27 February 2014

If the bad guys can't win in Arizona.....

Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona has vetoed SB1062, the proposed law which would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gays on religious grounds.  This was pretty much expected -- a formidable array of interests had turned against the bill, including the Arizona business community, the state's Senators (both Republicans), major national corporations, the NFL (the Superbowl is in Arizona next year), Major League Baseball, and even some of the state legislators who originally voted for the thing, though they claim they changed their minds because of it being misrepresented.  Limbaugh and others whined that the gays were "bullying" Brewer, but with so many others making the case, they hardly needed to bother.  Even the types who frequent RedState were divided (see comments).  The backlash was so fierce that Republicans in other states who had been pushing similar laws have started backing down.

This turnabout brings several observations to mind.

First, I'm once again amazed at how much public attitudes have changed in so short a time.  Don't forget that until 2003, just 11 years ago, homosexuality itself was still illegal in huge areas of the country.  Just a few years before that, except in a few cities, the gay movement was a fringe group in a society whose reactions ranged from uncomprehending disdain to mouth-foaming rants about "sin".  Now, even in a red state like Arizona, an anti-gay stance has become a massive economic liability as even large, mainstream entities like the NFL and prominent Republicans feel they have to take a public stand against it -- massive enough to sway a Governor (I assume no one thinks Brewer vetoed the bill because she's a closet liberal).  Americans now favor gay marriage 53% to 41% -- even in the South opinion is evenly divided, 48% to 48%.  20 years ago this would have been unthinkable.  If such an entrenched taboo can be so thoroughly repudiated in less than a generation, who can say what other changes in attitudes may be possible if we work for them?

(On an internet forum I read, one right-winger muttered darkly that "the pendulum always swings back".  I asked if he's still waiting for it to swing back on the issue of women having the vote.  Some changes are permanent.)

Second, the anti-gay side is still unable to coherently defend its position.  Sorry, but just calling discrimination "religious liberty" isn't an argument.  On the forum mentioned above, objections to protecting gays from discrimination were full of bad logic and failed analogies, such as "Does this mean a Muslim caterer could be forced to serve pork?"  (No, if they don't normally serve pork to anyone, it's not discrimination if they won't serve pork to you.  If they're asked to provide their normal catering services at a Jewish event, and they refuse because they don't like Jews, that is illegal discrimination.  The latter case, not the former, is analogous to the actual gay cases we've seen -- if wedding cakes are part of a baker's normal services, providing them to straight couples but not to gay ones is discrimination.)  I think in many cases they can't make a clear argument for their position because they can't be honest, even with themselves, about the motives for that position -- see this excellent post on the psychology of discrimination.

Third, there is a deeper level on which the fundies are losing just by waging this fight the way they're waging it, even if they seem to be winning a battle here and there.  What the public sees is that the fundies' great cause, the hill they're willing to die on, is their "liberty" to exclude and discriminate and reject -- that the desperately-important right they're fighting for is the right to push certain other people away and brand them unclean and inferior.  Even if you score a win for that right occasionally, you're still losing by presenting such an image of yourself.  This is a major factor driving the young away from religion, and turning the cultural mainstream against the Christian Right.

If they can't win a fight like this in Arizona, where in the country can they win it?  It used to be that the religious taboo on homosexuality made homosexuality socially unacceptable.  We're rapidly moving toward a society where that same taboo is, instead, making religious fundamentalism socially unacceptable.

24 February 2014

Videos of the day -- bird brains





These displays of bird intelligence are especially striking given that almost all the animals we know to be highly intelligent (elephants, dolphins, the great apes including humans) are mammals.  High intelligence may be more widely distributed in the animal world than we believe.  Maybe we should take a closer look at other species which at least show evidence of complex behavior.

23 February 2014

Reminder

If you want to create a link to one of my posts, do not get the link by clicking on the words "links to this post" at the lower right.  This creates a defective link which does not work properly.  Get the link by clicking on the posting time (the time stamp after the words "posted by Infidel753 at").  Fuller explanation here.

Link round-up for 23 February 2014

How much would a T-rex need to eat in New York?

A survivalist gives advice on ass-wiping and feminine hygiene in a post-apocalyptic world.

If the face of Jesus appearing on toast is a message from God, are these messages from the old fertility deities?

Artist of the week:  surrealist Tetsuya Ishida.

Martin Vargic created a huge map of the internet.

No, that military fake city in Virginia is not part of a nefarious Obama plot.

Anne Rice pwns a religious bigot on Facebook.  Dear Abby schools a couple more.

An Arizona pizzeria is already making use of the state's new pro-discrimination law.

Here's how the parasite class relaxes and unwinds.

Americans have changed.

The religious right's views are supported by the Constitution -- but which one?

The Bible is a case study of evolution in action.

Sign here to oppose an insane injustice in Missouri.

Gin and Tacos suggests a small reform that could greatly improve the US.

The greed and hypocrisy of Christian Right leaders shows that they can't really believe their own rhetoric (found via Republic of Gilead).

This kind of stuff is why almost no scientists are Republicans.

Half of all US economic activity comes from -- well, see for yourself.

Here's a little sign of progress in North Carolina.

Rural white people can be liberals too.

The bitcoin/MtGox collapse just gets worse.

Jonathan Chait looks at the implosion of Republican "savior" Marco Rubio.  Despite setbacks in Texas, the teabagger/nutcase faction seems to be winning the Republican civil war.

Churches hate the fact that people are free to leave (found via Republic of Gilead).

Authorities respond to disturbing symbolic racist incidents in New Jersey and Mississippi.

The biggest demographic threat to the Republican party is the inexorable increase in non-religious people (found via Republic of Gilead).  And secularization is happening fast.

A judge in Nebraska strikes a blow against Keystone XL, but it still has some support.

Sorry libertarians, there are a lot of things the government does better than the private sector.

Ted Nugent's "subhuman mongrel" remark about President Obama is rubbing off on Greg Abbott, to the benefit of Wendy Davis -- though, to be fair, some Republicans have condemned it.

Inna Shevchenko has plans to bring Femen to the US.

The UN's stinging report on Catholic abuses draws angry and stupid responses from rightists.

Self-identified Catholics worldwide reject the Church's taboos (this is a hardline-Catholic site; the comments are of some interest).

A new report on press freedom around the world contains few surprises.

This British housing development has an unusual layout.

These British bus stops feature calm isolated settings and, in some cases, sheep.

Denmark bans cruel kosher and halal animal-slaughtering practices.

Iceland is withdrawing its application to join the European Union.

Germany considers tough countermeasures against NSA spying.

French Jews feel driven away by the resurgence of an old evil.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard looks at the latest disastrous result of EU austerity -- deflation in France.

Some of the protesters in Ukraine are still suspicious of the peace deal.  At least the military is committed to staying out of politics.

Western men visiting Sochi for the Olympics discover an unexpected attraction.

Here's another look at the reality of Putin's Russia.

Latin America has made stunning progress on gay rights, though a few reactionary governments remain exceptions.

Israel and Iran could be allies someday (I think this would take a change of regime in the latter, but that's far from impossible).

Tensions rise after Pakistani Sunni terrorists seize Iranian border guards.

The Arab Spring continues -- the push for democracy resumes in Bahrain.

CERN in Europe considers building a new supercollider to explore new reaches of physics.  (Japan and China are also contemplating such projects, while the US government is infested with people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old.)

The evolution of life may be a by-product of the evolution of universes.

Harvard scientists establish electronic remote control of one monkey by another.

How homosexuality evolved is something of a mystery, but there are some hypotheses.

Despite local cold in North America, January 2014 was the fourth-warmest January on record.  Technology to fight global warming must be considered carefully.

Rosa Rubicondior looks at more common misunderstandings of evolution.

Loneliness is genuinely dangerous to the elderly.

21 February 2014

The peace deal, and what made it possible

The Ukrainian government and opposition leaders have signed an EU-brokered deal to end the fighting in Kiev.  The most important point is that it calls for early elections, a key demand of the opposition.  Some rank-and-file protesters are not happy with the deal, and Yanukovych will need to be watched carefully to ensure that the election is fair.  Still, at least so far, this represents a capitulation by the government.

Since Thursday there has been a sense that this was inevitable.  The government was clearly losing the fight.  Not only had the protesters actually gained territory in downtown Kiev, pushing back the Berkut (special police), but the mayor of Kiev had quit the ruling party in protest against the government's shutting down of the city metro (this was an effort to stop more people from reaching Independence Square to join the protests), and other prominent party members followed his example.  The uprising was spreading, not only in the west, but in the more Russian-leaning east and south (see map above), and people from all over the country were heading to Kiev to join the main fight.  And as I noted in the previous post, given the size and military power of Ukraine, military intervention by Russia was not a realistic possibility.  Yanukovych had run out of options.  Still, he deserves credit for recognizing this quickly and not prolonging the fighting.

The most important factor was that the protesters were willing to fight and had the weapons to do so effectively.  Many had guns, and they quickly began making gasoline bombs.  I note that in the link above profiling individual rebels, several were veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, familiar with weapons and tactics and able to train others.  Thanks to all this, the protesters were able to inflict significant casualties on the regime's enforcers, though of course they suffered a greater number themselves.  They seem not to have been distracted by concerns about losing the moral high ground, and rightly so.  If they had been unarmed, most likely the initial government assault on Tuesday would have crushed them, followed by a week or two of useless hand-wringing in the West, and that would have been the end of that.

There's a lesson there for others who may find themselves in a similar position someday.  If the extremely unlikely but not impossible nightmare scenario of an authoritarian theocracy (still the de facto goal of a significant element of the Republican party) does actually become a reality at some point in the future, then our country's tradition of widespread private gun ownership could be essential to restoring freedom -- exactly as the founders imagined.

Most of all, though, I'm haunted by another thought:  If the 2009 mass uprising in Iran had been armed, that country might be free today.

18 February 2014

The thugs move in -- updated

After three months of ongoing protest in Kiev against the Viktor Yanukovych government's shift away from the European Union and towards Russia, today the government sent in several thousand heavily-armed police to attack the protest encampment at Independence Square.  Initial reports in these situations are always murky, but so far at least fourteen protesters and seven police have been killed, and hundreds of people injured, including dozens of police with gunshot wounds.  The Guardian is running live updates on the situation here.  Protesters have attacked government and police buildings in several other Ukrainian cities, notably Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk in the western part of the country.

I have felt some degree of shock at seeing pictures like the one above from places I personally remember, having been there just a few years ago.  My earlier post summarizing the current conflict is here.

It seems unlikely that the government expected the degree of resistance the protesters have mounted.  There are about 25,000 of them in the square; many of them have guns and firebombs and they have been using them.  The situation now looks more like a civil war than a protest.



Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko has met with Yanukovych in an effort to reach a peaceful solution, but the talks broke down without result.  It seems likely that Wednesday will bring more violence.

While the Putin regime in Russia has lately grown increasingly shrill in its condemnation of the protests which threaten his efforts to drag Ukraine into Russia's orbit, I doubt that he is behind the Ukrainian government's action.  Putin is very concerned with the success of the Sochi Olympics, which still have several more days to run; the last thing he wants is a bloody mess with his fingerprints on it competing for media attention right now.  No doubt he wants Yanukovych to crack down on the protests -- but not until the Olympics are over.

The weekend saw anti-government demonstrations in Kiev which drew 350,000 participants, the largest turn-out to date.  My guess is that it was these events that spooked Yanukovych into acting.

While both Russia and the West are stepping up their efforts to influence the situation with rhetoric and threats of economic sanctions, their options are limited.  In contrast with, for example, the Russia-Georgia clash of 2008, military intervention is probably infeasible.  Ukraine's population is 47 million, about one-third the size of Russia's own; its army, including reserves, has more than 1,200,000 soldiers, larger than the armies of Britain, France, and Germany combined.  Russia's army is even larger, but Ukraine would be a formidable opponent if its army resisted, as it probably would.  Russia would win eventually, but it would be a full-scale bloody war.  Putin might even have problems with Russian soldiers being reluctant to fight a people so closely related and so culturally similar to the Russians themselves.

It's the attitude of the Ukrainian army which is likely to prove crucial.  Tens of thousands of armed and determined protesters, supported by hundreds of thousands more people in the capital city and millions in the rest of the country, are probably too big of a problem for the police to cope with.  If Yanukovych takes the next step and calls in the army, will the soldiers open fire on their own people at his command?

It's a question many of those soldiers themselves are probably pondering at this moment.  The revolutions of the Arab spring showed how important the answer can be.  In Egypt, the decision of soldiers to shift their allegiance to the people allowed Mubarak's regime to be brought down with only a few hundred casualties; in Libya, where the army largely remained loyal to Qaddhafi, the result was a full-blown civil war which cost an estimated 25,000 lives, in a country far more sparsely populated than Ukraine.

Let's hope that if Ukraine's soldiers face the same choice, they make the right decision.

Update 1:  As I write this, it's just after 11:00 AM Pacific time, which is 9:00 PM Kiev time.  So far the government forces have not launched a renewed attack.  Perhaps they're re-assessing the situation, or perhaps they intend to attack at night.

The Guardian has a new live update feed, and Julia Joffe explains why Putin has reason to fear what's happening.  "If it can happen in Kiev.....it can happen in Moscow."  Know hope.

Finally, the protesters have posted this video:



Слава Україні!

Update 2 (Thursday morning):  Fighting has erupted again, with the Guardian reporting that protesters "have gained the upper hand" and "have captured dozens of policemen".  Also that "the common riot police lines dissolved as they were bussed away, to be replaced by “Berkut” (police special forces)" -- perhaps the government is afraid regular police can't be relied on to fight against the people?  The situation remains confusing.  All I can do is wish the best to these people who have the guts to fight for their freedom.

17 February 2014

Video of the day -- Aïcha


Another cheery chanson from my favorite Algerian export, Cheb Khaled.  See an earlier video of his here, and his site here (with a new video featured).

16 February 2014

Link round-up for 16 February 2014

Think you got weather?  This is weather (found via Mendip).

Don't take inspiration from these writers (found via Otto's Son).

A conservative gives his analysis of a recent gay-marriage ruling by an African-American judge.

Isn't this a little outside New Jersey's jurisdiction?

"Art for Michael" offers a little hope in a sad story.

Science?  Bah.

Blaspheme proudly!  But remember, some religions are tolerant.

General David Petraeus isn't running for President, but he's made an endorsement.

Racial attitudes in the NFL need some work.

Rah, rah, we're number 93!

Logically, no Christian should support the death penalty.

Here's a good summary on Presidents' use of executive orders.

Bitcointards get pwned again as yet another illegal marketplace website claims to have been hacked and robbed.

This is just evil.

Evolution education is under attack in Missouri -- do I even need to say the perp is a Republican? Meanwhile, creationists are fighting each other.

The Republican field of Presidential candidates for 2016 looks almost as pathetic as 2012.

The Lakota Sioux join the fight to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Ted Cruz has flushed Senate Republicans out from under cover on the debt ceiling.

These days, "religious liberty" means the "freedom" to discriminate and exclude. Andrew Sullivan comments.

Wendy Davis supports medical marijuana and gay marriage, but needs to be clearer on abortion.  Tim McGaha looks at the race.  Texas's missing voters will be crucial.

Bob Jones University doesn't want its handling of sexual abuse to be examined too closely.

Political journalism lost its way when it switched from reporting facts to analyzing power games. But sometimes it's worse than that.

Since 1973, 143 people have been released from death row after being proven innocent.  How many innocent people have been executed?

The teabaggers are on the warpath against the Republican establishment, but the establishment is fighting back.

Here are the best and worst places to be gay -- notice what all but one of the red areas have in common?

Nazi propaganda exploited sexual insecurities.

Switzerland's referendum vote to limit immigration encourages nationalist parties across western Europe.

Israel is on the brink of a breakthrough in anti-missile technology.

The Putin regime is getting hysterical about the ongoing protests in Ukraine.

US bobsledder Johnny Quinn, last seen trapped in his bathroom in Sochi, gets stuck in an elevator.

The Olympic closing ceremony falls on a historic date.

Even under Rouhani, the Iranian theocracy remains an enthusiastic user of the death penalty, most recently against an Arab poet accused of separatism.

Lebanese Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun's topless photos provoked scowls from her country's bluenoses -- and a quite different reaction from many others.

Things get a bit heated in the Turkish parliament.

Religious believers in Pakistan oppose pornography.

The Syrian civil war now has four opposing sides.

Spurned by the US, Egypt's secular military government turns to Russia.

An Iraqi Islamist teacher makes a little mistake (yes, it's OK to laugh).

China's gender imbalance is getting scary, but attitudes are changing.

Lucy in the sky is a diamond.

The sixth great mass extinction in the Earth's history is beginning -- in the oceans.

Genetic analysis of a 12,600-year-old body separates reality from fantasy.

Ant wars are coming -- lock up your computers!

We're making progress in giving artificial hands a sense of touch.

Patterns in the cosmic microwave background may be evidence that other universes exist (found via Mendip).

Liquid water may still exist on Mars now.

German and Italian scientists engineer glowing fruit flies to fight cancer.

15 February 2014

Ivanpah

Two days ago the world's largest thermal solar power plant, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, officially opened in the Mojave Desert.  It's already producing electricity and will eventually deliver enough to power 140,000 houses.  And it will never explode or produce an oil lake, nor dump almost immeasurable levels of radioactivity into the environment.

The US is lagging badly behind other countries in the transition away from fossil fuels.  Germany has led the way in solar power, Brazil in ethanol-fueled cars.  But Ivanpah, and this decision to go with solar instead of natural gas in Minnesota, show that the US is getting on track.

The right-wing blogs, which are always eager to dredge up any negativity they can find about non-fossil-fuel energy, have pounced on the fact that Ivanpah has killed a small number of birds (not that they ever seem to care about all the birds killed by oil spills); also, a local population of endangered desert tortoises had to be relocated.  Unfortunately, it's impossible to build a project of this size without some negative impact of some kind.  Conservatives also grumble that solar electricity is relatively expensive; but the costs are coming down rapidly, and such comparisons also fail to take into account the actual costs of the alternatives, such as the constant risk of a nuclear accident poisoning a large territory, or the fact that continued reliance on fossil fuels would make the Earth uninhabitable in a century or two.

Japan's Fukushima province, site of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, has set a goal of 100% of its energy from renewable sources by 2040; Japan as a whole has shut down 50 nuclear reactors since the disaster.  Germany has set a goal of 60% of energy from renewables by 2050.  If they can do it, so can we.

11 February 2014

Happy Tunisia and a few observations on the South Mediterranean

The popular song "Happy" by American rapper Pharrell Williams has become a vehicle of liberal self-expression in, of all places, Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring.  Three years after the start of the rebellion that toppled not only Tunisia's dictator but Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Qaddhafi, the country remains tense, with Islamists at bay for now but still a menacing presence.  Young Tunisians have taken up dancing to the song as a way of letting off steam and defying the Islamists who disapprove of dancing as "debauchery and moral decay".  Several compilation videos, grouped by city, have been posted on YouTube -- here's one from Bizerta:



In a few cases the confrontation between fun and fundamentalism has been more explicit.  Last year Islamists attacked schools staging productions of the "Harlem Shake" dance, but were driven off by students.

Such clashes are part of what I call the global culture war -- it wouldn't be difficult to identify equivalents of both sides in our own country.  The string of countries from Egypt to Morocco which we usually call "North Africa" -- though I think "South Mediterranean" is a more accurate name for the region -- illustrates particularly well the conflict between modernity and freedom on the one hand, and malignant traditionalism on the other, which is going on in various forms in many cultures.

It also illustrates the fallacy of paradigms such as Huntingdon's "clash of civilizations" which allocates the various countries into one or another cultural bloc, dividing the map into neat geographical regions such as the West, the Islamic world, Latin America, etc.  People tend to like such models -- they're easy to understand -- but in many cases they don't represent reality very well.

For example, the Maghrib region (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) is colored in as part of the Islamic world along with, say, Somalia and Saudi Arabia.  But how useful or even accurate is that in describing what the region is actually like?  Not at all, really.

Islam is the predominant religion, of course, but as Ibn Warraq has pointed out, there's abundant evidence that serious doubt about Islam and even outright atheism are widespread in many Muslim populations, even if social norms and Islamist brutality make it unwise to express such views openly.  Moreover, as in the United States, there are millions (perhaps majorities in some countries) who claim membership in the religion of their ancestors out of cultural inertia while disregarding most of its tenets in practice.  Do you think Khomeini or bin Laden would recognize the video above as a product of an "Islamic" society?

The Maghrib is also Arabic-speaking, but that statement requires even more qualifications.  The original Berber languages spoken there before the Muslim conquest still persist in some areas, especially towards the west.  More important is the presence of another language -- French.

France ruled the Maghrib during the colonial era and left its language there, but the situation is very different from the limited elite role of English in former British colonies such as India.  In Tunisia, 58 years after independence, two-thirds of the population still speaks French and the language is omnipresent in everything from street signs to the media to higher education -- this despite a fairly consistent government policy of emphasizing Arabic.  Algeria has the world's second-largest French-speaking population after France itself.  In 1993, 49% of Algerians spoke French, and by 2000 the figure had reached 60% -- that is, the use of French is increasing over time despite, again, government policy favoring Arabic.  This isn't an elitist colonial remnant; these are de facto bilingual societies.

As one might expect, the languages have become enlisted in the culture war, as Islamists emphasize Arabic and secularists emphasize French (in Algeria, Islamist anti-government rebels have sometimes targeted French-language teachers for murder).  The internet and satellite TV are strengthening French further by increasing access to France's media, which in turn act as a conduit for Western cultural influences.

As with many countries, the history of the Maghrib is one of successive invasions which brought different influences -- Roman, Muslim, and most recently French.  It's a drastic error to declare only the Muslim influences to be the true identity of the region, and everything else extraneous.

It's true that Algeria and Morocco still have authoritarian regimes, but the same was true of Spain and Portugal until a few decades ago, and they are solid members of democratic Europe now.  Tunisia is already breaking the mold, with a promising new constitution which, in some ways, looks more progressive than our own, though of course the real test will be how it is applied in practice.

Those who fret over the presence of relatively small Muslim minorities in western Europe (which are, in any case, mostly becoming assimilated into the host countries) are missing the far bigger and more important influences in the opposite direction.  In hindsight this is no surprise.  Mecca cannot compete with Paris, and people who have a choice will always choose light and color and vitality over the grey scowl of the puritan -- whether they live in North America or the South Mediterranean.

09 February 2014

Video of the day -- role reversal

Link round-up for 9 February 2014

Unruly cat?  The Chinese can help.

This is me (found via Squatlo Rant).  And Bill Allyn speaks for me too.

Worthy advice.

Lisa McIntire probably won't accept this credit-card offer.

Yep, that's a big-ass spider (found via Mendip).

A childless couple's vacation pictures draw a weird response.

This was America, just fifty years ago.

Watch out!  Republicans are using fake Democratic websites to raise money (found via Fair and Unbalanced).

Tar sands or.....

The distribution of most- and least-religious states is about what you'd expect.

Free lunches, only for some.

In the Nye-Ham creationism debate, a poll at a Christian website gives the win to Nye, 92% to 8% (found via Lady Atheist).  Here are some messages from creationists.

Charming restaurant you got there.

The deficit under five Presidents -- the record is clear.

An Illinois Catholic bishop whines that the Church is "under persecution" as its power to enforce its taboos on public life is being curbed (found via Republic of Gilead).  But it still has far too much power over women's health care.

The latest teabagger loon threat to overthrow the government will succeed, because prayer.

Devout Catholics lionize a priest who excluded and humiliated a lesbian on the occasion of her mother's funeral (see comments).

The media distort the reality of abortion.

Conservatives still have a drink of their own (found via Squatlo Rant).

Mormonism makes the war on wanking literal with a ludicrous new video.

Obamacare is starting to have real effects in Kentucky.

Against abortion?  Support contraception.

Top bitcoin exchange MtGox freezes withdrawals "temporarily" -- $38 million has vanished and the company is in big trouble.  One bitcointard staged an expensive but futile protest.  The company that sells those "mining" computers is also failing to fill orders.  And Russia has joined the list of countries banning bitcoins.

A Republican Governor tries moderation and gets teabagged.

There's an irony in one of the objections to that multi-language "America the Beautiful" ad.

This is promising.

Bush still gets the blame for the bad economy.

An abortion-clinic escort speaks out (found via Republic of Gilead) -- I used to do this and it sounds like nothing has changed.

Will the US follow China's lead in dealing with water shortages?

Deregulation contributes to the global obesity problem.

The UN bluntly condemns the Catholic Church's shielding of child abusers.  The Church responds by bitching about interference and even persecution.

A British judge issues a summons to the head of the Mormon Church, for an interesting reason.

Scotland has legalized gay marriage.

A new study shows the Netherlands would be better off if it left the EU.

Most German and Swiss Catholics reject the Church's sexual taboos.

Spaniards protest a Church-driven threat to abortion rights.

A Ukrainian opposition journalist is found beaten and dumped in a ditch.

The Olympic opening snowflake-ring flub was censored from Russian TV (really? in the internet age, they think they can stop people from knowing about it?).  Real Russian gays are verboten (except dead ones), but ersatz lesbians are OK, and the gift shop looks just fabulous.  The overzealous surveillance is drawing unfortunate comparisons, while facilities are still a problem, including refreshments, and toilets which can be hard to leave.  And if these chairs are for the Olympic judges, what's the sport?

Victims of Putin's Folly include many stray dogs.

Iranian author Azar Nafisi talks about literature and freedom.

AIPAC abandons the effort to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal.

Saudi Arabia now defines almost all opposition to the regime as "terrorism".

East Asia could learn something from World War I.

Here are some recent Islamic contributions to science.

Rabbits and myxoma illustrate rapid evolution (note: gruesome imagery).

Tim McGaha looks at some recent triumphs in Solar System exploration.

Neanderthal DNA may have influenced some human traits.

07 February 2014

Video of the day -- puritan's lament

05 February 2014

Putin's Folly

This Friday will mark the opening of the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  I've already expressed here my view of attending such an event in a country under a regime descending into fascism which seems to be reverting to the pogrom mentality of its earlier history (though against gays this time, not Jews), and I have nothing to add to, or subtract from, that post.  What I want to look at here is the impact the games may have on Russia itself.

As befits a big country and a big man, Putin's Folly has been wrought on an epic scale, and the Russian autocrat has devoted almost obsessive personal attention to the details; his fingerprints are all over the thing.  It was he who chose to site the winter games at one of the few places in Russia's vast territory that rarely gets any snow, and is also close to a region of the country rife with Islamic terrorism.  Over $50 billion has been spent, more than twice Russia's annual education budget.  A large chunk of this (regime critics say as much as $30 billion) has been siphoned off by the corruption endemic to authoritarian regimes, and the media have vied with each other to dramatize the waste (by pointing out, for example, that one road cost so much that it could have been paved with mink pelts).

The gargantuan construction projects have devastated the town of Sochi, and despite the vast sums committed, much of the work has been done by migrant workers paid pitifully-low wages.  We're already getting a first look at the results from journalists already in Sochi -- do click that link, it's beyond my power to paraphrase.  If this is representative of the rest of the infrastructure specially built for the games, we're about to witness a world-class fiasco.

The omnipresent security will likely prove intimidating and oppressive to visitors, whether or not it proves as inept as the rest of the preparations.  If the jihadists do make good on their threats, Putin's humiliation will be complete.  Even if, as we all hope, no such tragedy occurs, he will be branded as the mastermind of a staggeringly expensive mess.

And that may matter.  There are signs that the Russian people are getting fed up with their strongman.  Russian's economy is sputtering and Putin's popularity, once buoyed by fervent nationalism and oil-export-driven prosperity, is tanking.  A people as educated and skilled as any in the West is still not reconciled to Third-World-style corruption, autocracy, and backwardness.  On Sunday, after long quiescence, Moscow saw a large protest demonstration; the immediate demand was the release of certain political prisoners, but I wonder if the Russians are starting to take inspiration from the fierce struggle of their Slavic brethren in neighboring Ukraine to protect democracy from the bargain-basement Putins holding power in Kiev.

Add in a spectacular display of incompetence, waste, and corruption at Sochi, and the Russians might just decide it's time to see if a different leader and system could do better.

04 February 2014

Video of the day -- my town


It's just a guy in a kilt and a Darth Vader helmet riding a unicycle while playing bagpipes that shoot flames.  Perfectly normal.

We also have canoe dancers and this lady.

02 February 2014

Link round-up for 2 February 2014

Star Trek offered us a galaxy of fashion carnage (found via Mendip).

Your kids will love this old-fashioned children's book.

Translations should be double-checked.

Here's one way to fix the media (found via Squatlo Rant).

I hope none of these home-made cryptocurrency "mining" computers are set up anywhere near me (click any pic for larger version).  More adventures in trying to convert bitcoins to dollars here.

All these otherworldly places exist right here on Earth.

Airport security discovers a Scottish weapon of mass destruction, but German cows seem more dangerous (both found via Mendip).

Celebrate Superb Owl Sunday.

Check out this bioluminescent beach.

What if companies used honest slogans?

This guy takes the selfie fad to new heights.

Here are bees as you've never seen them before.

Will this rhetoric (see comments 27-34) help Republicans appeal to women?  How about this guy (found via Progressive Eruptions).  Maybe they skipped gaffe academy.

This and this sound depressingly familiar.  But we're making progress (NSFW imagery).

Right-wing "moderation" on abortion is a strategic trick (see comment 22 and following)

Amanda Marcotte pwns Sean Hannity.

Ex-Republican Jimmy LaSalvia says the party is beyond fixing.

Funny thing about bankruptcy laws (found via Squatlo Rant).

Some liberals aren't fooled by the Pope.

Gin and Tacos looks at the proliferation of Republican SOTU responses.

Here's one way to school a homophobe.

Elements of the Christian Right advocate Islamic-style child marriage in the US.

Tyranny?  Obama has issued fewer executive orders per year than any other President in the last century (found via Politics Plus).

Fetus fetishism could turn deadly in Alabama.

A conspiratard website offers impenetrable gibberish about swastikas (found via Green Eagle), and apparently Satanism is everywhere.

The libertarian/Randroid dream takes form in Utah.

Pastor Michael Abromovich chooses an unusual strategy for combating homosexuality.

With Christie and other 2016 hopefuls turkeying out, Republicans look to a fresh new candidate.  Or, there's still this guy.

Read this if you still think the Keystone XL pipeline might possibly be a good idea.  Same here for "clean coal".

Immigration reform has the Republicans right where we want them -- at each other's throats -- see comments here and here.

Something's missing from the Ten Commandments.

Progressive Eruptions looks at food-stamp cuts in the poorest county in the mainland US.

Pearl-clutchers rush for the fainting couch at the Grammies (see comments).

It's been cold in the US, but not in Australia.

Hip replacements:  Spain vs. US (found via Squatlo Rant).

The ex-Soviet countries have some cool architecture -- and Moscow now has the tallest building in Europe.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny targets Olympic corruption, while Putin tries to keep the lid on.  As for gays, they don't exist.

Maybe Putin should focus on the true biggest threat to the Russian people.

Tunisia's new constitution looks promising.

Some ancient Semites weren't as repressed as their modern descendants.

India's Asha Mirje might make a good Republican.

Oh, great -- flying snakes.

At least some Europeans 7,000 years ago were dark-skinned.

It's an exciting time in the field of brain research.

Australia's besieged Great Barrier Reef faces a new threat.

Climate change is killing off baby penguins in Argentina.