Archive for May, 2009

Another intolerant candidate

| May 28, 2009 | Reply
Another intolerant candidate

Farouk Hosny is Egypt’s candidate to lead UNESCO (the UN’s cultural arm). He once pledged to burn Israeli books that were part of Egyptian libraries, but that was way back in May of 2008. Now that he wants to head UNESCO, he is publicly apologizing for his anti-Israeli remarks. How convenient.

See the full story at BBC News.

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The real reason Bush invaded Iraq . . .

| May 27, 2009 | 5 Replies
The real reason Bush invaded Iraq . . .

Why did George W. Bush invade Iraq? Clive Hamilton confirms one of my suspicions at Alternet:

In 2003 while lobbying leaders to put together the Coalition of the Willing, President Bush spoke to France’s President Jacques Chirac. Bush wove a story about how the Biblical creatures Gog and Magog were at work in the Middle East and how they must be defeated. . .

President Bush’s reason for launching the war in Iraq was, for him, fundamentally religious. He was driven by his belief that the attack on Saddam’s Iraq was the fulfilment of a Biblical prophesy in which he had been chosen to serve as the instrument of the Lord.

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How to slow global warming: paint all of the roofs white

| May 27, 2009 | 4 Replies
How to slow global warming:  paint all of the roofs white

What can we do to slow global warming? Steven Chu suggests that one way would be to paint our roofs white:

Professor Steven Chu, the US Energy Secretary, said the unusual proposal would mean homes in hot countries would save energy and money on air conditioning by deflecting the sun’s rays.

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The hollow authority of the Catholic Church

| May 27, 2009 | 3 Replies
The hollow authority of the Catholic Church

Over at Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse is busy pointing out more hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. While senior clergy continue to rant about the dangers of atheism, the Church can’t even seem to acknowledge recent revelations in Ireland that Church leaders had been quite busy, for decades, raping and beating thousands of children.

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Amazing Bridge in France: the Millau Viaduct

| May 27, 2009 | 1 Reply
Amazing Bridge in France: the Millau Viaduct

I was checking MSNBC tonight when I saw a link to the “Worlds Most Amazing Bridges.” OK, fair enough, I thought. It turned out to be an awesome collection of bridges, selected for a variety of qualities. One of the bridges stood out for its raw dimensions, however: The Millau Viaduct near Millau France (southern France, near Spain).

Image by facemepls at Flickr (creative commons)

Check out the dimensions:

This breathtaking cable-stayed bridge, completed in 2004, is the tallest vehicular bridge in the world. It spans the valley of the Tarn River near Millau in France, with a total length of 8,071 feet. Its maximum height soars to 1,130 feet. This colossus was engineered by Michel Virlogeux and designed by Norman Foster. At 890 feet, its road bridge deck is the highest in the world; drivers have said it feels like sailing through a cloud.

arch-at-sunset

To put this incredible bridge in perspective, we have a spectacular monument in St. Louis. Our 630 foot tall Gateway Arch is often described as even “soaring.” See insert. Now consider that the road deck of the Millau Viaduct is 260 feet taller than the Gateway Arch and that it runs for more than 1 1/2 miles. Consider, too, that the tallest towers of the bridge (1,130 feet) are taller than the Eiffel Tower (986 ft) and almost as tall as the Empire State Building (1250 feet).

millau-viaduct-phillipc

For more spectacular views, check out the website of the architechts, Foster + Partners, where you’ll learn that the

For more spectacular views, check out the website of the architechts, Foster + Partners, where you’ll learn that the Millau Viaduct “connects the motorway networks of France and Spain, opening up a direct route from Paris to Barcelona. The bridge crosses the River Tarn, which runs through a spectacular gorge between two high plateaux.”

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Mormons Win in California, For Now

| May 27, 2009 | 4 Replies
Mormons Win in California, For Now

Anyone who has been following the 2008/2009 contest of California’s Proposition 8 (constitutional prohibition of marriage between people of the same sexual preference or same sexual identity) knows that it was submitted and promoted by Salt Lake City. The paper trail is clear. Arguably, Salt Lake City isn’t even in California. But that was not the issue, because the Utah money did persuade California voters.

Recently, the California Supreme Court upheld the amendment. But Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta posted Am I a Bad Person If I Think The Prop 8 Ruling Was Correct?. His point is that this ruling will make it harder for anti-gay activists the next time around.

States are beginning to domino into accepting marriage between those of same gender much like they did for those of different races in the mid 20th century. Conservatives have a valuable role to play; they fear and resist change. They function as a drag anchor to force those who would move ahead to work out iron-clad methods before change is implemented. Our legal system therefore resists implementing anything new from the grass roots direction until it is acceptable to at least half of the voting population. Very frustrating, but a historical necessity. When the process is short-circuited, we get embarrassments such as the 18th and 23rd amendments to our Federal Constitution.

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Does evolution explain human nature?

| May 26, 2009 | Reply
Does evolution explain human nature?

“Does evolution explain human nature?” This is a typical Templeton Foundation question, in that it is laden with ambiguities. Only when one figures out the meaning of “evolution,” “explain,” and “human nature” can one really get to work.

I suspect that the Templeton questions are drafted vaguely in order to invite a wide range of participants, who must often roll up their sleeves to define the component elements of the question as part of their answer.

I don’t mean to sound like a pedant here. The reason I am posting on this question is that despite the wobbly question, Templeton has once again done a good job of assembling a wide range of opinion on an important set of issues. You can read the many responses here. My favorites are

Frans de Waal,

If we look at our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technological advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than that of a chimpanzee, does not contain any new parts. Our intellect may be superior, but we have no basic wants or needs that cannot also be observed in our close relatives . . .

Lynn Margulis

[R]eligion serves an obvious evolutionary function: it identifies, unifies, and preserves adherents. Admonitions to desist from the seven deadly sins inhibit behaviors that threaten group solidarity and survival. Greed, for example, privileges the individual in seasons of limited resources. Lust – the biblical coveting of the neighbor’s wife (in its male-centered perspective) – interferes with ideals for the nurture of healthy children and effective warriors. Prohibiting sloth enhances productive work intrinsic to survival and reproduction of the social unit. Anger, perhaps useful in battle, destroys family and other social relationships. Envy and pride promote individual interests above those of the larger social unit. The survival value of prohibiting sin seems obvious . . .

I disagree with neo-Darwinist zoologists who assert that the accumulation of random genetic mutations is the major source of evolutionary novelty. More important is symbiogenesis, the evolution of new species from the coming together of members of different species. Symbiogenesis is the behavioral, physiological, and genetic fusion of different kinds of being; it leads to the evolution of chimeric new ones.

Geoffrey Miller

My own research has been inspired mostly by good-genes sexual selection theory (the idea that animals choose their partners based on cues about genetic quality) and costly-signalling theory (the idea that only animals in good condition can afford seemingly pointless displays like extravagant plumage). These theories have proved enormously useful in understanding a range of human behaviors that have seemed to have no clear survival payoffs, like music, dance, art, humor, verbal creativity, conspicuous consumption, and altruism.

Robert Wright

What Darwinism tells us is how natural selection gave human life its distinctively rich texture of meaning. Darwinism can also give us guidance as we try to better ourselves and make that meaning richer still. What Darwinism does not tell us is why there is meaning at all.

David Sloan Wilson

Genes are only one mechanism of inheritance. Some immunological, psychological, and cultural processes also count as evolutionary. They too rely on the open-ended variation and selective retention of traits, but they are based on non-genetic inheritance mechanisms. People and cultures shaped by these fast-paced evolutionary processes no longer have the same “nature,” any more than two bacterial strains that have diverged by genetic evolution. In this fashion, my simple and seemingly boring formula can be understood to say that humanity as a whole does not have a single “nature.” Instead, each and every person and culture has its own “nature.”

There’s lots more to read (by these authors and others) at the above link

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How to really reform the SEC

| May 26, 2009 | Reply
How to really reform the SEC

Dan Smolin asks a good question: Why should we assume that the SEC’s Mary Schapiro will make a U-turn in 2009, given that Schapiro has spent her entire career inviting brokerages to “self-regulate” and doing everything in her power to keep consumers at bay when they are ripped off and kept in the dark by brokerages? The easy answer is that we shouldn’t assume that Schapiro will all of a sudden go to bat for the consumers. After all, Schapiro “has been at the very center of a failed regulatory process for the past two decades.” We know where her loyalties lie, just like we know that Tim Geithner will never turn hard against Wall Street to clean up the corruption (see here for more details on Geithner–and here). Truly, years of actions speak much more loudly than months of words for both Schapiro and Geithner.

I am convinced that Obama doesn’t have the horses he needs to clean up Wall Street corruption. It’s a typical modern conundrum where you need a highly motivated powerful outsider to get the job down, but there simply aren’t enough highly motivated powerful outsiders.

If Mary Schapiro had even an iota of interest in protecting consumers, Smolin wouldn’t be needing to advocate for the following changes he is now pushing–they would have been a reality years ago:

1. Abolish the mandatory arbitration system and give investors back their constitutional rights;

2. Abolish “self regulation” by FINRA, which is a sham. The brokerage industry should be regulated by a governmental authority with the power to do so effectively. The SEC would be the likely agency to do so, with the right leadership;

3. Require brokerage statements to:

(a) Disclose the risk of every portfolio, as measured by standard deviation;
(b) Compare the returns of every portfolio to a portfolio indexed to benchmarks of comparable risk; and
(c) Disclose the “cost equity” of the portfolio, which is the amount the investor must make to break even, after payment of commissions, fees and margin interest.

Common sense, right? Why aren’t these reforms a reality? Good question. And why is a terribly motivated person like Mary Schapiro still sitting there pretending to be a reformer?

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My comfort zone lost its sense of peace –

| May 26, 2009 | 8 Replies
My comfort zone lost its sense of peace –

As was alluded to in a recent comment from Erich, my house was burglarized a couple of weeks ago. I’d enjoyed one of those rare, delightfully spontaneous evenings; after a dance recital for my daughter, I ran into a date I hadn’t seen in awhile who invited me to a club to listen to music. Said daughter and her sister were off to their dad’s for the weekend, so I was free to stay out. We had a lovely time and I headed home around 11:15.

As I turned my key in the front lock and opened the door, I saw movement. I looked up just in time to see a kid run out of my bedroom, glance back at me then run down the hall toward the kitchen, away from me. In that moment, I snapped. Instead of backing out the door to safety and calling 911, I barreled straight toward him, screaming at the top of my lungs. Screaming at him to get the $%#^ out of my house – him AND his com-padre, whom I heard running down the back stairs. They both ran out the back door, one crossing the alley and running between the houses, and one running down the alley. I screamed again, ran back to my car and raced around the block hoping to spot one or both of them. No luck. I was sobbing with rage; I could not believe this had happened – again. I called 911.

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