06 October 2009

The End of Fish

The New Republic: Aqualypse Now

"Eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a manatee. In the past 50 years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, cod, and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent. One study, published in the prestigious journal Science, forecast that, by 2048, all commercial fish stocks will have “collapsed,” meaning that they will be generating 10 percent or less of their peak catches. Whether or not that particular year, or even decade, is correct, one thing is clear: Fish are in dire peril, and, if they are, then so are we."

26 September 2009


It's often argued - by people who feel their beloved superstitions are under threat - that atheists are people without a moral compass, who cannot appreciate the wonders of creation, and whose arguments involve just as much faith as those of the religions they criticize. This view of the faithless is here soundly rebutted by Christopher Hitchens:

And here is the point, about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because they are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake...

We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and - since there is no other metaphor - also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful. (In fact, if a proper statistical inquiry could ever be made, I am sure the evidence would be the other way.)

We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true - that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.

-Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, 5-6.

12 September 2009

They Know Not What They Protest

Notes on the "arguments" (I use the term loosely) made by protesters at today's "tea party" in Washington:

"Fascism": is a totalitarian form of government. Fascists don't like freedom of speech. If the Obama administration were fascist, you wouldn't be marching; you'd be tear-gassed and shot. QED.

: Yawn. Still haven't cracked that dictionary, have you?

: also a totalitarian form of government, and also not known for its peaceful tolerance of loud, angry criticism. And see "Socialism".

"Where's the Birth Certificate?"
: Right here, you jackass. Do you need to see his placenta, too?

"You Lie, You Lie" [chanted]: Sorry, no. Joe Wilson's puerile outburst has been shown to be unequivocally, totally wrong to anyone who can read at a fourth-grade level. But don't let intransigent stupidity stop you from adopting a pithy rallying cry!

Obama as the Joker, with the word "SOCIALISM" written underneath
: Where the hell did this come from, anyway? How does it make even the slightest bit of sense? The Joker is a sadistic anarchist who fights justice and sows chaos; socialism is an egalitarian economic system. Whatever you think of either, they're opposites in both methods and goals. Obama is a liberal, so I can understand (but not excuse) the harebrained accusations of socialism, but... the Joker? What?

Obama as Hitler: So Hitler, like Obama, was... an anti-war, bleeding-heart liberal? Do you not get the History Channel?

"Death Panels": Are you people deaf, or stupid? I'll go with stupid.

"Born free, taxed to death": And how's it working out for you to pay double what other countries pay for the same quality of care? You hate letting money go to the government, but you're content to be reamed by a flawed insurance industry? To each his own!

"Health Rationing": is an inherent aspect of any insurance system. Your point?

American flags flown upside-down
: Well look at that - 'hating America' isn't just for liberals anymore! Have you forgotten the shame-on-you rhetoric you used against critics of Bush for eight years?

"Government-run healthcare"
: you know, if you chose to get your news from a source other than ranting loons, you might learn that this plan IS NOT GOVERNMENT-RUN HEALTHCARE. A minor detail, to be sure.

10 September 2009

Truth is Funnier Than Fiction

As an extension of my last post, here are two actual, verbatim quotes:

"Insurance executives don't do this because they're bad people; they do it because it's profitable."

-Barack Obama

"When he said tonight that insurance executives are bad people, that took me back [sic] as a bit harsh!"

-Sean Hannity

Not the brightest bulb in the shop, are you, Sean?

09 September 2009

In A Nutshell: Obama's Speech to Congress on Healthcare

Obama: This plan is NOT government-run healthcare. The public option will be a self-sufficient competitor within the PRIVATE insurance industry.

Republican response: Government-run healthcare is bad.

Obama: The plan will not add to the deficit.

Republican response: Mr. President, this isn't a good time to increase the deficit.

Obama: Medicare is vital. Ignoring the rising costs of healthcare will push Medicare into a crisis. This plan will help to protect Medicare.

Republican response: We disagree with Obama's plan to gut Medicare.

Obama: The plan will NOT cover illegal aliens.

Republican response: "YOU LIE!" (?!?)

Obama: We will explore ways to end frivolous malpractice suits.

Republican response: We encourage the president to find ways to end frivolous malpractice suits.

"Death panels" are a ridiculous fantasy.

Republican response: (Obstinate silence)

By the way, stop making up crap like that.

Republican response: Hm?

19 August 2009

The Importance of Punctuation

On the Woodside Employment Consultants website, they advertise themselves as follows:

Certified Small Woman Owned Business Enterprise

This is a declarative sentence: a small woman, who has some kind of certification, owned a business enterprise.

Good for her!

While I have nothing against small women in business, I do not think that this was their intended meaning. If the people at Woodside knew some basic rules of punctuation, they could have avoided embarrassment by writing:

Certified, Small, Woman-Owned Business Enterprise

29 July 2009

"Not My President" Redux

We've already seen conservatives shift their position on criticism of the president: formerly an anti-American, terrorist-abetting sin under Bush, criticizing the president is now patriotic enough to warrant Tea Party reenactments.

But another double standard has become apparent with the incomprehensible endurance of the "Birther" movement. Under Bush, conservatives would roll their eyes every time a liberal made a snide comment about the 2000 election.

"He's the President. Get over it," they would say.

Yet now, against all tangible proof and sound logic, some conservatives continue to protest Obama's legitimacy because he's allegedly a foreigner without a birth certificate.

Even though we know he's not a foreigner. We have his birth certificate. Which you can view online.

So both Bush and Obama have had the legitimacy of their elections brought into question by their opponents. The difference is the 2000 election was so contestable that the Supreme Court had to decide it, whereas the results of the 2008 election are disputed only by people desperate enough to argue that a Certificate of Live Birth is not a Birth Certificate.

04 July 2009

Happy Fourth!

On July 4, 1776, the Congress of the United States of America formally adopted the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.

But the actual vote for independence had occurred two days earlier, on July 2. This was the day that John Adams predicted "will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival." Instead, we commemorate our declaration of the resolution for independence, not the resolution itself.

Nor is the Fourth the day on which the Declaration of Independence was signed. Although dated July 4, the Declaration would actually be signed a month later, on August second.

The Brits finally got word of it later in August. They were not amused.

23 June 2009

The Women of Iran

CNN: Iranian women stand up in defiance, flout rules

A young Iranian woman named Neda is gunned down in one of the most iconic images of the last week. Another walks down the street, defiantly showing off her hair and body in a revealing dress. And still another woman says she's not scared of paramilitary forces -- no matter how many times she gets beaten.

Amid the clashes and chaos, there has been a recurring scene on the streets of Tehran: Women, in their scarves and traditional clothing, at the heart of the struggle. Some are seen collecting rocks for ammunition against security forces, while video showed one woman trying to protect a fallen pro-government militiaman wounded in the government crackdown.

Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the image of Neda and other women at the protests showed the difference from the 1979 revolution. "The iconic pictures from the revolution 30 years ago were bearded men. This shows the new face of Iran -- the young women who are the vanguards of Iran."

All of those defying the Iranian regime deserve applause, but the women of Iran deserve special acclaim. As this and other news stories show, their defiance is having twice the effect of everyone else's - which is appropriate, as they have twice as much to rebel against.

22 June 2009

A Sign of Subservience

BBC: Sarkozy speaks out against burka

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken out strongly against the wearing of the burka by Muslim women in France.

"We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity," Mr Sarkozy told a special session of parliament in Versailles.

"The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic," the French president said.

Apologists for the burka sometimes argue that it empowers, not oppresses - that by covering herself, a woman ensures that she is judged according to her ideas and not according to her looks.

When I hear this specious nonsense, I always think: what "ideas"? What ideas can she have if she is deprived of an education, as so many Muslim women are? What if she gets the "idea" to do something crazy or unspeakable - like divorce her husband?

Sarkozy is right on here. Of course the burka oppresses women; sexism doesn't get more explicit!

The burka robs a woman of her identity and completes the process by which she is transformed from an autonomous individual into the property of her father or husband.

Sarkozy is wrong about one thing, though: the burka is a sign of religion. Arbitrary injustice is the kind of thing that religion does best.

21 May 2009

Hero vs. Hero Prime

Through technology or genetic mutations, a man acquires special powers. He uses his powers to defeat his enemies. But then, he must face his ultimate adversary - someone who has the same powers and abilities he does, except BETTER!

Sound familiar? This is the plot that Marvel Comics films have been reproducing with gusto lately. And it's getting pretty damn tiresome.

IRONMAN: Guy builds an iron suit, flies around, blows things up. But then his nemesis builds a bigger and better iron suit! And they fight!

THE HULK: Guy gets big and green when he's angry. His nemesis plays with science to make himself get bigger and greener! And they fight!

WOLVERINE ORIGINS: Guy has fast-regenerative tissue and a metal-coated skeleton. His nemesis assembles a Franken-mutant who has these abilities, plus teleportation, plus diamond skin, plus a bunch of other neat tricks. And they fight!

BO-RING. Is this cookie-cutter plot the only one Marvel can be bothered to use anymore? There are countless other ways you could bring a superhero film to an exciting climax. The whole hero-fights-a-new-and-improved-version-of-himself trope has got to go.

13 May 2009

Google: Invading Your Public Privacy

CNN: Google Street View blacked out in Greece

These uproars over Google Street View "invading privacy" seem like so much self-important nonsense. What could Google Street View reveal about your home that anybody couldn't readily see from a public road anyway?

There have been concerns that Google Street View will help "criminals scouting for burglary targets." I got news for you: if burglars want to scout out houses, they don't need a computer to do it. Google isn't telling them anything about your house they wouldn't have already known. You may find that comforting or you may find it unsettling, but there it is.

And if these images taken from a public road can encroach on privacy, what's next? Should we ban sidewalks in residential areas, since any shady character walking down the street can have ocular access to the exterior of your house?

10 May 2009

Not funny

You know that hideous joke about why the woman had two black eyes - because her man had to tell her twice?

In Saudi Arabia, that's not just a repulsive attempt at humor. It's a legal opinion.

CNN: Saudi judge: It's OK to slap spendthrift wives

Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily newspaper based in Riyadh, reported that Judge Hamad Al-Razine said that "if a person gives SR 1,200 [$320] to his wife and she spends 900 riyals [$240] to purchase an abaya [the black cover that women in Saudi Arabia must wear] from a brand shop and if her husband slaps her on the face as a reaction to her action, she deserves that punishment."

Al-Razine "also pointed out that women's indecent behavior and use of offensive words against their husbands were some of the reasons for domestic violence in the country," it added.

05 May 2009

Swine Flu

A hundred days into the new administration, Obama-related headlines had stopped carrying the punch they used to. People were also becoming numb to reports about the financial crisis. The media needed something new and scary.

So they soiled their pants with glee when Mexico began reporting an "outbreak" of swine flu. A pandemic scare! We haven't had one of those since avian flu became passe!

It's not a serious threat. It's the FLU. Just because it has the word "swine" in front of it doesn't make it the bubonic frakking plague.

There are still under 1000 cases worldwide, and an even smaller number of deaths. And most of those deaths, I think it's safe to say, testify not to the deadly nature of swine flu, but to the inadequacy of the Mexican healthcare system.

Yet people will panic when they're told to panic - and if you tell them not to panic, they'll panic anyway. One of the most vile manifestations of this daft herd mentality has been the mass killing of pigs, particularly in Egypt and Iraq. These killings have nothing to do with preventing the actual spread of the disease; anyone who's actually educated herself on the issue knows knows that, whatever its origins, the virus is spread from HUMAN to HUMAN. No - these mass killings are simply barbaric measures to make ignorant people feel safer.

In a few months, this exercise in scaring ourselves will be forgotten, and we can go back to fearing genuine threats to our well-being, like courts allowing men to marry each other, or presidents with foreign-sounding middle names, or immigrants stealing our much-sought-after janitorial and dishwashing careers.

17 April 2009

Fascism and Tyranny: Look Those Up, Too

They’re marching us to a brand of non-violent fascism. Or to put it another way, they’re marching us to 1984. Big Brother … Like it or not, fascism is on the rise.
-Glenn Beck, April 2009

To Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and others warning of the rise of totalitarianism in America:

Do you know what 'irony' is? Let me put it this way: YOUR OWN SUCCESS REFUTES YOUR ARGUMENTS. If America were a tyranny, your vicious attacks on the government would get you shot in the head - or, if fortunate, "disappeared" to some bleak internment hellscape.

Have you ever actually *read* 1984, Glenn? Do you know what Big Brother would do to someone as critical of the government as yourself? I'll give you a hint: it involves your face, a narrow, enclosed space, and some very hungry rats.

You see, tyranny cannot tolerate dissent. That's what makes it a tyranny. You, however, are strongly - even excessively - critical of the government, and instead of being beaten, tortured, and killed, you are enjoying money, fame, and success.

Q.E.D. Thank you for proving yourselves wrong.

Where was your alarmist shrieking about tyranny during the Bush administration? Obama's bailouts and healthcare reform smack of totalitarianism, but secret prisons, mandated torture, and warrantless arrests and wiretaps - just healthy aspects of any free, democratic society?

Go buy a dictionary - you've got a lot to look up. Start with the letter 'i': 'irony', 'inconsistency,' and 'imbecilic'.

15 April 2009

Socialism: Look It Up

For months, opponents of the Obama administration - from top Republicans, to jowlsey radio hosts, to participants in modern-day "tea parties" - have accused the Democrats of bringing "socialism" to America.

As Paul Krugman pointed out a few days ago, nowadays "the charge of socialism is being thrown around only because “liberal” doesn’t seem to carry the punch it used to."

Since this word has gained such currency in recent political discourse, it might be worthwhile to, you know, actually... LOOK IT UP.

From Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry:

1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

Not one of the above definitions fit the current government. From bailouts to healthcare reform, nothing the Democrats are doing involves "governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution"; nor are we abolishing private property; nor are we transitioning to communism (despite the apocalyptic howling of the right-wing pundits).

With all the hot air coming out of Fox News and the "tea parties" it's been instigating, it's easy to forget that Americans - even now - have one of the lightest tax burdens of any first-world country. And that as a percentage of GDP, our federal government is smaller than those of most European countries. And that we have a lower minimum wage and fewer employee benefits than most other first-world countries.

Socialism? Are you kidding?

From Politico:

05 April 2009

Misaligned Meccan mosques make muslims mad

BBC: Mecca mosques "wrongly aligned"

Some 200 mosques in Islam's holiest city, Mecca, point the wrong way for prayers, reports from Saudi Arabia say.

[P]eople looking down from recently built high-rises in Mecca found the niches in many older mosques were not pointing directly towards the Kaaba.

Some worshippers are said to be anxious about the validity of their prayers.

"Anxious about the validity of their prayers." Like someone worrying about her luck because she threw a pinch of salt over the wrong shoulder.

So, does Allah break out a protractor, and reject your prayers if your orientation is a few degrees off? What about all those people far away from Mecca who just pray toward the Middle East - what if they overshoot and their prayers land in India? Can Vishnu sign for them, and send them to Allah's forwarding address?

02 April 2009

A hard world to be ludicrous in

Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night is the fictional memoirs of an American, Howard Campbell, who works as an Allied spy in Goebbel's propaganda ministry under the Third Reich. While working as a spy, he creates a good deal of propaganda for the Nazis, and a central question of the book is whether, in doing so, he did more harm than good.

At one point he writes the following, which refers to Nazism but which could just as easily apply to any religious or political system of dogmatic belief:

I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

- Mother Night, Ch. 29

24 March 2009

This is CNN

The current headline on the CNN website reads, "Giant lizards kill unsuspecting fishermen."

By contrast, the current headline on BBC - which, I will remind you, is a British news agency - is, "US to boost Mexico border defence."

I've had it with CNN. They limit their headlines almost exclusively to US news, no matter how trivial - except, of course, when they hear of a couple Komodo dragon attacks in Indonesia, which they parlay into a banner headline exaggerating the phenomenon to Godzilla proportions.

21 March 2009

Philosophy Quotations Explained: "I think, therefore I am"

"The proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind."
- Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, II.

"Ego cogito, ergo sum..."
- Rene Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, Part 1, Article 7

"I think, therefore I am," is perhaps the most famous quote from all of modern philosophy. When the quote is taken out of context, however, it may seem that Descartes is magically thinking himself into existence, or that he's making some snooty statement about the philosopher's raison d'etre - that the meaning of life is to think.

This latter misinterpretation is spread further by witty slogans on t-shirts and bumper stickers advertising all sorts of hobbies - e.g., "I ski, therefore I am."

But Descartes wasn't talking about how much he liked thinking. He was actually trying to establish the foundations of knowledge - what we can know with certainty.

In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes's project is to find some fundamental proposition that is beyond doubt, and then use it as a starting point from which to derive everything that we know. Descartes writes:

All that I have, up to this moment, accepted as possessed of the highest truth and certainty, I received either from or through the senses. I observed, however, that these sometimes misled us; and it is the part of prudence not to place absolute confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived. (Meditations, I.)

Descartes goes on to point out that everything we perceive is subject to doubt, because we could be dreaming, or our thoughts could even be subject to the manipulations of an evil demon (think a 17th-century version of the Matrix).

So given that our senses always can be deceiving us, can we know anything with certainty? Yes, Descartes says: we know, with certainty, that we are thinking. Even if we are dreaming - even if we're trapped in the Matrix and don't know it - we at least know that we are thinking. And because we know we are thinking, we know that we - in some manner or form - exist. I think, therefore I am. Cogito ergo sum.

Philosophers since his day have split a lot of epistemological hairs over the Cogito and whether it actually proves what Descartes wants it to prove. But his radical project of doubting everything, and applying mathematical logic to problems of knowledge and reality, still makes Descartes the father of modern philosophy.

07 March 2009

A Sad Case

BBC: Vatican backs abortion row bishop

A senior Vatican cleric has defended the excommunication in Brazil of the mother and doctors of a young girl who had an abortion with their help.

The nine-year-old had conceived twins after alleged abuse by her stepfather.

"It is a sad case but the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated," [a Cardinal of the Church] said.

"Life must always be protected."

And the nine-year-old girl? Is she not an innocent person? Why doesn't her life deserve protection?

This girl was raped, and trying to carry the pregnancy to term clearly would have threatened her life and compounded her psychological trauma.

And yet, the Catholic Church, that model of moral probity, insists that the right thing to do - the will of a just and beneficent God - would have been to force the nine-year-old girl to risk her life birthing the fruit of her rape.

Where in the Bible does it say that a person's life should be subordinated to the preservation of a fetus? For that matter, where in the Bible does it talk about the 'rights' of the unborn at all? Oh, right - Thou Shalt Not Kill. Even though the Man Upstairs Himself likes to kill people according to divine whim.

This is why religion is dangerous. It takes faith to consider oneself an ethical role model while arguing that a raped nine-year-old should die giving birth to her stepfather's child.

05 March 2009

Philosophy Quotations Explained: "God is Dead"

After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave—a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.— And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow, too!
- Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book III

God is dead. - Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead. - God
- Bumper Sticker

This is one of the best-known of Nietzsche's aphorisms, and is one of the strongest statements of atheism in history. Nietzsche's contempt for religion is infamous, and this is simply the most pithy among many atheistic statements he made in his writings.

But pronouncing the death of God seems like a contradictory way to assert atheism. After all, if God is dead, that means that he used to be alive, doesn't it? And therefore Nietzsche seems to be shooting himself in the foot - in declaring God's death, isn't he implicitly acknowledging God's existence?

It's this mistaken reading that's reflected in the bumper sticker above. (Although Nietzsche himself probably would have gotten a kick out of that joke, he probably would have retorted with something like, "How convenient to believe in someone who doesn't exist - you can put whatever words in his mouth you like!")

The problem with the popular interpretation of "God is dead" is that it takes Nietzsche's aggressive rhetoric literally. Nietzsche is as famous for his rhetorical flourishes as he is for his atheism, and although this makes him enormous fun to read, it also can lead to misunderstandings like this.

By "God is dead," Nietzsche means to call attention to a cultural fact: that like the gods of ancient Greece, the Judeo-Christian God has lost his ethical power and philosophical importance. Since the Enlightenment, science has replaced religion as the only responsible way to explain worldly phenomena, and ethical systems have become less and less dependent on religious imperatives. Although Nietzsche criticized the Enlightenment values too, he was firm in asserting that the vestigial worldviews of religion are an obstruction to personal, intellectual, and cultural growth.

In another section of the Gay Science, Nietzsche tells the story of a madman who proclaims that "God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him!" We have killed God, because we have rejected - or perhaps outgrown - the worldview into which God and religion fit. Now that God is dead, our challenge is to replace him with a worldly, human ideal, and to supplant religion's conventional morality with a new, personal ethic that makes no claim to objectivity.

So "God is dead" should be understood as a powerful metaphor, not a literal claim about theological mortality. And although Nietzsche is physically dead, it's he who has the last laugh: in the world of ideas, he remains as relevant as ever.

03 March 2009

Philosophy Quotations Explained: Introduction

Because most people do not read philosophy, a philosopher's popular reputation - if he or she has one at all - is usually based upon one or two famous aphorisms. Too often, those aphorisms are torn from context, and the original ideas behind them come to be distilled or distorted.

In this series of posts I will reexamine some well-known but frequently misunderstood philosophy quotations, using careful reading and consideration of context to explore what the philosopher really meant.

For starters, here's an incomplete list of quotations on which I plan to post.

Aristotle: "Man is by nature a political animal."
Descartes: "I think, therefore I am."
Rousseau: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."
Hegel: "What is real is rational."
Hegel: "The owl of Minerva spreads her wings only with the falling of dusk."
Darwin: "To suppose that the eye... could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree."
Marx: "Religion is the opiate of the people."
Marx: "Workers of the world, unite!"
Nietzsche: "God is dead."
Nietzsche: "What does not kill me makes me stronger."
Sartre: "Hell is other people."
Sartre: "Everyone gets the war that he deserves."

Recommendations for additional quotes are welcome!

22 February 2009

Choice, Responsibility, and Death by Cigarette

BBC: US chain smoker's widow gets $8m

A US jury has ordered tobacco giant Philip Morris to pay $8m (£5.6m) to the widow of a lifelong smoker who died of lung disease.

The jury in Florida decided in favour of Elaine Hess, whose husband Stuart died of lung cancer in 1997 at age 55. He had smoked for 40 years.

As much as I hate cigarettes and the people who produce them, I disagree with rulings of this nature. If you smoke yourself to death, it's your own fault.*

Information about the dangers of smoking are now so widely disseminated that only the most braindead (among them, not surprisingly, Rush Limbaugh) can doubt that smoking is one of the most unhealthy things you can do to your body.

No one forces you to start smoking. And once you're addicted, many methods of quitting are available, ranging from the chemical (nicotine patches) to the subconscious (hypnosis). Millions of people have gotten off cigarettes and stayed off them. It takes willpower to suffer through withdrawal, but that's the price you pay for getting hooked on something so manifestly stupid in the first place.

If smoking deaths can be blamed on the cigarette industry, then the same logic can be used to award lawsuits to obese people who, ignoring all personal accountability, blame the bloated state of their bodies on the fast food industry. Both industries use aggressive marketing, and cigarettes and junk food both have addictive properties, but if you choose to put crap into your body, you have only yourself to blame for the results.

So although I enjoy it when Phillip Morris or McDonald's loses money, I don't like that it's at the expense of properly assigning responsibility. If we blame obesity and lung cancer on unhealthful industries instead of the people who support those industries, we will view people as passive victims instead of active consumers who got exactly what they paid for.

*The subject of the lawsuit discussed here started smoking in the fifties, when cigarette companies still used flagrantly false advertising (4 out of 5 doctors prefer Camel!), and when no one appreciated the full extent of the damage tobacco wreaks on the body. So it should be noted that he and the others who started smoking back then may have a warranted complaint.

12 February 2009

February 12, 1809

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

- Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, 1 December 1862

"We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities... still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."

- Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871

Happy 200th to two of the greatest minds ever to benefit humanity!

07 February 2009


BBC: Free Trial as a Monk

Religious orders are advertising for people to try being a nun or a monk for a weekend in an attempt to slow the decline of new vocations.

In 2007, Catholic orders had just 29 novices in England and Wales, down from over 200 in 1972.

Imagine a god who wants a select number of his creatures to become professional sycophants - cloistered ascetics who kiss His Ass from sunrise to sunset and make entreaties of which He, in his omniscience, is already aware. What arrogance! What massive insecurity! What a petty little jerk!

If god did exist, and was as great as everyone thinks he is, I think he'd want you to do something constructive with your life. Become a nurse. Join the Peace Corps. Give to charity. Coach Little League. Find something more imaginative than living a repetitive life of self-denial and prayer.

As far as I can tell, the last worthwhile things achieved by monks were the brewing of beer and the preservation of ancient texts during the middle ages. Other than that, monasticism has been perhaps the most systematic and successful waste of time in human history.

30 January 2009

The Patriot

Rush Limbaugh in 2006: "I'm getting so sick and tired of people rooting for the defeat of the good guys."

Rush Limbaugh in 2009: "I hope Obama fails. Somebody’s gotta say it."

And to think they called John Kerry a flip-flopper.

25 January 2009


BBC: Obama lifts ban on abortion funds

For the eight years of the Bush presidency, the global gag rule was in place. No federal funding was given to foreign family planning agencies distributing information about abortion.

This hindered the ability of such agencies to work in third world countries that need sex ed and family planning information the most: countries where people think HIV is caused by demons, countries where access to contraception is limited or nonexistent, countries where children starve to death as a matter of course.

Thus the president known for 'family values' kept people ignorant about the whole subject of family planning rather than risk them learning about one controversial part of it.

In his first week on the job, President Obama has overturned this detrimental ban, so has promised women more control over their health and poor countries more control over their populations. As Planned Parenthood wrote in a statement praising the move, "No longer will health care providers be forced to choose between receiving family planning funding and restricting the health care services they provide to women."

Thank you, Mr. President.

21 January 2009

Mr. Obama comes to Washington

"Let me say it as simply as I can. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency. Our commitment to openness means more than just informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that's why, as of today, I am directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans, scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs, because the way to solve the problems of our time as one nation is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives. The executive orders and directives I'm issuing today will not, by themselves, make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be, and they do not go as far as we need to go towards restoring accountability and fiscal restraint in Washington; but these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country, and I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people in the days, and weeks, months, and years to come. That's a pretty good place to start."

- President Obama, 21 January 2009

A president who talks to the American people like adults. A president who will lend his ear to those who have "knowledge and experience". A president who views government as inherently neither good nor bad, but as a tool that, if wisely employed, can be used to fix problems.

In a word, a president who is smart.

This is the change we needed. This is the man I voted for. This is a Chief who's actually worth Hailing.

It's a pleasure to see you get to work, Mr. President.

08 January 2009

The Atheist Bus Campaign

New York Times London Journal: Atheists Send a Message, on 800 British Buses

LONDON — The advertisement on the bus was fairly mild, just a passage from the Bible and the address of a Christian Web site. But when Ariane Sherine, a comedy writer, looked on the Web site in June, she was startled to learn that she and her nonbelieving friends were headed straight to hell, to “spend all eternity in torment.”

And then she thought, how about putting some atheist messages on the bus, as a corrective to the religious ones?

And so were planted the seeds of the Atheist Bus Campaign, an effort to disseminate a godless message to the greater public. Supported by the scientist and author Richard Dawkins, the philosopher A. C. Grayling and the British Humanist Association, among others, the campaign raised nearly $150,000 in four days. Now it has more than $200,000, and on Tuesday it unveiled its advertisements on 800 buses across Britain.

Hear, hear! It's encouraging that so many Britons want to spread anti-superstitious arguments with as much zeal as the religious spread their nonsense.

If your reaction is like that of the woman quoted in the article, who objects, “I think it’s dreadful... everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don’t like it in my face,” that's a valid point. It can be uncomfortable when viewpoints you disagree with are shoved in your face. Like, for example, the cross, the most ubiquitous symbol in the western world. Or the notion of salvation, tirelessly proselytized by Christian churches through the ages, which holds that without irrational belief in an ancient carpenter's divine status, you're in for an eternity of postmortem suffering. How's that for 'in your face'?

I also like the American advertisement:

Many believe that religion is a precondition for ethical behavior. Given the amount of immorality perpetrated in this world despite - and often because of - religion, it's amazing people still can argue this with a straight face, but the notion persists. Being "good for goodness' sake" is not only possible, it's much more fulfilling and meaningful than acting ethically only out of fear of being sent to a make-believe lake of fire.

The strongest feature of these ads is their uplifting tone. "Stop worrying and enjoy your life!" "Be good for goodness' sake!" This is a far cry from the bleak, desolate nihilism that is usually attributed to the faithless. These ads show that atheism is not merely about tearing down the old idols; it is about replacing them with rational humanist ethics, and a genuine embrace of life that backward and destructive ideas like sin render impossible.

I encourage you to read the deft and witty article by Ariane Sherine that sparked this campaign. Now stop worrying and go enjoy your life!