Selective Christians

Billy GrahamI’ve learned a great deal from reading Robert M. Price. But probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that people don’t read the Bible and then decide what it means. They may read the Bible, but they do so in the context of what their pastors think it means. And where did the pastors get their ideas? You get the idea. There is no literal reading of the Bible.

Blue Texan has written a very good article over at Crooks & Liars, Billy Graham’s Full Page Ad in the NY Times Urges Followers to Vote Against Abortion, Gay Marriage. In Graham’s Times ad, he tells all good Christians that they should vote for biblical principles. Those principles just happen to be the usual right wing hate issues: anti-choice for both reproduction and marriage rights.

Blue Texan points out that Graham doesn’t mention other biblical principles like prohibition of usury or caring for the poor or men having multiple wives. And he calls it when he says that Graham is just doing what Christian demagogues always do. “They begin with a set of right-wing values, then they selectively interpret the bible to comport to those values.”

Smart Christians are fond of pointing out that they don’t really believe in an anthropogenic God. They don’t envision a guy with a white beard sitting on a throne in the clouds. God it something much greater than that—something unimaginable. And yet, they claim that he would care about such trivial things as human sexuality. It seems bizarre. But as Robert Price has shown, this isn’t about God. Religion is just the accumulated prejudices of generations of church leaders. And this is why they can skip multiple passages about being kind to others and just focus on the ones that say, “Get the fags!”

I do wish I believed in heaven and hell, because I think it would be fitting if Billy Graham spent eternity being anally raped with a red hot poker.

Niall Ferguson Says Obama Wants War

Niall FergusonI have long thought that Niall Ferguson was an idiot, but I think that may be the wrong way to think about him. Ferguson is just evil.

I understand being partisan. I certainly am. But to be only partisan is to be only interested in power. Today Ferguson has written an article over on The Daily Beast, Niall Ferguson on Obama’s Possible Mideast Surprise. His argument is that Obama is down in the polls and that he will try some kind of “October Surprise” or a “Wag the Dog” move.

Let’s just step back from this for a moment. In what universe is Obama losing in the polls? In the conservative media bubble, of course! In the real world, the national polls show Romney very slightly ahead of Obama. But more important, the national polls mean absolutely, positively nothing. We elect presidents based upon the electoral college, and in that contest, President Obama is and has been the likely winner for months.

In an attempt to mollify conservatives, their own personal alternative media are providing lots of articles to sooth them so they won’t fall into a funk and end up missing the election. Typical of this is Jay Cost at The Weekly Standard who claims that Romney is doing really well with the “independent” voters and this will prove decisive. You know what I think of this kind of wishful thinking: it is more wishful than thinking. But this kind of thinking is all over. Brendan Nyhan at the Columbia Journalism Review writes about this in, The momentum behind a misleading narrative. Basically, Romney gained in the week before and the week after the first debate. And that’s it. There is no miracle on the horizon.

But Niall Ferguson thinks there is and he thinks that the Obama campaign thinks the same thing. What will they do? Don’t worry: Ferguson has a thought. Obama will tell Israel to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. This makes sense from a Republican standpoint: it is just the way they roll; since they will do anything for power, everyone else must act the same way. But with a clear-eyed view of the real world this is nonsense. Would the president really start a war just to win re-election? A democratic president, that is? And if he did, would the people really believe that it wasn’t an act of political desperation? After all, why not wait another week and do it after the election? And who, other than wackjob conservatives like Ferguson, wants a war with Iran? It is a ridiculous idea: Obama weighing his choices, “Should I work on getting out the vote or just start a war with Iran? It’s such a tough choice!”

Ferguson isn’t calling for war explicitly, of course. He is calling for Israeli strikes on Iran’s alleged nuclear laboratories. But this is the same as calling for war. This is, in fact, an act of war. And having Israel start it would not make it any less our war.

Hopefully with Newsweek breaking away from The Daily Beast I won’t have to read Ferguson again. But I fear I am being far more wishful than even the conservative poll watchers.

What a Difference a Word Makes

Todd AkinThere is a meme that Romney has closed the gender gap. It is almost exclusively coming from conservatives, but they are speaking with such unanimity that it seems real. The implication is that it is because the Democrats are talking down to women. “Women care about economics, not lady parts!”

Of course, this is not just about women. I find the anti-choice movement repugnant as do a great many men. The war on woman was never a good idea from a tactical point of view. It only encouraged staunch Republicans, it never appealed to vast swaths of the electorate.

Below is a shockingly stark graph from Real Clear Politics. On 19 August, Todd Akin made his “legitimate rape” comments in an interview with KTVI. Note how the race essentially flipped on that day:

<%image(20121029-akinmccaskill.jpg|450|363|Akin vs. McCaskill)%>

So people really do care about this stuff. What the Republicans mean is that they don’t.

Linda Linda

I came upon the song Linda Linda thanks to Atrios. It is featured in the 2005 Japanese film Linda Linda Linda, where it is played by the fictional band the film is about. Here is The Blue Hearts doing the song originally:

This is rock music at its best. Any band that makes you think of Wild Thing or Louis Louis is doing it right. That seems kind of simple, doesn’t it? Somehow it isn’t.

All Concepts Are Simple

Believing BullshitI’ve been reading Believing Bullshit by Stephen Law. I’ll write about it more later. For now, I just want to mention something about his chapter on Pseudoprofundity. This especially has to do with postmodern academics where traditionally the field has been so weighted down with jargon that there is often nothing other than the jargon.

In my experience with science, I have found that pretty much all concepts are really simple. In order to be precise, scientists and philosophers weight down these concepts with a lot of baggage. But if students are trying to learn something and they find it difficult, they are probably missing the concept.

Here is an excellent example. Nothing is more mind blowing than Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. This theorem says that any mathematical system (e.g. Euclidean Geometry) can never be fully formed. There will always be things that are true inside that system that cannot be proved to be true. Here is a simple proof of this from Infinity and the Mind by Rudy Rucker:

The proof of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is so simple, and so sneaky, that it is almost embarassing to relate. His basic procedure is as follows:

  1. Someone introduces Godel to a UTM, a machine that is supposed to be a Universal Truth Machine, capable of correctly answering any question at all.
  2. Godel asks for the program and the circuit design of the UTM. The program may be complicated, but it can only be finitely long. Call the program P(UTM) for Program of the Universal Truth Machine.
  3. Smiling a little, Godel writes out the following sentence: “The machine constructed on the basis of the program P(UTM) will never say that this sentence is true.” Call this sentence G for Godel. Note that G is equivalent to: “UTM will never say G is true.”
  4. Now Godel laughs his high laugh and asks UTM whether G is true or not.
  5. If UTM says G is true, then “UTM will never say G is true” is false. If “UTM will never say G is true” is false, then G is false (since G = “UTM will never say G is true”). So if UTM says G is true, then G is in fact false, and UTM has made a false statement. So UTM will never say that G is true, since UTM makes only true statements.
  6. We have established that UTM will never say G is true. So “UTM will never say G is true” is in fact a true statement. So G is true (since G = “UTM will never say G is true”). “I know a truth that UTM can never utter,” Godel says. “I know that G is true. UTM is not truly universal.”

If I could impart any wisdom to young learners, it would be this: all concepts are simple. This of course helps in a general sense: it allows people to drill down to the bottom of what they are learning. But there is another aspect of this. It frees the student to ask what he may think of as dumb questions. If you have a professor who is droning on about something that seems very complex, just call him on it. “Excuse me professor: this seems awfully complicated. What is the concept you are trying to relate?”

Afterword

When I taught physics, students would often tell me that they understood the concepts but that the math was hanging them up. This caused me, over time, to eliminate the math and just deal with the concepts. And what did I find? They didn’t understand the concepts either. I said these concepts are simple—not trivial. One thing was for sure: the math was blinding them to the concepts. By focusing on the concepts, they found that the math was fairly simple.

Who Cares About Comments?

Who cares about commentsI’m not feeling much up to writing right now because the right side of my face has swelled up owing to mostly likely about $700 of dental work. Luckily, ibuprofen works really well. Anyway, that’s why I am not posting today and probably won’t post much tomorrow. But I do have something on my mind: comments.

Mad Kane once mentioned to me that no one reads anything any more; they are in too much of a rush to write things. To that, I would add: mostly things that don’t need to be written. I get as caught up in this as anyone, except that I do little but read. I tend to think that is what I do for a living.

What bugs me about blogs is that most bloggers don’t interact with their users. Here I’m not talking about people writing for Daily KOS or other high traffic websites. Those sites already have a critical mass of readers so that the comment sections are self-sustaining. But most smaller sites make no effort to cultivate comments.

I was thinking about that this morning while reading Evil Slutopia, The ESC’s Guide to Social Media: You’re Probably Doing It Wrong. In the article, they suggest interacting with people who follow you on Twitter. This had never occurred to me, but then I’m very new to and ignorant of Twitter. But this is exactly my idea on blog comments.

In at least 90% of all cases, I respond to comments. There are a number of reasons for this, but the biggest is that I want my readers to know that I care that they are around. There aren’t many advantages to having a small blog, but one advantage is engagement. As a result, I’ve had a number of interesting comment conversations where they are more interesting than the original article.

I’ve made this analogy before: a blog is like a small business. There are roughly two ways you can treat the customer. You can think that what you have to offer is really great and people will come despite bad hours, inconvenient location, and nasty clerks. Or you can think that what you have to offer is okay and you really ought to work to make the customer’s experience as good as possible.

I know what my choice is. I think that no matter what it is you do, you win over readers one at a time. The idea that you will get a large following solely on the basis of your personal awesomeness is probably fanciful.

Republican Racism

John SununuThis week John Sununu continued his campaign to be the most vile man in American politics by saying that Colin Powell was endorsing President Obama because they were both black. You know those two modern day black panthers with their shuck and jive shtick. They’ve got that whole deep-seated hatred for white people thing going on.

Colin Powell’s former chief of staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson said the obvious on The Ed Show Friday: most of the people in his (Republican) party are racists. That’s about right. It is a stunning bit of video however; it is so rare to seen anyone in politics be so candid:

Let me clarify this observation. Most of the time, racism isn’t an active hatred of one group. Instead, it is assuming the best of “us” and assuming the worst of “them.” That’s what the whole birth certificate nonsense is all about. A couple of months ago I was talking to a conservative who claimed that he didn’t know if Obama was a United States citizen. He claimed that he had never seen his birth certificate, so he just didn’t know; he wasn’t saying anything one way or another. I noted that he had never seen the birth certificates of any other presidents but he never questioned their citizenship. This, of course, caused some desperate face saving about how maybe he should have done that.

This is a case of racism. It isn’t hatred. It is just being naturally suspicious of black people. And this is the kind of racism that the Republican Party is overflowing with. There is a lot of it in the Democratic Party too, but it is nowhere near as powerful an element. In many places, racism is the main thing the Republicans have on offer.

Nothing will happen to Sununu, of course. I think the mainstream media just accept that much of the draw of the Republican Party is subtle and not so subtle racist appeals. So they will continue to note when a particular Republican steps over the obviousness line and says something that is clearly racist. But otherwise, they will continue to pretend that poor southern whites still vote Republican because they really believe in more corporate welfare and less Social Security.

The Ballot

If you don’t know about The Ballot, you should really check it out. While I think that reelecting Obama is very important, the stuff further down the ballot is also really important. Here is California, there a number of important ballot initiatives, of example. The Ballot takes you address and creates a ballot that is specific to you with information that people have provided. I’m sure the system will get much better in the future. Personally, I think it ought to have nonpartisan information and stuff like that. But I nonetheless found it very useful.

Dean Baker Talks to Big Think

Here is Dean Baker in 2009 doing this thang, which is, you know, seeing the economy more clearly than anyone else on earth:

Afterword

I like Baker’s ideas about new taxes. He is not for raising the top marginal rate very much. He seems to think it could up as high as the low forties, but after that it would provide too much incentive to game the tax system. I’ve been pushing for a top marginal rate of 50%, but I think he makes a good point. I’m not sure there would be a problem with that rate, but I can certainly see a problem at 70% or 91%. (I don’t just want a higher rate; I want more high income tax brackets.)

He also wants to make the capital gains tax rate the same as the top tax rate. And he wants a financial transaction tax. I’m in favor of both those things.

This Morning in Polling

Ballot BoxThe big news is that Obama’s poll numbers keep improving. On October 4, Nate Silver predicted that Obama had an 87.1% chance of winning the electoral college vote. This was his highest chance during the campaign because the first presidential debate happened on October 3. (Actually, the causality is not so clear; it looks like Romney was improving before the debate.) That was the start of the liberal freak out, where Silver’s prediction went down steadily until reaching its nadir on October 12 with a 61.1% chance of winning. I’m sure you remember that week: it was a dark time for us all.

But since then, things have turned around. Obama has steadily increased his chances of winning. As of yesterday, Silver gives Obama a 74.4% chance of winning the electoral college. The popular vote is much tighter, but we see the same dynamic. On October 4, Obama was predicted to win 51.6% of the popular vote. This number dropped to 49.8% on October 12. Note: even on that day, Romney was only predicted to win 49.1% of the vote. So even at his lowest point, Obama was still looking okay. And it has only gotten better. Nate Silver now predicts that Obama will win 50.3% of the popular vote.

None of this means that Obama will win reelection. The race could change in the next 10 days. And Republican voter suppression efforts could be highly effective. And the Frankenstorm could upset everything. And Silver’s model could be all wrong. Perhaps he doesn’t have sufficient height and weight to accurately predict elections. (See below.) But right now, the Obama campaign has to be a lot happier than the Romney campaign.

Undecideds

Last month I wrote about undecided voters and how they will vote. Whoever is winning always claims that this group will break heavily toward them. I’ve been in this situation many time. But in my experience, they generally go pretty much as the decided voters. It is pretty much never the case that the undecided votes are anything other than a fifty-fifty split.

John Sides over at The Monkey Cage looks at this question quantitatively, How Will the Undecideds Break? He finds that they will go 50.1% for Obama. However, looking only at those who claim they will definitely vote, they skew toward Romney with 56%. But even with this, it would add only 0.4% to Romney’s total. The final prediction is that this will not be enough to give Romney the popular vote.

Bizarro World

You probably don’t know who Dean Chambers is, but I’d bet you know about him. He’s a little brain who decided that all the bad polling for Romney before the first debate was one vast left-wing conspiracy. So to counter it, he started the website UnSkewed Polls. Even though I feel pretty good about the polls going into this election, I’m willing to admit that it could go either way. The polls are indeed all over the map. But not according to Mr. Chambers. Using his unskewing procedure every poll now shows Romney with a handsome lead over Obama. This morning, his poll average is Romney +5%.

According to Chambers, it isn’t just the polling that has been skewed. The election models are in on the conspiracy. Yesterday at Examiner.com (more or less the dreadful San Francisco Examiner), he wrote an article attacking Nate Silver and his model. Remember that if anything, Nate Silver is far more bullish on Mitt Romney than all the other models. But that doesn’t matter to Chambers. Chambers knows Silver’s model is wrong. How? Because Nate Silver is short and skinny:

Nate Silver is a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice that sounds almost exactly like the “Mr. New Castrati” voice used by Rush Limbaugh on his program. In fact, Silver could easily be the poster child for the New Castrati in both image and sound. Nate Silver, like most liberal and leftist celebrities and favorites, might be of average intelligence but is surely not the genius he’s made out to be. His political analyses are average at best and his projections, at least this year, are extremely biased in favor of the Democrats.

Mostly, the article is just a proclamation that Nate Silver must be wrong because Dean Chambers doesn’t like his results. In particular, he complains that Silver’s model weights some polls higher than others. This is true. For example, he weights Rasmussen rather lightly because they have been shown year after year to be wrong. Apparently, Chambers doesn’t understand the difference between weighting data according to their value and weighting them just because you don’t like what they’re telling you.

Chambers ends his article with another unsubstantiated claim:

[Nate Silver] claims to have been highly accurate in predicting the 2008 election results, and perhaps he was. But it’s highly unlikely his current methods and projections will have the level of accuracy unless he changes them quite a lot between now and election day. The race has shifted profoundly in favor of Mitt Romney while Nate Silver is still projecting an Obama win. Unless he changes that, the credibility he earned in 2008 will be greatly diminished after this year’s election.[1]

It isn’t clear what exactly it would mean for Nate Silver to be right about this election, given that he is just providing probabilities. But let’s suppose that Romney wins by a sizable margin. I’m sure this will cause Silver to go back and change his model. On the other hand, if his model turns out to be right and Obama wins by a comfortable margin, will Chambers admit that he was wrong? If I know conservatives, he will not. In 2016, he will still be predicting ridiculous Republican wins.

Update (28 October 2012 8:54 pm)

Yesterday, Obama went down (73.6%) in Nate Silver’s model, but he’s back up today (74.6%). His predicted popular vote total is also up: 50.4%. Virginia is now even more likely to go for Obama than Colorado. One thing I didn’t talk about is Florida: Romney’s chance of winning the state keeps dropping. It is now down to 62.5%. That is still a good number for him, but the state could go for Obama. And that would be totally awesome!


[1] Note: I fixed about 5 grammar errors in the sections I quoted from Chamber’s article. The awkward syntax was left in. I did this rather than throw in a bunch of sic’s. I understand this is the internet, but he’s writing for kind of real publication. Geez!

God is Not All-Good

God - MichelangeloThe Onion has published a very funny article, God Distances Self From Christian Right.

As with all The Onion articles, it starts with one jokes and repeats it paragraph after paragraph. In this case, it is quote after quote from God saying basically, “I’m not a bigot like my followers!”

God comes off as a pretty good guy:

“Many people hear my name in connection with the Christian Right and start to assume we are aligned in some capacity, and I’m here to say, for the record, that we are not,” God continued. “So let me just be clear: I don’t want women to get raped—not ever. I don’t think their resulting pregnancies are my divine will. And if a woman is raped, then she has the right to get an abortion, period. I do not agree with Mourdock. I do not agree with the Christian Right. End of story.”

Calling Mourdock’s comments “the last straw,” the Lord Our Maker explained that while in the past there have been a few areas where He and the religious Right have been in agreement, more often than not, in recent years, He and Christian conservatives have grown “actually quite far apart” on a wide range of issues.

Of course, the truth is God in the Bible is as bad or worse than the Christian right. I was just reading “Stephen Law on the Problem of Evil” in Philosophy Bites. He makes a compelling case that God is not good. It is just extremely hard to argue given what we know about the world.

One way of looking at the problem is by assuming that God is evil:

Right now I can see happy laughing children frolicking around in the sunshine. Why would an evil God allow that kind of thing? Surely a supremely malignant being would be interested in torturing us for all eternity with a red-hot poker, not producing rainbows and laughter and sunshine and ice cream. There’s just too much good stuff in the world for this to be plausibly the creation of a supremely powerful, supremely evil being. You can see that this problem—we might call it the problem of good—is just the reverse of the problem of evil. If you believe in an all-powerful, all-good God you have to explain why there’s so much bad stuff. If you believe in an all-powerful, all-bad God you have to explain why there’s so much good stuff. Actually, it seems to me that you can probably also develop some ingenious arguments to deal with the problem, why does an evil God give us a lovely sunset to enjoy? To make our appreciation of the ghastly dreariness and ugliness of day-to-day life so much more acute. Why does he give us fit and healthy young bodies? Well, he only does so for about ten or fifteen years. Then, slowly and invevitably, people slide into decay and decrepitude until they end up dying, hopelessly ugly, incontinent and smelling of wee, having lived out a short and ultimately meaningless existence. I mean, what better way could there be of maximizing suffering than giving you something good for a short period of time and then slowly and inexorably taking it away? Most of the standard theodicies can be flipped round. And when you flip them round in this way, they’re a joke. So, the question is: why do we take the standard theodicies so seriously? On the scale of reasonableness, I place an evil God very low down. But that’s exactly the reason why I place the good God very low down on the scale of reasonableness.

Who says philosophy and theology aren’t fun?