Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mmmmmm mmmmmad diplomats

Well US diplomats may be getting mad about Japan banning US beef, but it's almost certainly just US cows that have a right to get mad about anything. The state department is using smoke and mirrors by claiming the tiny Japanese herd has ten times as many mad cow cases as all of the US herd. What it fails to emphasize is that Japan tests every single cow but the US only tests a tiny fraction.

If you read anything about factory farming in the US you'll find they still feed cow bits like blood to other cows, or other cow bits to pigs and chicken that are then fed to cows again. Furthermore many studies have shown that the stun guns used on cows basically liquify the brain and result in brain bits through the entire body of the cow after slaughter - including the muscle which is what most of us end up throwing on the BBQ. The only way to be safe these days is to eat beef from farms that never had BSE and never use any animal products to feed their cows.

I'm not going to bother giving links, just Google "mad cow usa" and you'll find hundreds of them. Do you think the Japanese thought about doing that? Maybe they even read the book "Mad cow USA" ???

The main reason I'm particularly indignant about this is because the United Kingdom was held up as the poster child of mad cow disease. They basically got rid of every single cow in country because of it - had to burn and bury the lot. However over in mainland Europe mad cow disease was also widely diagnosed, but no one ever did anything about it because the governments chose to keep quite about it an write-off any reports has being caused by imported cows. It appears the same is happening in the USA - they used to blame a bunch of British cows imported in the 80s that mysteriously vanished. Now its the Canadian cows that are to blame...

I'm almost certain that if the USA started mandatory testing of all cows we would soon uncover hundreds, if not thousands of cases countrywide. However the FDA isn't going to do that. I've heard that of those they do test they only test "downer" cows that go down at the slaugher house - not ones already down by the time they arrive which is very common. And ones that go down before they are even sent to slaughter? Who knows what happens to those.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Blames well with others

At last years Earth Day the City of Oakland handed out T-shirts to neighborhood clean-up volunteers with the slogan: "Cleans well with other" - I think it was a joke based on "Washes well with others". I was reminded of that slogan today when I read about ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown blaming the Louisiana Governor and New Orleans Mayor for the Katrina disaster.

I thought, "Hmmmm, Michael Brown - blames well with others". Yes, put him and all the other rat pack NeoCons together and they certainly blame well with each other. In fact they are always blaming others, and nothing ever went wrong because they made a mistake. Call it a circle of blame, the blame machine, the blame-o-sphere or whatever, but to me its seems to be an impervious shield of blaming everything to external (and usually dark or evil) forces that is always thrown up when anything goes wrong.

What is needed is a "The Blame Stops Here" campaign with a picture of the White House and/or the smerker in chief. Mr Bush, we know you're not what people would call "Well educated", but one thing you should learn, its in Latin so you can say with a grin and look really smart, its:

Mia culpa

One thing I didn't know about "mia culpa" is it is used in Christian prayer a lot. I found this statement about the use and translation of mia culpa:

It is used in prayer: often, a more complete excerpt is mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, which works out to "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault."
So there you go George. You can use it every day and feel right at home, just like you're on your knees praying to the man upstairs. And finally, when you want to look hip and trendy to all those non-Latin speaking voters just use the modern literal translation:

My bad!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Northern Ireland - RIP?

I'm not that old, but pushing forty I'm old enough. Old enough to remember some of the long and oh so bloody history of "the troubles". That's what they've called the events in Northern Ireland since the 1960's - during my entire lifetime basically. The reality is the conflict in Northern Ireland has its root long before. Before the partition of Ireland in 1922, before the potato famine of 1846, and all the way back to the seventeenth century when much of the Irish owned land was confiscated and given to English lords.

The Troubles were the cause of me knowing the word "terrorist" from an early age. One side of the fence calls them freedom fighters, another terrorists. One side insurgents, another guerilla fighters. Its all a matter of perspective and the perspective in Northern Ireland went way back. Way, way, back.

In fact as a kid I was convinced that Northern Ireland would be forever embroiled in turmoil and forever lobbing bombs to the mainland. No Christmas would pass without explosions in the main shopping areas of London. Imagine that - an entire youth spent worrying about bombs when Christmas shopping and hearing about members of the royal family being pecked off. Its no small miracle they never managed to get the Queen herself, goodness knows they tried. It was an entire youth spent looking for somewhere to put litter when taking a train journey because everyone knows trash cans are good for hiding bombs in and they make such nice shrapnel when they go to smithereens. All this lead me to one fateful day to put "Peace in Ireland" on my top three list of things I hoped to see happen in my lifetime. It wa right up there with the end of Apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

So today, with the apparent decommissioning of the IRA weapons stockpile and perhaps the end of the other side's last excuse for continuing anti-Catholic violence, I am happy to think that maybe, just maybe, I've gone three for three with my "dreams come true" list. Maybe I wont have to hear about any more deaths in Northern Ireland - no more tit for tat, no more persecution, no more "terrorism", no more wasted lives in the name of "the troubles".

I just hope that's the case, only time will tell and hopefully my life will be long enough to say for sure. But Northern Ireland my thoughts are with you - may you rest in peace - some day soon and forever.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

She's coming right for them!

Isn't it interesting how when Katrina blasts through New Orleans, the "Christian" Elite are quick to point out from their bully pulpits that it is clearly righteous retribution for the profligate lifestyle lived by those heathen NOLA-ites be it homosexuality, abortion, fornication or even America's support for the Iraeli disengement from Gaza.

But when, just a few weeks later, Rita gouges through Galveston and cavorts up towards Crawford, Texas the hurricane is suddenly no longer a manifestation of the hand of God, but more like just an act of nature. Mother Nature being a half sister of Satan herself, is naturally something to be stopped, stomped-out and sold-out at every opportunity - certainly the devil's work, and definitely nothing at all to do with the bearded white man upstairs.

If you can point me to information on just one righteous right-winger giving some hell-yeahs for Rita's rampage in Texas let me know, but somehow I doubt that's going to happen. Lets face it, only poor sinners have to worry about righteous retribution, the rest of them can just buy themselves a stairway to heaven with the profit from all their oil wells and selling Halliburton shares.

I invite you all to check out the statistics on hurricane strikes in the US by State. If God was trying to send a message to those damned godless socialist democrats living in New Orleans don't you think he'd aim a few more of this major hurricanes there way? Instead the majority over the past 100 years have gone to Florida and yes, you gessed it - Texas.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The great soap scam and other mysteries

I was tempted to call this blog entry "The great soap scum..." but wasn't sure if people would get it. I mean, how many people use soap enough these days to know about soap scum anyway? Regardless, I just wanted to rant about why it is soap manufacturers insist on selling big hunks-o-soap, especially hand soap, that get old and skanky long before they are used up. The reason is I recently broke my trusty lump-o-soap in two and now look forward to a long and skanky soap free period of lathering.

Now I hear you saying that you don't use hard soap at all, just liquid soap. Well did you know that's just part of the scam? Liquid soap, lather for lather is far more expensive than regular soap assuming that you use a full plunger's worth of it - which they assume you will. You're just going to smack that plunger all the way down, get a big dollop-o-soap and wash most of it away unused. Instead of a bar that lasts months you now have a container of soap that lasts just a month. But that's exactly what the soap guys wanted to hear. Next thing will be spray on soap that wastes even more soap...

Don't get me wrong, I understand the psychology of liquid soap - people don't want to grab a dirty soap bar in the first place. But think about it - your hands are dirty to start with, if soap doesn't have the ability to get you clean in the first place why bother using it? So a bit of dirt on the soap, or on your hands at the start of washing shouldn't matter, should it? And the dirt on the soap at the end didn't touch your hands - you rinsed all that soap away with water - just like the dirty water in the washing machine at the end of washing your clothes.

Anyway, I'm thinking that liquid soap is just another one of those inventions that seems like a good idea, but probably isn't, in the long run. Like for instance, leaf blowers. Yes folks, admit it - we all hate leaf blowers. Noisy, stinky and basically not that efficient leaf blowers. The only people to benefit from them are the ones actually using them which proportionately is a tiny fraction of those who benefit from clearing leaves. Even then you could argue that wielding a rake and brush all morning might actually be better than using a stinky noisy leaf blower for the same period. Less pollution, less noise and a bit of exercise thrown in - it certainly didn't do me any harm as a kid all those times I had to clear the leaves from our 1/2 of an acre of garden.

In fact, I'm so sure that most people really loath and detest leaf blowers that I'm willing to award them my 2005 Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul "Most loathed technology award" - until someone suggests something more loathsome that is (I have an idea already for the second place technology). Feel free to add a comment if you'd like to suggest something more worthy of first place.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The great Katrina cloud hoax

Someone recently sent Agent J a series of cloud photos that purported to be of Hurricane Katrina. Luckily since I took up paragliding I've had the advantage many hours of time pouring (and pawing) over cloud porn. This enabled me to immediately identify the photos as originating from Mike Hollingshead at his Extreme Instability web site.

These photos have been so widely circulated that there is even an article about it at a site called The Cloud Appreciation Society, there's even a Snopes entry for it too. The cloud appreciation society's manifesto includes "eliminating blue sky thinking", with wonders like the cloud below (a morning glory) available to fill the blue sky with clouds I'll give that two tea-time thumbs up.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Something interesting in the woodshed

From the originalNew York State Constitution of 1777:

XXXIX. And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or priest of any denomination whatsoever, shall, at any time hereafter, under any presence or description whatever, be eligible to, or capable of holding, any civil or military office or place within this State.

Well you certainly don't find that in the 2001 version! It's almost like the complete opposite of banning atheists from office. However I do confess I didn't find anything in the modern day New York State constitution requiring elected representitives to be theists of any sort.

But on another note I did notice some interesting verbiage about the state militia, and how Quakers were excused from serving in the militia on payment of a fee (apparently £10 at the time). Here's the relevant article:

XL. And whereas it is of the utmost importance to the safety of every State that it should always be in a condition of defence; and it is the duty of every man who enjoys the protection of society to be prepared and willing to defend it; this convention therefore, in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State, doth ordain, determine, and declare that the militia of this State, at all times hereafter, as well in peace as in war, shall be armed and disciplined, and in readiness for service. That all such of the inhabitants of this State being of the people called Quakers as, from scruples of conscience, may be averse to the bearing of arms, be therefrom excused by the legislature; and do pay to the State such sums of money, in lieu of their personal service, as the same; may, in the judgment of the legislature, be worth. And that a proper magazine of warlike stores, proportionate to the number of inhabitants, be, forever hereafter, at the expense of this State, and by acts of the legislature, established, maintained, and continued in every county in this State.

This is a pretty good description of militia as mentioned in the US Constitution's Second Amendment. In this case the New York militia doesn't sound at all like the libertarian's version of "people" bearing arms to defend themselves against the state (or government) and much more like "the people" (ie. in the collective) bearing arms to defend the state, more like what we have in the National Guard now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Life without God begats taxation without representation

Recently I was ranting about how seven states still ban unmarried couples from living together (at least officially). That list of states is Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia.

Today I found something even more worrying - seven states actually forbid an atheist from holding political office, that's Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas (and maybe even New York, but I didn't find the relevant citation from their constitution yet). Until '97 the list also included South Carolina, and Maryland's clause is supposedly voided by the 1961 Torcaso v. Watkins case, but I have to say I'm really surprised to see Maryland and Pennsylvania on the list to this day.

Frankly I'm gobsmacked. I mean screw trying to keep creationims out of science classes, or "under God" out of the pledge, if atheists can't even get representation in 8 out of the 50 states this says something even more rotten about the country. Separation of church and state is basically a laughing stock with this gaping hole in it. This coupled with the fact there aren't any declared atheists in any major political office state should indicate why church and state separatists get really upset.

Remember that the recent Newsweek poll showed that 1 in 3 Americans consider themselves as non-religious and 1 in 10 of under forty year olds actively identify as atheists. That's a huge number of disenfranchised Americans who are prohibited for by law from standing for office in those states because of their religious beliefs, or lack thereof. Combined with the fact, that when pressed most politicians would sooner eat their hat than actively stand up and defend separation of church and state, its easy to conclude that, despite all the rhetoric, atheists have little or no representation in government.

That's not to say I want pro-atheism policies coming out of government, any more than I want pro-faith policies. If Bush can have faith based initiatives then I want no-faith based initiatives - but in reality I want neither. Just get on and govern, and keep God out of it. As it stands the fact that government has since the Nixon times become increasingly polarized towards theism its looking more and more like atheists have a great case to make for taxation without representation, especially in those eight states. I mean why aren't there atheists protesting in the streets in those states and refusing to pay their taxes until the constitution is changed? Probably the problem is that there is no one in government to support their views because they are all afraid to, even if they are closet atheists.

After some digging around I found that the TV show "The West Wing" recently touched on the subject which apparently made quite a few people happy (or angry). In it a Senator (Vinick) is being pressed to attend a church or make some affirmation of his religious beliefs, but refuses to. You can download a clip from it here or read some of the relevant quotes here. The most important statement the Senator makes is:

"I don't see how we can have a separation of church and state in this government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this government. And I want to warn everyone in the press and all the voters out there, if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to. They won't all lie to you but a lot of them will. And it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes. So, every day until the end of this campaign, I'll answer any question anyone has on government, But if you have a question on religion, please go to church."

I think there's a lot of truth in the statement that politicians will lie about their religion and its the easiest lie they will ever tell. I mean compared to admitting they are homosexual, have cheated on their wife/husband, or cheated on their taxes, or taken bribes or are an alcoholic... well its a piece of cake.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

DreamHost downtime delivers digital dexterity

When I was a kid we played conkers, at least during the part of the year they were available. We also played marbles, various card games, collected Star Wars (Episode IV of course) bubble gum cards and any number of other weird things. In my early teens the Rubik Cube showed up and my brother bought a book on solving it, and taught me one of the simpler methods - I think my best time was about three minutes. Sometimes my hands would fly so fast the cube would fall apart mid move and all would be lost. Not many other kids had mastered the cube at my school and you couldn't just get on the Internet to learn the moves back then (yes the Internet did exist when I was a kid!). So for a brief while I enjoyed a bit of notoriety, but being the resident brainbox at my school (in America I would probably have been labeled a nerd or geek) that was deemed perfectly normal - all I really did was just read a book and learn the moves.

Later on in my early twenties I got slightly hooked on juggling having been taught the three ball cascade by an old school friend. Three balls lead to four which lead to five, the peak of most amateur juggler's achievement. I can assure you five balls is hard but given a couple of weeks of practice most people could nail it. The juggling community is rather oddball (pun intended) and overlaps with all kinds of fringe activities. I also ended up riding a unicycle, doing fire juggling, pair club juggling, ball spinning and attended a vaudeville convention. Overall juggling and unicycling was good fun, worked wonders for my hand-eye coordination, balance and was quite pivotal in getting me, a shy nerdy kid, out of my shell.

However, none of the aforementioned youthfull activities prepared me for my discovery today of something called "cup stacking", also known as "speed stacking" or "sport stacking". It involves stacking cups about the size of a pint glass in pyramids against the clock and is now apparently all the rage among kids across the USA and Europe. Although cup stacking has been around for twenty years one person Bob Fox has been promoting it in schools across the country and selling the specially modified cups and timing equipment from his web site Speed Stacks, presumably cleaning up a large stack of cash in the process. It should also come as no surprise that his two kids are also world champion cup stackers. Fox claims that stacking promotes hand eye coordination, improves left and right coordination and is good for the athletically challenged because its not physically demanding. He promotes it for teaching in gym classes to give the non-jocks something to excell at.

Although it was amazing to watch cup stacking the first time - see Emily Fox's recent world record on video - it does seem like a very limited and non-creative activity. There really aren't too many variations and it looks like a case of RSI just waiting to happen. As one TV presenter quipped to a young cup stacker, "So you do this to train for a career at McDonalds?". If nothing else I expect it may introduce kids to other non-physical activities like juggling which at least has some variety and opportunities for teamwork and self expression far beyond that of sport stacking.

The story of how I found out about sport stacking was a great example of the fundamental interconnectedness of things. As this blog entry title suggests it all started with downtime of my new hosting provider DreamHost who was off line yesterday, taking this blog's website with it. It turns out DreamHost was caught up in yesterday's Los Angeles blackout and although their building backup generators fired up just fine, someone belonging to the building management meddled with the power systems locally causing the generators to fail. This was quickly followed by failure of all their UPS systems, ultimately blacking out hundreds of servers and thousands of hosted websites - this one included.

Anyway, while looking at the DreamHost website and reading customer complaints today I found a lot of people mentioning a hosted website called Rocketboom which apparently had not come back to life earlier in the day. I checked out Rocketboom and it turns out to be a daily video blog. Watching today's entry at Rocketboom I noticed a segment on Chris Hardwick solving a Rubik's cube one handed in under 30 seconds, now that's what I call nerdy and of course it took me right back to my own Rubik cube obsession decades ago.

So while looking at Chris' page I spotted a link to "speed stacking" which I had never heard of and, well the rest is history. Then I came across the Superhandz website that has stuff on all kinds of weird hand activities (no, not what you're thinking!). Check out their video page for stuff on pen spinning, coin flipping, card manipulation, card juggling, "extreme digits" and yes folks, the elusive Cobra cut.

Monday, September 12, 2005


While I'd normally post this on my tech blog I figured it was too entertaining to not share with all my favourite tea-time readers. A while ago I was running some software called The Phonebot on my home server that answered my landline and acted as my answer-machine. The Phonebot also had the option to play the "telezapper" beep whenever it picked up to stop telesales people from calling me (it sounds like an number unobtainable tone and causes their auto-dialing systems to hang up). Having run it for about a year it seems to have made a difference - but then again it could have been the advent of the dont-not-call list - I'm not completely sure.

However I just read about a product, or idea called "Telecrapper" that answers the phone and when a telesales call is detected engages in a phony (pun intended) conversation with them. Having worked at a company that developed voice based applications I find this particularly amusing - even if this is just a hoax (listen to the sample conversation and judge for yourself) I find it entirely plausible and yes, a worthwhile pursuit.

It makes me wonder, could Telecrapper one day pass the Turing test? Could indeed the length of time a system can successfully engage a telesales caller be the new benchmark of artificial intelligence? After all in a society obsessed with consumerism and phones, shouldn't the real definition of intelligence be whether an entity can pass in society as a legitimate phone wielding consumer?

Blackwater in the floodwater

Democracy Now has reported that the private security force run by Blackwater (more often described as mercenaries) is now operating in New Orleans. Despite denials from the Department of Homeland of Security the gun toting Blackwater employees do say they are "on contract with the Department of Homeland Security and the Louisiana governor's office", they also claim they are authorized to enforce the law and use lethal force. Don't forget these are the same people operating in Iraq and have recently come under scrutiny for civilian shootings there.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Three little piggies

We all know the tale of the three little piggies. The question is, why don't American houses in the path of hurricanes get built with bricks and mortar to wisthstand them? Or at the very least with concrete or reinforce steel? Okay, so it costs more to build, but it seems if you live anywhere on the Gulf coast or south east Atlantic seaboard your house is probably going to get whacked in its lifetime, no more so than ever.

You know what - insurance companies pay out for hurricane damage - why is that? They don't pay out for floods, or earthquakes. If they insisted buildings were built to withstand hurricane force winds, with storm shutters and the like, maybe they wouldn't have to pay out so much, and maybe the country could stop pissing money away on annual reconstruction projects and start using it for building proper flood protection as they have in the Netherlands (which incidentally I heard today, are built to survive the 1 in 10,000 year storm). On the Gulf coast it looks like a category 5 hurricane is at least a 1 in 100 years event, if not more now frequent, and category 3 storms are basically once a year or so now.

So why the heck was New Orleans only protected by a measly category 3 hurricane levee system? It just doesn't make any sense. Early on I heard someone say it was X billion dollars to build up the levees for protection against a category 5 hurricane storm surge, where X was less than 10. The decision, they said, was made not to build it up "based on a cost benefit analysis". Big mistake.

The problem is, as I've said before, the cost benefit analysis wouldn't have fully considered the cost of destruction of thousands of home, it would be based largely on loss of life. That's because our economy doesn't count property destruction as a negative, on the contrary its a positive because it causes economic activity rebuilding - jobs for reconstruction, raw materials to rebuild, factories to build new cars - wooohooo, bring on those hurricanes, they're good for the economy just like wars, so long as they are not in your backyard.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

FSM - I fly therefore I am

Ummm flying spaghetti. For those that haven't caught on yet FSM stands for Flying Spaghetti Monster which is a parody religion created to poke fun of (some might even say ridicule) those Kansas School Board members who voted to bring back teaching of intelligent design (ID) in science classes. Note that people who oppose ID teaching do so not simply because it is being taught, but that it is being taught in a science class. Teaching something with no scientific basis - ID is a matter of faith - has no place in science classes. Granted evolutionary theory has its detractors, but basically its the only scientific theory out there.

Personally I think that evolutionary theory should be taught with a healthy dose of skepticism, with due attention to those parts which are lacking strong scientific evidence. However just like the big bang theory, or grand unified theory and many other theories, just because there are some grey areas doesn't mean it should be replaced entirely with a theory that has no scientific basis. As far as I can see teaching ID as the mainstream explanation for our existence, the fossil record that we have etc. etc. is something that should be relegated entirely to the theology or philosophy departments.

Also note that evolutionary theory does not deny the possibility of the existence of God, or any other "intelligent designer" of the universe. It merely states that the designer, if there was one, was not responsible for the evolution of life on earth beyond the setting of basic laws of physics.

I did find it amusing that Flying Spaghetti Monsterism was featured in a recent New York Times Article that has been widely syndicated. FSMism has even already picked up its own parody religion called SPAM which came out of the Yoism group I have previously blogged about. With all this media attention to FSM I'm surprised it didn't feature in the recent Newsweek article on spirituality in America. Too bad, it might have helped us understand just what the one third of Americans who consider themselves not religious do believe.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Michael Levy - a spokesman for our times

Well after days of simply appalling behavior in New Orleans finally the cavalry arrives in force. What do we hear from "the strikezone" (as the media has dubbed it):

"Hell no, I'm not glad to see them. They should have been here days ago. I ain't glad to see 'em. I'll be glad when 100 buses show up," said 46-year-old Michael Levy, whose words were echoed by those around him yelling, "Hell, yeah! Hell yeah!"

"We've been sleeping on the ... ground like rats," Levy said. "I say burn this whole f**king city down."

Yeah, way to go Michael, what and wonderful positive attitude you have, all ready to start afresh. But that's hardly the spirit of the blitz is it? However, if you really want to burn the whole place down lets be sure they start by burning your house and car first okay?

Personally I think it'll be interesting to see what happens, could New Orleans eventually wither and become a ghost town? Or will some miracle of revitalization take effect and usher in a new age of prospertity? I expect a lot will have to do with how those levees are reinforced. Without extreme improvements I expect people will be very reticent to rebuild there, insurance rates will go through the roof, property values will plummet and tourists and business people will just not want to go anywhere near the place during hurricane season. Instead of burning the place down, maybe they should just declare it a wetlands and move inland...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Guardian on Katrina: the smoking gun

I've been getting rather tired of reading the same old Reuters story over and over with a few sentences changed here and there every time they change the title. So I went over to what the Guardian was saying in the UK and found a rather scathing commentary that's basically the smoking gun for Katrina. Here are the highlights:

In 2001, when George Bush became president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a report stating that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely potential disasters - after a terrorist attack on New York City
In 1990, a federal task force began restoring lost wetlands around New Orleans. Every two miles of wetland between the Crescent City and the Gulf reduces a surge by half a foot. Bush promised a "no net loss" wetland policy, which had been launched by his father's administration and bolstered by President Clinton. But he reversed the approach in 2003, unleashing the developers. The army corps of engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency announced they could no longer protect wetlands unless they were somehow related to interstate commerce. In response to this potential crisis, four leading environmental groups conducted a study that concluded in 2004 that without wetlands protection New Orleans could be devastated by an ordinary - much less a category four or five - hurricane. "There's no way to describe how mindless a policy that is when it comes to wetlands protection," said one of the report's authors. The chairman of the White House's council on environmental quality dismissed the study as "highly questionable", and boasted: "Everybody loves what we're doing."
On the day the levee burst in New Orleans, Bush delivered a speech comparing the Iraq war to the second world war and himself to Franklin D Roosevelt: "And he knew that the best way to bring peace and stability to the region was by bringing freedom to Japan." Bush had boarded his very own Streetcar Named Desire.

Spirituality in America - Take 2

Agent J is prone to emit a wail of dismay when yet another copy of Newsweek arrives with some religious theme on its cover. This week the headline story was "Spirituality in America". I have to confess I didn't bother reading it - I usually don't read Newsweek anyway, but actually I'm usually more likely to read it when its about religion. However later in the week I heard someone mention that the Newsweek story tells how diverse and very non-Christian the beliefs of America are, at least compared to what you might think they are. So I rescued the issue from the trash and gave it a butchers (look) last night.

It turns out the article is basically an interpretation by Jerry Adler, of statistics from a survey carried out by Newsweek and Beliefnet. A key point this article is trying to make is that religion is booming in the United States. Early on it points out that in 1966 Time Magazine famously published an issue with the cover asking "Is God Dead?". At that time apparently people felt that science had just about cleaned up and answered all those difficult "Why" and "How" and "What" questions that were usually left to religion. In the Newsweek article's conclusion it says:

"So, a generation after the question was posed, we can certainly answer that God seems very much alive in the hearts of those who seek him. We have come a long way, it would appear, from that dark year".

However reading what Newsweek says in between the start and end I don't see any evidence at all that "we have come a long way", quite to the contrary it seems to indicate a burgeoning dissatisfaction with mainstream religion, a youth that is increasingly atheist, and strong support for the idea that America just isn't as religious as its always purported to be.

Until recently the only statistic I heard or knew was that 85% of Americans believe in God. I've no idea where that statistic came from other than from the mouth of George Bush. Newsweek's statistic puts it 79% (their margin of error here is +-4%) - this is the figure they put in a big font so it grabs you. So only 1 in 5 don't believe in God you say. But then you see that they derived the figure to include those people who say that they are spiritual but not religious. If you exclude the 15% of only spiritual people you get their figure for people who are only religious but not spiritual, that figure is 64% which means fully one third of the American people do not consider themselves religious, only "spiritual" or atheist/agnostic. I'll call that one third number the "non-religious" Americans.

Now it so happens I know a good number of people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious - some of them definitely never go to a church, and some of them even call themselves atheists or agnostics. In fact to me "I'm an atheist but consider myself spiritual" seems a perfectly reasonable thing to say especially when you look at the definition of spiritual. Of the five definitions only two mention anything to do with God or religion, the others are all about the nature of the spirit, soul, or supernatural. These are things that interest even me, a staunch atheist (more accurately my position is that of a strict agnostic).

Unfortunately the statistics cited by Newsweek don't study at all what those people who are spiritual believe. From the answer to the question "What is your current religion?" it appears that only 13% said "Other non-Christian", atheist/agnostic/no religion or did not indicate their religion. Since they also said that 12% of all people are "Not spiritual/not religious or don't know" it would seem that a good number of people who are spiritual are identifying with a major religion but not calling themselves religious. Might it be that those people are just thinking "well I have Christian values" so I'm a Christian, or I was raised by a Jewish family so I'm Jewish even though they later identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious" ???

Also it turns out that fully one third of people surveyed think there is no heaven or hell which seems to further confirm the number of non-religious Americans. Their survey also finds that 45% of Americans say they attend worship services weekly, which they mention is virtually identical to the 44% figure Time cited in 1966. That strikes me as a pretty weak case for saying "we've come a long way from that dark year" in their conclusion. But they also say that 45% is probably wishful thinking and when you study actual church attendance figures you get a figure more like 20%. This ties in later data they give that puts shows that 55% of Americans belong to a house of worship (see below). In general religious people I know don't just pop into a church every week, if they worship regularly they find and join a specific one. Even then they probably don't go every week so I too find the 20% weekly attendance figure much more believable.

In a break down of religion by race they supply figures based on the groups don't know/refused, religious, somewhat religious, somewhat secular, and secular. What is interesting is that no racial group has more than 50% claiming to be religious, in fact in the majority "White" group only 37% of people did so. Based on the 2000 Census proportions of the various racial groups I calculated from Newsweek's figures that only 38% of the total adult population identifies themselves as religious. So fully 62% of Americans are in the class "somewhat religious", "somewhat secular", "secular" or a don't know/refused. Wow.

Again there is corroboration for this based on their chart of "What Americans call themselves and how they worship". It turns out that 19% of the estimated 29.5 million people practicing "no religion" belong to a house of worship (huh?), 49% of 7.7 million people practicing a non-Christian religion belong to one, and 63% of the 159 million people practicing Christian religions do. That adds up to about 200 million adults, of which only 55% belong to a house of worship - which is about one in two - exactly what I'd expect from people identifying themselves as religious vs. somewhat religious or something else. If you don't belong to any church you're probably not worshiping regularly, not in contact with people of your faith regularly and probably just doing your own sweet thing with your religion vs. following any particular heard mentality of religion. In fact I would guess such people are most likely to feel disenfranchised with mainstream religion, and are least likely to want to be identified with it or represented by it - hence the only "somewhat religious" answer.

Anyway I find what the Newsweek article tells us to be very interesting. To recap: one in three Americans identify themselves as not religious but spiritual or not religious at all, but fully 62% of Americans, the majority, identify themselves as only "somewhat religious" or even less religious than "somewhat".

These conclusions seem completely and alarmingly in contradiction to the usual inference that almost all Americans are strongly religious based on the commonly quoted "85% of Americans believe in God" figure. In a nation that is painted to be very religious, and is increasingly being ruled by leaders with a religious agenda, and by religious interpretations of its constitution and laws, just remind yourself that fully one in three Americans are don't consider themselves religious at all, and a clear majority of Americans identify themselves as being less than completely religious.

Finally, if you want a true view of where religion in America is going check Newsweek's statistics for the 18-39 age group vs the 40-59 age group. 9% of the former identified themselves as atheists, vs only 5% of the later (and 3% of 60+ Americans). And while 36% of the 40-59 group say they are evangelicals, only 28% of younger people do so. So across the demographic groups we see the trend that since 1966 (39 years ago) atheists have almost doubled their numbers while the percentage of evangelicals has declined by over 20%.

So to conclude, while there may be lies, damn lies and statistics the real problem is who is interpreting them and what you want your readers to believe. Isn't that just exactly the problem with religion throughout the ages - its always the interpretation that is the problem, and so often, the devil is to be found there, lurking in the details :-) So how about this, why don't you go look at the figures and draw your own conlcusions.

God to Bush: read the papers!

I couldn't believe my ears this morning when I heard a comment from Bush about Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing mayhem - "I don't believe anyone thought the levees would be breached", he said. Er, hello Mr President, were you just not keeping up with current events before the hurricane struck? I think that the risk of levees being breached was the one thing almost everyone heard about before Katrina struck. Except of course those who famously and by self confession pay little or no attention to the news. In fact here it is in black and white (and red for the benefit of Mr Bush), in a report from the National Weather Service a day before the hurricane struck:


One of the most telling video clips from New Orleans I've seen since Monday was a woman being dropped off at the Superdome after being rescued. The reporter asked her how she felt after being rescued and she said, "I just feel so dumb!". The surprised reporter retorted, as if puzzled, "Dumb? Why is that?", to which she replied, "Because I stayed at home when we were told to leave and I put my and my kids lives at risk and almost died". I think this whole episode highlights the generational kind of memory society has. No one seemed to remember how bad the last major hurricane in New Orleans was, if they were alive then at all. They've survived a few lesser ones, so they just assume with all our technology and such they can safely ignore warnings and stay at home, and when it sucks as badly as predicted, well someone will be right around to rescue them right? All I can say is just thank goodness it wasn't actually a category 5 storm when it hit land.

And I'm pleased to see that while some people are raising the "global warming" card (and still others are raising the "fist of God" card) as the reason for Katrina, some are focusing on the failure of systems to protect the city which full well knew this event could happen any day. Alternet's story Why the Levee Broke" cites:

The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.

Hardly surprisingly the Democrats and opponents of the "war on terror" will find this an excellent opportunity to point out that Homeland Security begins, well, at home. If you have over extended yourself to the point where you can't even fund basic protections of your people at home from known, predictable threats what hope do you have of protecting them from intangible unpredictable threats? Events like Katrina highlight in sharp relief a core role of government - spend money on systems to protect the people that no corporation would spend money on because there's no profit to be made on prevention (on the contrary, disasters are usually accounted for as positive economic events), and maintain law and order at all times.

In this case I think the government should have provided free evacuation of everyone since economic reasons were frequently cited as reason not to leave. Furthermore because of what happened afterwards the evacuation should have been mandatory - by force if necessary. The government should have fully funded projects to protect the city which you can bet your life will suddenly find full funding afterwards. And after the event it should have immediately provided a rapid and massive response to ensure that law and order is maintained. What a shock it is, that just like in Iraq, after a major catastrophe (in their case invasion) suddenly the general populace is going crazy in the streets, looting everything that isn't tied down, and the government is dumb struck taking days to react and realize its all going out of control fast.

Lest you think I'm being somewhat cold hearted about this event, well I guess that I confess I am. To me it seems that to a great extent the loss of life, and perhaps even of property could have been a significantly less. Furthermore there are times when people are just, as the woman so eloquently put it "so dumb". At those times it is really unfortunate that people then have to put their lives at risk to rescue their dumb and stubborn asses when they suddenly no longer want to live with the consequences of saying "I'll die before I leave my property for a little old storm!". One can only hope they will learn from the mistake and never make it again. And if not? To those I say, "Fist of God? Pah! 'Tis the Fist of Darwin! Back to the oceans with you unbelievers!"*

* Yes that was intentionally inflamatory