Archive for April, 2011

A few things you can do with a high hat

| April 30, 2011 | Reply
A few things you can do with a high hat

What kind of music could you make if you only had a high hat? Jazz legend Max Roach demonstrates.

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The history of church-state separation in twenty minutes

| April 30, 2011 | Reply
The history of church-state separation in twenty minutes

Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism recently gave a short talk on the topic of church-state separation at Columbia University. As Adam explains, separation benefits all religious sects, protecting each of them from all other sects. Nonetheless, there is a long history of Americans religions attempting to circumvent the separation clause. One of the main problems has been that members of many religions, including today’s religious right, simply cannot comprehend or accept the possibility that government could be religiously neutral.  They are driven along by this idea: “If you are not their ally, you must be their enemy.”

This is an excellent two-part talk on a critically important topic, and you can view both parts of the talk here. Here is Part I:

Columbia Speech from Adam Lee on Vimeo.

Also, notice that Adam (AKA Ebonmuse) is now out of the closet as an atheist.  There’s an important reason for that move, one that is explained in this Daylight Atheism post about FFRF’s “Virtual Billboard Campaign.”  I’m totally in favor of having non-theists of all stripes (including atheists, new atheists, agnostics and ignostics) spread the word that they are decent, law-abiding, tax-paying moral members of society despite the fact that many of them do not attend church. They need to be heard because they are all-too-often unfairly disparaged, especially by conservative believers, and because non-religious people comprise one out of six Americans. Here’s how Adam further explains the reason for the Campaign:

As simple as it is, this may be one of the most effective things we can do to improve our public image and get our message out. The religious right has worked hard to spread poisonous stereotypes about who we are, what we stand for, even what we look like. By associating atheism with a friendly, smiling face that could be your friend or your neighbor, we go a long way toward counteracting those prejudices in the public’s conception and making people more likely to listen to what we have to say.

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Is sugar a poison?

| April 30, 2011 | 4 Replies
Is sugar a poison?

An article by Robert Lustig about the dangers of sugar is drawing a lot of traffic at the NYT. Lustig is a specialist on pediatric hormone disorders and the leading expert in childhood obesity at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. Lustig repeatedly charaterizes sugar as

a “toxin” or a “poison,” terms he uses together 13 times through the course of the lecture, in addition to the five references to sugar as merely “evil.” And by “sugar,” Lustig means not only the white granulated stuff that we put in coffee and sprinkle on cereal — technically known as sucrose — but also high-fructose corn syrup, which has already become without Lustig’s help what he calls “the most demonized additive known to man.”

. . .

Sugar is not just an empty calorie, he says; its effect on us is much more insidious. “It’s not about the calories,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the calories. It’s a poison by itself.”

If Lustig is right, then our excessive consumption of sugar is the primary reason that the numbers of obese and diabetic Americans have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. But his argument implies more than that. If Lustig is right, it would mean that sugar is also the likely dietary cause of several other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles — heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.

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After ruining his career, U.S. DOJ drops charges against whistleblower

| April 30, 2011 | Reply
After ruining his career, U.S. DOJ drops charges against whistleblower

In 2004, Thomas Tamm decided to expose the Bush administration’s domestic warrantless eavesdropping program that intercepted private email messages and phone calls of U.S. residents without a court warrant. He paid a high price for making this illegal program public, and now the federal investigation against him has been quietly dropped. This latest development has been covered by Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, and includes an interview of Mr. Tamm:

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to an update on the whistleblower who helped expose the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic eavesdropping program. He made what’s been called the biggest leak of the Bush era.

In 2004, Justice Department attorney Thomas Tamm called the New York Times and told them about the National Security Agency’s secret program to intercept private email messages and phone calls of U.S. residents without a court warrant. Based in part on his tip, the Times went on to expose what many believe was a highly illegal program. The Times even won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting. Meanwhile, Thomas Tamm lost his job. The FBI raided his house and began monitoring his phone calls and email. Up until this week, he faced possible arrest for disclosing classified secrets.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Tuesday, Politico broke the news that the Justice Department has dropped its longstanding criminal investigation of Tamm. Asked to comment on the story, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters, quote, “These matters get reviewed by career lawyers in the department. They look at these matters in an exhaustive fashion and reach what I think are appropriate conclusions.”

The relatively quiet end to the investigation into Tamm’s warrantless wiretapping leak marks a sharp contrast to the controversy his tip generated during the second half of the Bush administration about whether the government had overstepped its legal authority in response to the 9/11 terror attacks.

Thomas Tamm joins us now from Washington, D.C. We welcome you back to the program.

THOMAS TAMM: Thank you for inviting me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about what this means and what this investigation, your ouster from the Justice Department, what all of this has meant for your life over the past five years.

THOMAS TAMM: Well, I mean, it’s a relief that the long ordeal is over. Unfortunately, I ruined my career. I had loved working at the Justice Department, particularly in the Criminal Division. It was an honor to represent the people of the United States. As a result of that, I incurred significant legal fees, which I still owe. I borrowed money for those legal fees. And, you know, really, probably the biggest impact was on my family. I wasn’t home when the 18 FBI agents rammed through my house, but my wife was, and my kids were. My kids were awakened in their beds by strangers wearing guns. And I don’t think that they will ever get over that. My wife doesn’t feel the same way about our house, doesn’t feel as safe in our house.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you go back, just chronologically take us through this? Your case did not get a tremendous amount of attention, certainly through the years. So talk about what you found out when you were working in the Justice Department, when you made that phone call to the Times, and how this raid took place. But start at the beginning.

THOMAS TAMM: Well, it really kind of started with me after 9/11. In the Criminal Division, we had the opportunity to talk to the families of the 9/11 attack, and I decided that I wanted to try and go after the real bad guys, the people that had attacked our country. And so, I went to this office where you were—where we did legal wiretapping and electronic surveillance, approved by a court, to try and gain intelligence about foreign agents. I was there only a short period of time. It was right at the start of the Iraq war, and fear permeated that office. And it was—I think for the first time I understood what fear, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” actually meant.

And as I participated in that, I realized that there was a separate track of cases, about 10 percent of the cases, that did not go through the normal process, that went to just one particular judge. And only the Attorney General could sign those warrants, which was different from all of the other cases that I handled. And I remember a lawyer that was senior to me saying that she didn’t want to know what this program was. She just assumed it was illegal. And so, I just started—it was kind of an educated guess.

And, you know, it’s interesting to say that I made a phone call to the New York Times. Actually, it was a series of phone calls before I became comfortable even talking to them, and then it was a series of meetings, during which I said, “I think that there’s something illegal going on. I’m not sure what it is.”

[More . . . ]

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It’s a good time to look into solar energy for your home or business

| April 29, 2011 | 1 Reply
It’s a good time to look into solar energy for your home or business

At the recent Earth Day celebration in St. Louis, Chris Klarer of Advanced Energy Solutions offered to give a video statement on the advantages of solar. In addition to producing clean and sustainable energy, there are substantial tax advantages for owners of businesses and homes.

I went to the site of AES and used its calculator, determining that a solar system on my roof could provide more than half of my family’s electricity. This was quite interesting, of course. What made things even more interesting are those tax advantages.  In addition to talking with Chris, I discussed these tax advantages with another a man who was promoting solar at his own booth (he was not selling anything, onlypromoting the use of solar panels). His numbers were even rosier than those suggested by Chris — click on the thumbnail to see how he reduced the cost of a $12,000 installation to only about $2,000.

I am, indeed, going to look further into solar electric for my home, but here is a hurdle: I live in an historic neighborhood, and I suspect that I’m going to have a struggle over getting a permit. I’ll make my best arguments and see how far I get – – it would seem that there should be a way–after all, the state of Missouri is offering tax credits for solar, making it official public policy that solar electric is to be encouraged.  I’ll report back after I learn more.

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The lesson we learn from Birtherism

| April 29, 2011 | 12 Replies
The lesson we learn from Birtherism

This insightful passage was published by Think Progress:

HOW DID WE GET HERE: If the endurance of the birther myth teaches us anything, it’s the power of repetition. Any claim, no matter how outrageous, can take hold over time if it gets enough media exposure. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that nearly 25 percent of Americans, and 45 percent of Republicans, believed Mr. Obama was born in another country. The shocking fact that a quarter of all Americans now believe the lie — and an additional 18 percent say they don’t know where he was born — illustrates just how successful birther conspiracists have been at sowing doubt and attracting attention from mainstream news outlets.

Epilogue: This episode on Birtherism also demonstrates the power of a vigorous and self-critical media to advance the public good. I will adhere to one of my personal articles of faith: That most people will think in admirable ways and act decently if given accurate information and if treated with at least a modicum of respect by their leaders.

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Recipe for morality: Just add empathy.

| April 28, 2011 | 8 Replies
Recipe for morality: Just add empathy.

We often discussed empathy at this website, for instance here. And here. Most of the time, we discuss the importance of empathy-based morality without invoking any supernatural beings, beliefs, or commandments. This is not to claim that religion is always irrelevant to such discussions.

For the past day, I have repeatedly thought about Rush Limbaugh’s recent invocation of Jesus. He claimed that Jesus would prefer that we lower the tax rates for rich people and that we dismantle the federal social safety net for those who are not rich.

This morning, coming out of a courthouse a poor-looking man smiled and said, “I hope you’re having a good day.” I thanked him and walked on, struck that an upbeat man of such modest means, a man I didn’t know, would take time to greet me. That reminded me of a recurring thought I have: If I were God, I would visit earth dressed as a poor person, and I would mingle with well-to-do people to see how they treated me. If I were God and I did this, I would repeatedly be reminded that rich people avoided me.

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How did a lackluster student like Barack Obama ever get into an ivy league school?

| April 28, 2011 | Reply
How did a lackluster student like Barack Obama ever get into an ivy league school?

How, indeed? Read on.

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A global empathy

| April 27, 2011 | 4 Replies
A global empathy

If you’ve lived in or spent any significant time in another country, you might have had to answer questions about why your country was doing certain things on the world stage. And if you took time to think of who was asking and how things appeared from their perspectives, your answer might be different than if you spent your life wearing parochial blinders.

I was in Korea when we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. I couldn’t answer the questions like, “Why is the U.S. doing that?” or the more common one, “Why are Bush and Cheney doing that?” And these from a country that enjoys (not universally) a U.S. presence and strong relationship with the U.S. I couldn’t answer not just because I was in the military for part of the time I was there, but also that I tried to understand how things looked from outside the U.S. I was, after all, a guest in their country.

Sam Richards, in this TED Talk titled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy” illustrates a message that I think that every single American needs to hear, whether xenophobic or not. I’ve lived all over the U.S. and I am continually saddened, if no longer surprised at how Americans view the world. “Speak English!” “But you’re in our country.” “Speak English anyway.” I am also saddened that I know many people that will not understand this video, which is all the more disappointing because despite my other challenges regarding the nature of humans though their arts, I do.

The message is simple: Step out of your tiny world and understand the larger world differently.

It should open some eyes. I really hope it does.

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