Archive for February, 2012

“With My Own Two Wheels”

February 28, 2012 1 comment

Just got back from a local screening of the documentary film With My Own Two Wheels at the historic Normal Theater. The 42-minute film profiles five individuals whose lives have been changed by bicycles. [Trailer]   [Watch the film]

One example is Bharati, a high-school girl in India, where only about 45% of girls go to high school. She needed a bicycle to get to school; this expense was OK for boys but not for girls because they would just get married anyway. “Why water a plant which will grow in your neighbor’s garden?” An organization gave her a bike and now she is going to school. She likes mathematics and wants to be a civic leader. Her mother now says: “It is important for our daughter to get a good education!”

There were about 200 people there for the event, which was darned impressive for a rainy Tuesday night. A Normal city planner asked; “How many of you are all-weather riders?” Dozens of hands went up. “Great!” she said, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!” Normal is working hard to be a bike-friendly community with more racks, lanes, signage, extending “the trail”, and events. At one upcoming event in Bloomington, donated bikes will be refurbished and given away, while West-side kids will be able to get their bikes fixed for free.

Last month I acquired a classic Schwinn Varsity; it isn’t rideable now, but the wheels are straight and it won’t take much to get it in shape. Then I may give it to that local organization or find a student who needs it. Those were really good bikes (although that ancient Huret Alvit derailler has got to go – those were terrible).

A very good evening.

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How Google helps stupid misquotes replace original quotes

February 27, 2012 3 comments

I suppose it isn’t all Google’s fault. After all, we do excitedly link to idiotic things that Gingrich, Santorum, et al, say.  And Google quite rightly avoids steering the public dialog – it simply* tells us who’s linking to what.

But when the idiotic thing in question is a misquote of some kind, it utterly buries the original quote in search results. As an example, Rick Santorum’s mis- characterization of Barack Obama’s statements about the cost of higher education:

What Obama actually said was – several different things actually – to the effect that every child deserves a great school, and it should be possible for everyone to afford some kind of post- high school education and that it was important to our economy to make it easier for them to do so. Santorum collapsed all those into “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.”

See? Right there’s another reproduction of Santorum’s little sound-bite for Google to pick up, while the President’s nuanced collection of original quotes just gets buried in page 6 or 7 of search results. As Google is our information-of-reference system now, the misquote becomes the reality. All except for the people (snobs?) who go digging for the original statement.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “Be wary of quotes on the Internet!”


  • There’s nothing simple about Google’s algorithms; witness the evolution of ranking for SpreadingSantorum.  Google says; “We make more than 500 changes to our algorithms in a typical year, and with each of those changes sites will shuffle to different positions in our search results. We have not manually taken action to change the ranking of the site.”
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YouTube removing “religiously offensive” videos

February 26, 2012 1 comment

No telling how long this Thunderf00t video will be up: YouTube has started pulling his videos down because Muslims have been complaining that they are offensive:

As an atheist I know something about criticism: Christians and Muslims say all manner of terrible things about us (which are no more true than they are of any other cross-section of humanity). But I support their right to say those things because censorship, as an alternative, is an off-ramp into the dark ages. Once a society starts deciding what you can say and what you can’t say, they’re essentially dictating what you can think, and what you can’t think.

Only offensive speech needs protection. The First Amendment specifically protects speech and religion, and by clear implication, thought. And if someone says something bad about me or my in-group, I’ll try to answer them the best I can. Or I may just put a link to their video on Twitter so my friends can make fun of them, whatever seems like the best thing at the time.

I do not agree with everything Thunderf00t says by any stretch. For example I disagree with his opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. But that’s the point, isn’t it? People say things, and we have an opportunity to think about them and discuss them.

One could argue that YouTube is private property, much as my blog is private property. All right, fine; ask yourself if you’d like the phone company to cut off phone conversations they deem offensive. One also wonders where they plan to draw the line. Personally I find every video Ray Comfort ever made offensive. Should I complain to YouTube and ask that they be removed? Or should I decide if it’s worth my time to make some kind of answer to them?

It will be interesting to see how long this video stays up, or if YouTube changes its idiotic policy.


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This post isn’t really about Rick Santorum

February 25, 2012 5 comments

But let’s look at him for a moment:

I could go on – seriously. His weird view of the French Revolution, his assertion that John McCain doesn’t know from torture… the guy’s a nut; roll story and cut to commercial. Except for one thing: he’s the Republican party’s frontrunner in the current primaries. And his immediate competitor isn’t much better. So I’m going to make a modest proposal here:

“Insanity at the national level is bad for the country.”

It’s radical, I know. But hear me out: Santorum is only a symptom. The disease is that Conservatives are actually taking people like him seriously. Or to put it another way, people like him are pushing the Overton Window away from reality-based policy making in the direction of weapons-grade crazy.

Case in point: the Republicans had one candidate who could at least accept that scientists are right about climate change and evolution, but he’s trailing in sixth place. If you’re a Republican and you believe rational things, you can’t get anyone to return your calls.

This isn’t just bad for the Republican party; it’s bad for the Democratic party too.  Once upon a time if a Democratic candidate was a real halfwit, people would go vote Republican because it was a realistic alternative. Now, the choice would be between halfwit and all-crazy. A Democratic candidate need be only rational enough to be the nose-holding choice over the crazy alternative. Over time – a relatively short time – this means the Democratic party degrades as well.

And it isn’t just bad for the country; it’s bad for the world. The US is in a position to exert tremendous global economic, environmental and human-rights leadership. We are heading into several bottlenecks at once: peak oil, economic collapse, fisheries (and oceanic ecosystems) collapsing, population (exponential not linear) growth, and the big one, climate change. We can’t afford to dither now, because Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn about our precious national borders. Unless of course, homosexuals got to marry or something.

But how to push that Overton Window back towards reality-based policy-making? The floor is open to suggestions, folks. Any ideas?

NOTES and updates

  • My favorite example is Eisenhower vs Stevenson – what a nice problem that must have been to have.
  • I’m defining “insanity” and “crazy” here as; “Stubbornly clinging to beliefs and actions that are contrary to evidence and the best current scientific consensus”. Scientists have a good track record of getting things right because they are relatively quick to weed out mistakes and errors. This is something that religions and cults of personality, never do.
  • What’s an “Overton Window“? It’s a political frame for the desirability of an idea, and a technique for moving the range of what is acceptable.
  • This post is inspired by a tweet from @polerin:
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You certainly are sorry, Mister Friess

February 21, 2012 2 comments

… but you shouldn’t bother to apologize for it.  We’re glad to know what you really think.

Regarding contraceptive funding, Rick Santorum backer Foster Friess recently said “This contraceptive thing, my gosh, it’s so… inexpensive. Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.” The comment wasn’t as well-received as he expected and now he’s apologizing:

“After listening to the segment tonight, I can understand how I confused people with the way I worded the joke and their taking offense is very understandable,…To all those who took my joke as modern day approach I deeply apologize and seek your forgiveness. My wife constantly tells me I need new material–she understood the joke but didn’t like it anyway–so I will keep that old one in the past where it belongs.”

Yes, he is sorry. He’s sorry he got caught waving his real attitudes toward women around in public where people could see them, and he’s a sorry sack of… patriarchal privilege. No, he wasn’t prescribing aspirin – maybe – but if you watch the whole video he certainly was prescribing an attitude that government should work against women’s health care and autonomy. No one was “confused” by his “joke”.

I’ve got news for him; back in “his day” the assumption of abstinence was even stronger than it is now, and sex-outside-of still happened. It was invented by Mother Nature, not by Democrats. All the religious accretions we’ve piled on since then have a measurable effect all right, but in the opposite direction from what was intended.  For a couple examples, our teen pregnancy and abortion rates are about double that of godless heathen Holland, and the rate of contraceptive use among Catholic women is just about the same as among non-Catholic. In arguments between religion and Nature, religion loses. Nature cannot be fooled but with some effort it can be understood and to some extent used to advantage. We call that understanding “science”.

Republicans talk about morality a lot, and they talk about fiscal responsibility a lot. So I have a couple questions for them.

Is it moral to make life-altering decisions for other citizens while excluding them from the process? Consider the now-famous photo of the Republican panel on contraceptive funding. All men. Somehow this seemed OK to the lawmakers. Don’t forget that image; it wasn’t an aberration. It is the true depiction of Conservative attitudes towards women. Toward you, if you are a woman and toward your mother, your wife, your sister, your  daughter or your female friends if you are a man.

Is it fiscally responsible to ignore the reality that contraceptive funding pays off for everyone? That it’s a net benefit in health AND in health care costs? That it helps families achieve and sustain economic stability? People can’t get married right out of high school anymore – that economy is long gone.

According to Frank Schaeffer, the Conservative movement saw an opportunity in Roe v. Wade, but it has lost itself to the power it gained in the process. A political calculation has taken them off the road they were originally on. They’ve gotten caught up in abstinence-advocacy (good luck with that) and homophobia (welcome to the wrong side of history) and the erosion of the wall between church and state (historical results not encouraging).  And now they’re going after birth control, which is one of the greatest advances for humankind, ever. If we made this story into a movie it would be called “Back To The Patriarchy”.

I am glad they are doing this before the election instead of afterward.  Get it all out in the open, I say. And let’s make sure it sticks to them. Like flypaper.

See Also:

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Santorum’s new campaign ad

February 20, 2012 1 comment

Kent Ashcraft is best known for “Dear Dr. Laura”, a satirical screed on the application of Leviticus to modern life. I received his latest contribution this weekend:

A man is shown walking into the offices of the School Board. He asks to see the superintendent, and is shown into his office. “What can I do for you, sir?” asks the superintendent.

“Well,” says the man, “I’d like to enroll my children in one of your schools. But I have very specific requirements as to the values they will be taught.”

“As you know,” says the superintendent, “these are public schools, and so the government has a great deal of say in these matters. What exactly are your requirements?”

“I want my kids to be led in prayer every day, preferably several times a day. I want them taught to obey the word of God. They need to be told that homosexuality is a grievous sin. They must not have any teachers who are atheists, and I don’t want them hearing anything about so-called moral relativity.”

“Anything else?” asks the superintendent.

“Yes, I want my kids taught that our great nation is unique and exceptional, and that there are forces of evil in the world we must be prepared to fight on all fronts. Can one of your schools give my children such an education?”

The superintendent replied…

(scroll down)


…”I have wonderful news for you, Mr. Mahmoud. There are hundreds of such schools right here in Tehran!”

(Translated from Farsi)

I am Rick Santorum, but I did NOT approve this message

Looking through my archives I discovered this is the sixth piece I have received from Mr. Ashcraft:


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He’s doing better

February 18, 2012 5 comments

I’ve been informed that it’s been too long since I last posted. It’s true I’ve been having trouble concentrating; ideas come to me and I start writing and can’t seem to get them into finished form. Mostly this is related to some difficulties with pain management but this week with careful stretching and a bit more drugs than usual I’m feeling a bit better. Now I’m back to almost no drugs and getting around so well one of my co-workers noticed the improvement. But Oscar’s condition is even more improved than mine, and he is the subject of this post.

This picture is from this morning, and as I write this he is reposing on the cushion on my desk.

A few weeks ago I found him under the basement steps in the middle of the night, unresponsive, his breathing labored. We gave him extra fluids, antibiotics, some kidney medicine, an enema and lots of care.  At the end of this round of care he showed signs of liver pain but that’s improved too; perhaps metabolizing all that medicine was hard on his furry little system.  Now he’s getting around again. He moves like a very old man (which he is) and he has cataracts so I don’t know how well he can see.  But seems to know where he is going, and he seems to enjoy life so it looks like we have him a while longer. The picture is from this morning, and as I write this he is reposing on the cushion on my desk.

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The foundation of rules

February 7, 2012 6 comments

It’s been said that tiny minds like rules. A lot. But maybe that’s a bit simplistic, because there are different kinds of rules.

There are religious rules that must never be violated, even when there’s no apparent reason for them. Like not working on the Sabbath, or not marrying a dude if you’re a dude. Of course when the lack of foundational reason is pointed out, a bunch of reasons will be made up on the spot. But they fall apart on even casual examination.

There are secular rules that are basically politically compromises, like tax code and speed limits. Yes, there are reasons for them, but there can also be arguments against them or different ways of handling them.

Then there are rules that derive entirely from good reasons, like slowing down on icy roads, or washing your hands before you make someone a sandwich.

I’ve arranged them in this order because they are distinguished by the kind of trouble you are in if you violate them. In the first kind, it’s all authority-based trouble. You stepped on the wrong crack and now you’re in the soup, brother. In the second kind, it’s a mix. In the third kind, you’re likely to cause real harm even if the authorities never know you did it.

Rules work best when they’re internalized; when you understand the reasons for them and agree and basically would never think of doing whatever. And that’s fine: you don’t litter because you’re sick of seeing litter all over the place, and we get a better world in the bargain. It doesn’t even matter what the authorities say about it.

But trouble starts when people internalize rules that don’t have any real reason for them. Then you get religious fanatics yelling at school girls for immodest dress, or gay kids in school driven to suicide by a relentless campaign of blame and ostracism.

Sometimes authority-based rules began as reason-based rules. But over the years people obeyed them because the authorities said so, instead of the original reason. And like a game of generational “telephone” the rule became its own reason for existing.

One input to the different kind of rules is the kind of authority from which they derive. There’s “because I say so” authority and there’s “because I know what I’m talking about” authority. The first kind tells you to feel bad about some personal quirk, and the second kind tells you to wash your hands when you make someone a sandwich.

That’s all I have time for right now; I have to go to work. Because if I don’t, stuff won’t get done and if enough stuff doesn’t get done I won’t have a job. At my age, that’s no joke.

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