Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Blackadder Stands Trial

Here's some fun from the classic BBC series Blackadder.

Fans of House might recognize counsel for the defense.

I hate to sound like an old man, but they just don't make TV shows as good as they use to.

Run For The Hills - Swine Flu Is Near!

The media has latched on to a new scare phenomenon: swine flu! If you watch cable news these days, you may be left with the impression that we are headed for a bubonic plague like run of this disease. Alas, examination of swine flu statistics kind of debunks that.

So far we know that 154 people have died in Mexico from swine flu. The World Health Organization reports that about 1,600 Mexicans have been infected. In the United States there have been 64 total cases, and no deaths. Throughout the rest of the world - a mere smattering of cases - most of them not yet confirmed.

While those 154 cases in Mexico are tragic for family and friends of the deceased, they hardly require full blown panic. More than 100 Million people live in Mexico. A very very small percentage of the population has been infected.

In the US, the over the top scare aspect of this is even worse. We are talking about 64 cases in a country of more than 300 million. How is this even news worthy?

To put this in perspective, according to the Center for Disease Control, regular old influenza and pneumonia combined cause about 63,000 deaths per year in the US. Somehow the media doesn't start off every flu season though with a massive scare campaign designed to get ratings and terrify anyone getting the sniffles.

We certainly should be vigilant about monitoring disease and working to prevent it, but I can't help but think that in no time at all Swine Flu will have gone the way of SARS, Bird Flu and Mad Cow Disease. They were good for ratings, controllable, and not quite the threat they were made out to be.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


I came across this Tim Minchin gem a few weeks ago on another site. Thus far I've resisted the urge to repost it here, but my resistance has worn down.



Friday, April 24, 2009

Torture 101

As this week progressed, and more information leaked about Americans waterboarding terror suspects, my mind drifted back to a Christopher Hitchens article I read last summer. Hitchens, as part of an effort to honestly report on torture, asked the American military to waterboard him. Then he wrote about it.

His retelling is chilling, and leaves little doubt that the technique is just drowning a victim to make him fear for his life. It's amazing how quickly Hitchens himself used a preset signal to get out of the situation, although he did go back for seconds. Read the piece, which is linked above, it's worth your time.

Part of his article included a retelling of a conversation Hitchens had with Malcolm Nance, a counter-terrorism and terrorism intelligence consultant for the U.S. government’s Special Operations, Homeland Security and Intelligence agencies. Nance has more than 20 years experience fighting terrorism. He's hardly a peacenik lefty.

Per Hitchens, here's what Nance had to say about waterboarding:

"1. Waterboarding is a deliberate torture technique and has been prosecuted as such by our judicial arm when perpetrated by others.

2. If we allow it and justify it, we cannot complain if it is employed in the future by other regimes on captive U.S. citizens. It is a method of putting American prisoners in harm’s way.

3. It may be a means of extracting information, but it is also a means of extracting junk information. . . To put it briefly, even the C.I.A. sources for the Washington Post story on waterboarding conceded that the information they got out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was “not all of it reliable.” Just put a pencil line under that last phrase, or commit it to memory.

4. It opens a door that cannot be closed. Once you have posed the notorious “ticking bomb” question, and once you assume that you are in the right, what will you not do? Waterboarding not getting results fast enough? The terrorist’s clock still ticking? Well, then, bring on the thumbscrews and the pincers and the electrodes and the rack."

Mr. Holder: Can we please get down to prosecuting the people who authorized and used this technique?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

266 Times!

266! According to recently released CIA memos, that's how many times CIA operatives waterboarded two Al Qaeda suspects over the course of two months. Abu Zubaydah 83 times in August of 2002. Khalid Sheik Mohammed 183 times in March of 2003.

Let's be clear about something at the outset, these are bad guys. Mohammed is the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. I have no love for them - indeed what I feel is much closer to hate - but those emotions do not justify torture. As I've said before, we are suppose to be better than that. We are suppose to be an example of freedom and respect for human rights. We are not suppose to torture.

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead

Let's recap a little.

John McCain, a man who knows something about torture, says waterboarding is torture. (Although he does disagree with releasing the torture memos.)

Very high ranking Bush officials admit to authorizing the waterboarding of Mohammed.

When can we get down to prosecuting these people?

At least President Obama opened the door to torture prosecutions this week when he said Attorney General Holder is free to investigate people who authorized torture.

Let's hope this AG has more independence from the White House than the last one. Let's also hope he does what's right instead of what's politically expedient.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Back In Black

Lewis Black shares his thoughts on creationism in that special sensitive way only he can.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Nation Divided - Can It Stand?

Governor Rick Perry of Texas got in some hot water this week for at least implying that Texas could secede from the union. He thinks the federal government should do more to honor states' rights. At at "Tea Party" event on Wednesday he said this:

"There's a lot of different scenarios. We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."

It does at least imply that the United States could be not so united in the not so distant future. Perry took a beating for this in the media, but on some level I understand where he is coming from. I don't think the problem is federal intrusion on states' rights, but we are a country deeply divided along political and geographic lines. I wonder whether we can continue to operate as a single entity.

After Bush was elected the second time I looked at the electoral map, the polling data and the issues that seemed to decide the election, and I seriously asked myself if I could live in the country that data represented. At the time, the doctored map of North America shown above made it's way around the Internet. It showed the continent basically divided in half - north and south. The northern half was labeled "United States of Canada," and the southern half was labeled "Jesusland." I remember thinking through my anger: "That seems about right."

I suspect that Perry and others in the south are feeling the same about the new administration in Washington. They see their core beliefs threatened, and it makes them angry. How long can we go on like this? Presidential elections are basically a dead heat. A small number of undecideds decide the outcome. About half the country is always unhappy - often very unhappy - with the country's leadership. We really are a nation divided.

I would never - ever - want to see the US go through another civil war, and if that's where Perry was going with his comments he should take heavy criticism. I do wonder how long we can continue under our current model though.

Will it survive our differences, or should we consider an amicable divorce?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

If You Really Loved Me

Tim Minchin has a crystal clear understanding of exactly what real love looks like.

If you don't think this is funny, there's something wrong with you. Seek help immediately.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Three Shots

Here is an incredible story.

High sea piracy off the African coast didn't play out so well for a few pirates this week. After stupidly abandoning a hijacked American ship for a small life boat, four pirates ran out of fuel and became sitting ducks for American forces. Unfortunately, the pirates brought along the ship's captain as insurance, and were left with a stand off.

Fearing for the captain's life, President Obama gave authority to use deadly force if the Navy saw "imminent danger." After one of the pirates had given himself up to American military to get medical treatment, one of the remaining pirates raised his AK47 to the back of the captured captain. Three Navy Seal snipers on a nearby ship were given orders to kill the remaining pirates.

I'm no marksman - in fact I've fired a gun exactly once in my life - but these strike me as an extraordinarily difficult shots. These Seals were on a boat, bobbing in the ocean, trying to hit three targets 75 feet away on another boat bobbing on the ocean, while trying to avoid hitting the captain. All three made head shots and killed the pirates. The captain was unscathed.

I can't imagine the ice water you need running through your veins to do a job like that. You can argue about whether they are always used the way they should be - in this case it seems there's little doubt they were - but the American military has some remarkable people serving in it.

One question: Could we get these three Seals within 75 feet of Bin Laden? I'd prefer the surgical precision of these guys over the "smartest" bomb we have.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

More Easter Happiness!!

Besides Cadbury Eggs, Peeps are the best part of Easter. Here's a new and different look at the world of Peeps. (Not one for the kids)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Four Horsemen Talk Tone

Here are four of the leading "New Athiests" discussing a topic I blogged about a while back. The tone in which atheists criticize religion and how believers take offense.

Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are very smart men and great spokesmen for the New Atheist movement. I admit a certain soft spot for Hitchens' style, but all of them are top shelf.

Income/Spending Should Match

The numbers are outlandish. Obama is asking for another $83 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of this year. How much longer can this administration spend like drunken sailors on shore leave before they tell America the uncomfortable truth:

"We have to raise your taxes."

I'm ok with big, expensive government, but it seems to me that the US taxpayer isn't getting a very good return on her investment these days. We are spending to bail out wall street, the auto industry, the insurance industry and now for more war. While some of the bail outs might "trickle down" to average Americans, by creating jobs, its hardly creating a direct benefit at this point.

On the war front, can't we just admit this was a bad idea, get the hell out, save lives and money? What exactly are we trying to do at this point? $83 billion would help an awful lot of people with mortgage payments, groceries, medical bills etc..

In the end I have to wonder how we are paying for all this. Big spending government can work (although I do wish they were spending differently), but so does fiscal responisibility. The national debt is growing exponentially these days, and I don't want my kids saddled with debt on our fiscal irresponsibility. They didn't make the terrible choices that got us here.

If America is going to pay it's way out of this crisis, then America needs to start paying. That means higher taxes and less borrowing. We need to be responsible for future Americans.

Vermont Follows Iowa.

This week Vermont followed Iowa's lead and legalized gay marriage. Interestingly, Vermont did it through legislative action rather than a court ruling. Either way, another domino has fallen in the battle for equal marriage rights for gay Americans.

It's not surprising that Vermont took this action. It is widely regarded as one of the more liberal states, and it was the first state to legalize civil unions. Nonetheless, the state legislature had to override the governor's veto to get this passed. Kudos to Vermont for helping lead the way!

I think this is now officially a trend, which will eventually lead to wide acceptance of gay marriage throughout the US. I'm interested in hearing from any readers about if, or when, gay marriage will be legalized where you live.

Please chime in.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What Is An Open Mind?


April 4, 1968

Forty one years ago yesterday the world lost one of its great voices to a racist's bullet. On April 4, 1968 James Earl Ray tried to silence Martin Luther King with a sniper rifle while the civil rights leader stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.

Ray may have succeeded in taking King's life, but he failed miserably at silencing his voice. It lived on in others who took up the call for racial equality. Now Martin Luther King's message is taught to school children with the same reverence given to the Emancipation Proclamation.

I wonder how Dr. King would feel about the America we live in now. Surely he would be immensely proud that we have evolved to the point of electing a black president. Still, I wonder how he would view the massive wealth gap between whites and blacks. I wonder how much of his dream he would regard as fulfilled.

Here is a clip of the last speech King ever gave - the night before he died. Many have written about how prophetic it was, and it does seem to foretell the events of the next day. I recently saw a documentary in which people close to King said it was a speech he delivered often, which cuts down its prophetic quality a bit. Nonetheless, it is remarkable how much Dr. King was willing to place himself in danger's way in the fight for justice.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Iowa: Gay Marriage Videos

Here are some videos on the Iowa gay marriage issue.

Some background stories of gay couples who want to marry. How can you be opposed to this?

And here's some ignorance from the Iowa Family Policy Center. What is wrong with these people?

Gay Marriage In Iowa.

Great news out of Iowa today! The Iowa Supreme Court has struck down that state's gay marriage ban as an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause in the state constitution. Effectively, this means that gay Iowans can't be denied a marriage license. Kudos to the state of Iowa.

It's about time that gay people be given full rights to marriage. It's hard to fathom why same sex adults who want to marry shouldn't be allowed to. Being someone who gets great joy out of marriage, I'm encouraged to see the same rights being offered to everyone.

Of course the right has already started it's fear drumbeat. Republican Iowa Representative Steve King wasted no time warning that the ruling will turn Iowa in to a "gay marriage mecca." Naturally he also said the Iowa legislature has a "responsibility" to amend the state constitution to take marriage rights away from gay people.

Iowa should hope it will become a "gay marriage mecca." In this economy I expect that hospitality businesses in Des Moines and Iowa City might welcome an influx of people looking to spend their hard earned cash. Why is King afraid of this? Does he have some kind of fear of catching the gay? Does he not like being around people who love each other and want to make a commitment?

We will see if another Prop 8 style campaign springs up in Iowa, but for now I just want to say congratulations to all those people who just gained the same rights that I have always had. You deserve it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Atheism Explained

Sam Harris talks about my peeps.

I'm somewhat uncomfortable of his description of atheists as being "spiritual," because it's such a loaded term and I'm not sure he's using it the way most people think of it. Nonetheless, he does a nice job of dispelling some of the common myths about atheists.