Mars Discovery Is Very Exciting — to Me

Curiosity Rover Image of Martian LandscapeIt has long been speculated that the existence of methane on other planets and moons could be a sign that life may be present now or have been present in the past. This is because the methane in our atmosphere comes primarily from life functions like the digestion of cows or termites. So scientists are very interested in Saturn’s moon Titan because of the methane in its atmosphere and the probable methane seas. But yesterday we got some very interesting news from Mars, Curiosity Rover Detects Spikes of Methane at Mars.

What the little rover is seeing is methane levels shooting way up and then coming way back down — below even the average global concentration. Sushil Atreya of the Curiosity team said it “tells us there must be some relatively localized source.” Even if it is of biological origin, it could be an ancient source of the gas, which is slowly being released or cycled through the environment. Or it could be of totally non-biological original through a source “such as interaction of water and rock.” So we want to be cautious here, because the news is interesting but doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Nicholas Heavens at The Planetary Society had a few choice words of caution even before he found out what the discovery was, Like A Bad Penny: Methane on Mars. I think he is far too cynical, but he does provide a nice overview of the methane-related discoveries on Mars. They start with the measurement of the methane concentration in the Mars atmosphere that is half of what it is here on earth. But that is less impressive than it sounds because the Mars atmosphere is so thin and concentrations are reported as (very very small) percentages. Heavens concludes, “Mars had some methane, but not very much of it.” Like I said: cynical!

He went on to discuss some of the potential problems there were with the initial measurements of methane. The main one was that there was a fairly high level of variability in them. Again, he wrote this before seeing what the new research showed. But now that we do know, it at least partially explains the methane variability. But Heavens’ main concern seems to be that people go hog-wild with the little information we have. Caution is good advice. It makes me think of a sequence from Cosmos about the same thing regarding Venus, “Observation: you couldn’t see a thing. Conclusion: dinosaurs.”

The main thing to remember here is that as exciting as this all is, it is unlikely that any of it indicates that life exists on Mars right now. But it is more data that suggests that Mars did indeed have life on it at one time. And it was a high tech civilization that created canals to move water from the poles! And they flew around on jetpacks like in The Jetsons! And they had domesticated dinosaurs that children rode on at the fair! Stop, stop, stop! I got carried away there. None of sentences the that end with an exclamation mark is true. But the next one is:

Mars might have had some kind of basic microbial life on it at one time!

And that is enough to be very very excited. And I doubt that Nicholas Heavens would disagree.

Peshawar School Attack Not Religious

Peshawar School AttackThe Peshawar school attack yesterday was truly horrific — in the same way that the Sandy Hook massacre was. Except this one that the patina of politics that makes it seem worse. I’m not sure that it is (except in that there were many more deaths). Adam Peter Lanza, in his messed up mind, must have had reasons for killing a bunch of people. And the Pakistani Taliban have their reasons. The stated reason is that it is revenge for the Pakistani army’s killing of the Taliban’s own families. Just as I don’t think torturing is right just because “they” do it, I don’t think revenge killing is ever justified — especially of the children of those revenge is sought against.

What I don’t really understand why this attack is framed as religious in nature. You can hardly go anywhere in reading about it without tripping over Muslims claiming that the attack was “un-Islamic.” It’s a funny claim anyway. The Quran is a big book. I’m sure you can find all kinds of text in it that would lead one to believe that killing children is wrong — emphatically so. Just the same, I find it hard to believe that you can’t also find text that justifies killing children. I don’t know the Quran, but all the Abrahamic religions are pretty bloodthirsty. Here’s Isaiah 14:21, “Prepare for his sons a place of slaughter because of the iniquity of their fathers.” That was God talking. There is more.

But a fundamental problem I have as seeing this as a religious attack is that it is Muslims on each side. We in the west have such a tendency to see Islam as this monolithic thing. I discussed that yesterday, The Bigoted “Muslims Condemn” Ritual. But clearly, in this case Muslims on one side are acting the way the United States does. And on the other side, Muslims are acting as terrorists. As I have tried to explain over the years, terrorism is a tactic of relatively impotent groups. Such groups would wage wars in more “civilized” ways if they had the ability.

The main thing is that terrorism isn’t something that comes out religion — much less a specific religion. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all used terrorism when the tactic suited them. And they have just as quickly condemned it as a tactic when it suited their political interests. And atheists use it too! I am sick to death of the idea that terrorism is something specific to Islamic faith when it is actually that Islam is the religion of a lot of places where people have a lot of political grievances.

I came upon a great article from last year by Owen Jones, Not in Our Name: Dawkins Dresses Up Bigotry as Non-Belief — He Cannot Be Left to Represent Atheists. It discusses many of these issues in a general sense. But I want to highlight one that is perhaps most annoying. It is the idea that people like me give Islam a pass — that it is just our liberal nature forcing us to see the poor Islamic world as oppressed.

I’m often asked why I don’t take a stronger line against Islamism: that it is one of my blind spots. In truth, I think that issue is pretty much covered. The alleged threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism has been debated to death ever since several Saudi hijackers crashed planes into the Twin Towers over a decade ago. Polls show that support for political Islamism is tiny among Britain’s Muslims, and they are as likely to support violence as the rest of us. Terrorism is being dealt with by the security services, and a few articles by me isn’t really going to contribute very much. My fear, however, is all I would achieve is magnifying a marginal problem among a small religious minority, contributing to a climate where Muslims generally are portrayed as extremists and potential terrorists.

To this, I would add something else. I still find it offensive that Americans are so concerned about religious extremism over there, when we have so much of it here. The common counterargument is that our Christians are not violent. First, that isn’t true; it is just that we carve out an exception for every act of violence perpetrated by a Christian. Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a Christian terrorist because he acted based upon a political ideology. Guess what? The same thing can be said for the vast majority of Muslim terrorists. The fact remains that if McVeigh had been a Muslim, he would still be referred to as a Muslim terrorist.

More concerning is that I have absolutely no doubt that if American Christians saw their lives fall apart, they would not respond like Job. They would respond with violence. Just look at the violent rhetoric that the Christian right uses for mythical oppression! “Don’t Retreat! Reload!”? That was in response to Laura Schlessinger’s resignation after repeatedly using the n-word on the radio. Imagine what would happen in Mississippi if the federal government refused to send the state any more aid than the federal government received in taxes? There would be blood in the streets. But, of course, most people wouldn’t call it religion violence — nor would I.

It is far too facile to dismiss wars and terrorism as the acts of religious people. They are political struggles. Regardless, I know many of my fellow atheists who think if we could just get rid of religion, the world would be more peaceful. I wish it were so, but I just don’t see that. As Jones put it, “Religion can be used to justify anything: and, in practice, it has.” That’s true of good things and bad. Religion is not the cause; it is the justification.

No Special Pleading From Hollywood

Aaron SorkinI remember listening to an interview with Sidney Lumet about the making of Serpico. He told one story about Al Pacino hanging out with the real Frank Serpico. It was an acting exercise for Pacino, who was studying for the part. But then the relationship was broken off brutally. Lumet, sympathetic toward Serpico who he referred to as smart and funny, laughed the whole thing off. According to him, that was Hollywood and that was the necessary nature of their “art.” I didn’t buy it. To me, it was just a couple of rich and famous guys who were used to being jerks to people who had no power over them.

I had this feeling again that I was listening to the pampered Hollywood elites who think they are “artists” doing some kind of noble work — above the considerations of other people. In this case, it was Aaron Sorkin’s pathetic OpEd in The New York Times, The Sony Hack and the Yellow Press. Basically, it is a long whine about how unfair it is that the hacked information is getting reported. His logic is what we charitably call “completely wrong.”

He wants us to think about this as though it happened to one of us. Would we want our personal conversations revealed to the world? Of course we wouldn’t! But our personal conversations will not be revealed to the world because the world does not care. The world does care about Amy Pascal, because she runs Sony Pictures. And Amy Pascal gets paid really well to put up with the fact that a computer hack with information about her is news. Similarly, Aaron Sorkin’s $80 million net worth should sooth any hardships he may have to bear. And Angelina Jolie’s half billion dollar net worth is more than enough compensation for getting her fee-fees hurt.

But the whole thing is just so very hypocritical. Michael Hiltzik summed up the issue perfectly, Why the Press Must Report Those Sony Hacks:

Hollywood makes billions by manipulating reality, including the reality that is Hollywood itself. It’s not that executives don’t want information to be divulged about their machinations to get a movie made, or their judgments about actors, actresses and directors: they merely want it all to be published entirely according to their own spin.

That’s what it really all comes down to. It is exactly the same thing we see from the White House — no matter who is sleeping there at night. They don’t want any unauthorized leaks. But they love leaks! They provide a steady stream of leaks. They just don’t want any leaks that don’t flatter them. So Aaron Sorkin’s OpEd really is nothing more than special pleading. But there is no reason to give him or anyone else among the Hollywood elite any special treatment. Richard Nixon did not want the Pentagon Papers reported on because they made the government look bad. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t want the Sony hacks reported on because they make Hollywood look bad.

Hiltzik provided the perfect one word response: tough.

America’s Difficult Torture Journey

Conor FriedersdorfWhen I was growing up, Americans thought of torture as a tactic used by history’s villains. A brutal dictator might keep a depraved regime in power with torture. People in foreign countries might suffer inside torture chambers. But US policy reflected the will of the citizenry, not the sadism of an evil-doer. Even folks who knew that the US had tortured in the past never imagined it would do so again.

After al-Qaeda murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, our polity didn’t exactly embrace torture. But attitudes in the US shifted. The absolutist taboo against torture gave way to a consequentialist debate. Nearly everyone continued to avow that torture was morally unacceptable in almost all circumstances. On the other hand, say a ticking time bomb would incinerate New York City and a terrorist knew the code to stop it. Would it be morally permissible to torture the terrorist?

Over many months, Americans debated that question.

On Sunday, Dick Cheney gave an interview that illustrated why it was so imprudent to abandon the taboo against torture and indulge in implausible hypotheticals. 13 years ago, Americans were arguing over whether it should be legal to torture a known terrorist if we knew it could stop a mass casualty attack on a major city. Now a former vice-president is defending the torture of innocent people

Once 9/11 happened, Dick Cheney ceased to believe that the CIA should be subject to the US Constitution, statutes passed by Congress, international treaties, or moral prohibitions against torture. Those standards would be cast aside. In their place, moral relativism would reign. Any action undertaken by the United States would be subject to this test: Is it morally equivalent to what al-Qaeda did on 9/11? Is it as bad as murdering roughly 3,000 innocent people? If not, then no one should criticize it, let alone investigate, charge and prosecute the CIA. Did a prisoner freeze to death? Were others anally raped? Well, what if they were?

If it cannot be compared with 9/11, if it is not morally equivalent, then it should not be verboten.

That is the moral standard Cheney is unabashedly invoking on national television. He doesn’t want the United States to honor norms against torture. He doesn’t want us to abide by the Ten Commandments, or to live up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, or to be restrained by the text of the Constitution. Instead, Cheney would have us take al-Qaeda as our moral and legal measuring stick. Did America torture dozens of innocents? So what. 9/11 was worse.

Now that Cheney is stating all this explicitly it must be rejected as moral madness. Torture was the ticking time bomb. It exploded. And a city on a hill was destroyed. I hope it is rebuilt in time for my unborn children to grow up in a place that abhors torture, regarding it as a dark curiosity perpetrated by history’s villains.

We’ve got a long way to go.

—Conor Friedersdorf
Dick Cheney Defends the Torture of Innocents


John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy TooleOn this day in 1937, the great writer John Kennedy Toole was born. Other than his juvenilia, he is only known for one thing, A Confederacy of Dunces. But what a thing! Everyone seems to know the story of how the book was published: his suicide and his depressed mother’s pursuit of its publication. I can’t speak to the cause of Toole’s finally unraveling. I’m sure if he had found a publisher — especially if the book had done as well as it would when it finally was published — it would at least have extended his life. But I suspect there was more going on than a general depression brought on by a lack of professional success.

In preparation for this post, I spent an hour going through my books, looking for my copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. I couldn’t find it. I did find two copies of Kaufmann’s translation of Faust — which is okay, given one of them is in pieces. (I don’t know why I haven’t thrown it out.) And I found at least five copies of Dr Faustus — which is not okay, because I was collecting them because I had this idea of producing it at some point. But no Confederacy. I must have loaned it out to someone to read.

This is something that I do, especially with this book. No intelligent American should be able to go through life without reading A Confederacy of Duncesat least once. It is a wonderful book. And I don’t even mean in the sense that it is brilliant with a great feel for language. I mean it in the sense that it is a very funny book. You will enjoy it! Let me go further: you will enjoy it from the first page!

You have to ask yourself an important question, “Why am I reading Frankly Curious when I could be reading A Confederacy of Dunces?” There are really only two acceptable answers. First: “Because it is only now that you have opened my eyes!” Second: “I have already read it!” I appreciate your readership. But I’m more than willing to wait. A Confederacy of Dunces is a very special book — especially for the kind of people who come around here. (You should take that as a compliment.)

Happy birthday John Kennedy Toole!