers to wear a bracelet that would deliver a Taser-like electrical shock in the event of an attempted hijacking. In the end, that idea was rejected as going too far.

Even if we were to grant the premise that such seizure is intended to “fight terrorism”, then it is remarkably shortsighted. Ignoring the probability that terrorists would encrypt any incriminating data on their hard drives, there is still the option of the internet. There are many companies which offer secure online data storage for a nominal fee; the data can be accessed anywhere in the world, and cannot be seized at any border; and proxy servers and anonymizing software would prevent its interdiction. Many of the servers that host this storage are located in countries outside the reach of US law and cannot be investigated or shut down.

In short, the seizure of laptops would do nothing to prevent an attack by even semi-competent terrorists. It will only inconvenience, harass, and invade the privacy of ordinary, innocent persons.

And that is the point.

There has not been another attempted terrorist attack on the United States by foreign – a.k.a., Muslim – extremists since 2001. My basis for that assertion is simple: if there had been such an attempt, the Bush administration would have wasted no time in using it for political gain.

The absence of such an effort means that the administration has had nothing to work with except the vague threat of terrorism in order to rationalize its continuing assault on civil liberties. Without a legitimate threat of terrorism, it has had to resort to security theater. In the beginning, such theater was relatively minor and harmless: color-coded threat levels, for instance, or bans on liquids in carry-on bags. Like an addiction, however, the theatrics have become more and more invasive.

The TSA only toyed with the idea of electrical shock bracelets, but it did install full-body scanners that produce images of travelers’ naked bodies. The “no-fly list” has grown to include over a million names, at least some of them being the names of persons who have merely expressed criticism of the program. The government has maintained its program of warrantless wiretapping, using terrorism as its justification, and has resisted any efforts to impede what are obvious show trials of alleged terrorists.

These actions on the part of the Bush administration and its agencies have nothing to do with keeping America safe, but that was never their purpose. Over the past eight years, the Bush administration has increased the power of the executive branch to despotic levels. Bush has elevated himself and his associates above the rule of US law, while creating petty tyrannies in the form of the DHS, TSA, and other agencies. To enable this power grab, terrorism was used as a one-size-fits-all rationale.

It is no coincidence that the terror alert level has recently been raised to fuchsia – or whatever – and that the DHS has rolled out its new laptop seizure procedures. The threat of terrorism was used to win support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and to ensure a Bush re-election in 2004. Its main purpose now is to secure the presidency for John McCain in November.

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20080801

Fragment: Planet Terror.

My back has been killing me today, and I’ve not been in the mood to write. Fortunately for you, heh, I wrote this yesterday. It’s pretty much finished; it just doesn’t have a proper conclusion. Think of it as one of those Lovecraftian fragments: if I put it all together, you’d go mad. Mad, I tell you!

Of course, sometimes blood and guts, explosions, violent car chases, and frantic gunplay have their play. You see, I also had Planet Terror in my Netflix Queue.

The plot, in a nutshell:

ZOMBIES!!!!!

Oh, you want more detail, do you? Whiner.

Go-go dancer Cherry decides to quit her job. Unfortunately, she chooses the same night that a weapons dealer unleashes a plague on the town where she lives. Not that would have made much of a difference if she hadn’t quit, though. Her mysterious ex-boyfriend shows up in town that night, too. There is also a psychotic doctor and his adulterous wife, and a guy who runs a barbecue restaurant. The plague creates zombies throughout the town, and the survivors fight back. They run into a psychotic Army colonel and his psychotic henchmen, and fight back some more.

The thing about Planet Terror is that, if it had been played straight, it would have been a good but otherwise ordinary zombie movie. With its over-the-top violence, quirky plot, and ridiculous situations, however, it is not only a prime example of the genre, but also a parody of it. The movie was one half of Grindhouse, the double-feature released last year by directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (the other half was Death Proof, which I have not seen). Rodriguez is the director here, with Tarantino appearing in a cameo.

Grindhouse aspired to recreate the experience of the 1960s “grindhouse”, theaters that played lewd, semi-competent exploitation films. To create that effect, Planet Terror opens with its own fake trailer (Machete) and theater announcements, and the movie is plagued by damage to the “film”, out-of-focus shots, and even a missing reel.

To compare this to the subject of my previous entry, Planet Terror is a completely different example of the horror genre. However, given its nature as parody, it makes no attempt to create a sense of horror, but instead plays around with the clich├ęs of that genre. Unless you are extremely easy to scare, it would be more correct to think of it as a comedy.

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