Thursday, December 30, 2010

End Times... Wanna Bet?

Forget about 2012 and the Mayan calendar.  The good folks at Family Radio Inc. have carefully studied the bible and announced that Jesus will return on May 21, 2011 heralding the end of the world on October 21st, 2011.

They aren't being shy about their prediction either.  They've begun putting up billboards announcing the good news and thoughtfully published a website that details the prediction.  It even has a handy count-down timer in the upper right corner.

This is just one of a nearly countless number of religious predictions about the end of the world that have been made over the years.  This one, like the rest of them, will turn out to be bunk.  But I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak.  Are you?

If you really believe that Jesus is returning on May 21st of 2011 and that the end of the world will come on October 21st of 2011 as detailed by the Christians of the We Can Know group I will pay you $100 on April 1st of 2011 on the condition that on October 22nd of 2011 you have to pay me $2,000.

I am an atheist.  I reject the holy spirit, in that I don't believe in such a thing.  I cannot be saved or raptured.  Barring a perfectly natural accident of some kind between now and then, I will still be here on this Earth on October 22nd of 2011.  I also expect to have just as much use for money on that day as any other.  Since you think that you'll be taken to Heaven on May 21st and that the world we be destroyed on October 21st, you have nothing to lose by agreeing to pay me $2,000 the day after the world is supposed to be destroyed.

If any Christians are actually willing to take me up on this offer, we'll hammer out some legal details and draw up a binding contract.  Such a contract might include the use of an escrow account or have provisions to prevent you from liquidating your assets before the May 21st Rapture Day or the October 21st End of the World Day, so banish the idea of trying to cheat me.  I will pay you, but you must agree to pay me in the spirit of our agreement.  

I'm not made of money, so I'm only willing to make this deal with a total of five believers.  Why only five?  Because in my experience people who are religious enough to believe that their god is going to destroy the world soon are not trustworthy and I'm unwilling to risk more than $500.  Why only demand $2,000 from believers and not everything they own?  Because I expect they will have to live in this world on the 22nd just as I will and I'm not trying to ruin lives.

[Edit #1.  I've changed the dates to more accurately reflect the predictions made by the We Can Know people.  May 21st is the predicted Rapture Day, but the predicted end of the world isn't until October 21st.]

[Edit #2.  Well April 1st came and went. No one contacted me to accept my wager or even inquire about it. In a way I am relieved, because I actually would have felt badly to take the money of people so delusional.]

Monday, December 13, 2010

21st Century Sit-Ins

I guess there is no point in trying hard to avoid writing on the topic of WikiLeaks and its associated controversies.  I can't seem to stop myself from composing things on the subject, so I might as well publish my thoughts here.

WikiLeaks has not broken the law. Just as the New York Times did not break the law when it published the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Journalists can publish secrets if they get them and that is protected under the Constitution.

MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal all stopped processing donations to WikiLeaks. Given that WikiLeaks had not been found guilty of breaking the law, there was no legal self-protection to cite as a reason for refusing to process donations to WikiLeaks.

So why discriminate against WikiLeaks or people who want to donate to WikiLeaks? Maybe those companies were motivated by moral or ethical reasons. Well if that's the case I can't help but wonder what the standards are since MasterCard and Visa process payments to all sorts of organizations that most people would find morally repugnant, like white supremacists.

So in what way can people make their anger at these companies known? Protest. Which is what happened, a massive and organized protest in the form of a 21st century sit-in. Not unlike the protests at Woolworth's during the civil rights battles of the 60s, the virtual counter space would be taken up, preventing regular business. 

Does that make Anonymous right? Does that mean that anytime a few people get upset with some company that they ought to DDoS attack that company's presence on the Internet?  No and no.  But it is worth noting that this sort of thing on this kind of scale doesn't happen very often and in this case it is all over.  The protesters made their point and faded away into the anonymity of the Internet.

Anonymous, Ion Cannons, and Hacktivism

This has been an interesting and enlightening week. With just vocabulary alone, I've learned a few things. Hacktivism? LOIC? DDoS? Personally I feel like I've been scrambling to get a handle on the background information so that I could make some sense of the news about Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and the internet protests of the past week. This post is about some of the things I've learned and some of the sources I've used to learn them.


I've heard of them before and long had the impression that Anonymous was a merry mob of pranksters, largely motivated by their own amusement and not ethical concerns. Which is usually true, but the controversy around WikiLeaks stirred up that particular hornet's nest as few other things ever had. Why? It seems to me that Anonymous is a little bit like the Internet's anti-censorship immune system.


We know what activism is. If we watch a news documentary about the 60s, we get to see the cliches of activism in countless news clips. Hacktivism is a later generation's version of activism, the 21st Century version, I suppose. Instead of staging a sit-in to effectively shut down a business that is doing something ethically wrong, hacktivists stage their protests on the Internet. Using tools like the LOIC, these modern protesters attempt to prevent any customers from getting through the virtual door into an Internet store. And that is what Anonymous did to MasterCard, Visa, and PayPal as a result of those companies preventing donations to WikiLeaks,0,6077681.story

Low Orbit Ion Cannon.

LOIC is the program used by hacktivists to work in concert to stage their sit-in like protest. What it does is flood a target computer with data and requests for data. If enough activists are involved this can effectively cut off a target computer from being able to communicate with anyone else. This is called a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS. But it soon became known that LOIC was leaking information about those who used it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Screw You, Amazon

I was ready to put the whole WikiLeaks controversy behind me on this blog.  Two back to back posts on essentially the same subject struck me as a bit excessive.  Even though other WikiLeaks news items cropped up, my responses were pretty well encapsulated in what I had already written here.  To keep at it would be to belabor my points, right?  Probably, but something has happened that I cannot let slide.

Not long after WikiLeaks and its affiliated newspapers began releasing the cable documents, it came under massive Internet attack and political pressure designed to shut down its website. In an effort to stay online and a step ahead of its enemies, WikiLeaks changed hosting services several times.  One of the hosting services that WikiLeaks moved to was Amazon.Com.  Almost a week ago, Amazon.Com dumped WikiLeaks off of it servers amid the rising storm of controversy and heavy handed government pressure being brought to bear on any companies associated with WikiLeaks.

Amazon claimed that WikiLeaks had violated the terms of service by publishing documents it did not author and did not own.  Amazon claimed this had nothing to do with pressure from the US State Department or Senator Joe Lieberman, both of which have been threatening anyone with ties to WikiLeaks to sever the relationship or else.  Senator Lieberman has been leading what can only be characterized as censorship campaign.

Into this whole mess has now come a piece of hypocrisy so ridiculous I would be laughing about it if I wasn't so incensed.  Amazon.UK is selling a Kindle version of some of the WikiLeaks cables that have been released.  That's right, the company that refused to host WikiLeaks on it servers is more than happy to make money off selling the materials they would have been hosting.  Behold a screen capture I took this morning:   [see edit below]

OK.  To be fair, it was Amazon.Com that dumped WikiLeaks off its servers and Amazon.UK that is selling the WikiLeaks cables.  They are technically different companies, but they are linked together with marching orders coming from California often enough to blur the lines between them except in the most pedantic of legal ways.  That little disclaimer out of the way...

Screw you, Amazon, you hypocritical bastards.

[edit -- Apparently either Amazon.UK or the merchant has altered the text for this product.  If you can get through the heavy Internet traffic to the product page, it now says that this book does not contain the actual cables, only commentary on them.  I figured this would get changed or disappear which is why I took a screen capture of it, in which we can clearly see it claimed that the cables are in this e-book.  It is hard to erase your mistakes from the Internet.]

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thank you, Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, a man I have enormous respect for, is battling cancer. Before I missed a chance to do so, I wanted to write a letter to him and express my thanks to him for his impressive career.

Mr. Hitchens

I wanted to take a few minutes to thank you for the intelligence and passion you have expressed in your career. Your seemingly easy, characteristic wit is enviable to say the least. Though I look down on the notion of hero worship, I cannot deny that you are an inspiration to many who value free and rational thought, myself included.

The world is a richer and more interesting place for your influence. At the risk of being overly dramatic, my own mind is a richer and more interesting place from your influence as well. A condition for which I have no words adequate to express my gratitude.

In leu of eloquence, please accept my genuine though simple thanks.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Cost of Being Kept in the Dark

WikiLeaks is revealing more than just bitchy diplomats and uncomfortable negotiations. There is also information about the how our government is treating innocent people who have been kidnapped and tortured in the war on terror. Egregious wrongs have been brought to light providing evidence supporting the claims of victims.

Making civilians disappear with dubious legal rationale is not the kind of behavior I expect out of my government, regardless of where in the world this is happening. You know what we call other groups who do that sort of thing to our private citizens? Terrorists. That kind of action is not morally defensible and if this must be the cost of doing business, then perhaps we ought to get into a different line of work.

Even if we still occupy a position on the moral scale somewhere north of Al-Qaeda, that is not good enough and sets the bar way too low. I don't expect perfection either, but when mistakes are made they must be admitted to and a heartfelt apology must be made. Then there must be accountability and investigations into the procedures and policies that got us into the mess. This is how we ought to preserve our high ideals and to do so it is essential that we citizens be informed, by the press if our government won't do it voluntarily.

Yet we have not been kept informed. The traditional press in America has been too obedient to the government, happily feeding on whatever Washington tells them so they can regurgitate it up for us. Reporters are supposed to investigate, stick their noses into what the government is up to, discover things, find whistle blowers, and then tell us so that we can make informed decisions hopefully producing an ethical government we can be proud to have represent us. The press is our advocate and the natural adversary of a government keeping secrets from its citizens or rather it ought to be.

Instead we have WikiLeaks and its editor, Julian Assange. A man who might very well be an asshole. I don't care about that beyond basic curiosity. The value of WikiLeaks is not in the character of its founder. It is in the information leaked. It is in the destruction of delusions upheld through secrets kept from us. It is in the uncomfortable truths revealed that should outrage us and foster change in how we want our government to conduct itself.

I am no friend of Islam, radical Islam, or Al-Qaeda. I do believe that Islamic terrorism should be opposed. I've no desire to help them in their war on Western civilization. But I care deeply about how we go about opposing the terrorists. The ends do not justify the means, especially if we trample our own freedoms and the freedoms of other innocents in our quest to protect our... freedoms.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


It looks like those folks at WikiLeaks are at it again, uploading government files onto the internet for all to see. Once again there is a great uproar of heavy rhetoric from public figures and the public alike. What is different this time is that the documents are embarrassing to many nations, not just the US, and the outcry over their exposure has been even more bloodthirsty.

Pubic figures have been calling for the WikiLeaks editor, Julian Assange, to be brought up on treason charges, never mind that he isn't a US citizen. Others are advocating just killing Assange outright, notably Sarah Palin and some conservative writers like John Hawkins. Even the American press is making a bigger deal out of the fact that the leak happened than they are about what the leak contained.

I really think this outrage is misguided at best and more likely dangerous. America, you have your priorities screwed up. Whistle blowers whose consciences drive them to reveal secrets to us through the press can often be the only means we have find out what is going on in companies and our government. This has historically been seen as so valuable to the public interest that we have laws in place to protect sources and the press. WikiLeaks is undertaking the role of the press and being shamelessly lambasted by the traditional press for it.

Yes, a government has a need for secrets, but in order for a democracy to function properly its citizens need to know what their government is doing in their name. When a government employee is so bothered by what is going on that he/she feels compelled to leak the truth to the rest of us, thinking we'd be just as disturbed, then it is worth looking into the information leaked. There is a very real chance that the leak is the only way we'd ever find out about these things. If the information is as upsetting to us as it was to the whistle blower, then it is worth considering if our government is deserving of our trust.

No, I don't need to know everything that my government does. I don't even think I ought to know some things, because secrets can indeed save lives. But when leaks happen, we tend to find out that our government wasn't just keeping secrets from our enemies, but they were keeping secrets from us explicitly. Someone, most likely some group of people, in our government decided that if we knew the truth, we would be outraged and angry with their behavior, so they kept it a secret. It is in knowing those kinds of things that we have any hope at all of being able to have a ethical government by electing sound leadership to oversee what is done in our names.

When people call for the death of the WikiLeaks founder, what they are signaling is that they don't want to know what their government does. They don't want anyone else to know either. That we ought to be content in our ignorance and that the unquestioned authority of that government will be enforced with murder if necessary. To them I say, I am not a subject of my nation. I am a citizen and together with my fellow citizens we are the authority to be informed, obeyed, and respected.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Welcome back to the Bronze Age

In a time when information is more readily available to more people than ever before, we might expect to be better informed and perhaps even smarter these days. The modern age is not having those hoped for effects. Instead the internet and news outlets are the mediums of choice for consuming super-sized helpings of misinformation, superstition, and spectacularly poor thinking for unimaginable numbers of eagerly credulous minds. Instead of experiencing the dawn of a golden age of widely disseminated facts, reason, and thoughtfulness, we are instead obstinately clinging to Bronze Age conflation of the factual and the fanciful.

What characterized the ancient Bronze Age in terms of information was that very little of it was vetted through any kind of fact checking or critical analysis. Instead truthfulness was decided based on local popularity which was in turn based on local superstition coupled to a profoundly bad understanding of the world. A charismatic storyteller could create new truth out of thin air. The strength of his conviction was the first and often only test of truthfulness, especially if the story was endorsed by whatever authority held grip over that society. Without widely practiced critical thinking, the Bronze Age can rightly be thought of as an age of credulity.

Though the average citizen of an industrialized society today has much more knowledge about the world than our ancient ancestors, this is mostly just an absorption of facts, believed but not understood. Choosing what to believe is still primarily subject to in-group popularity and source authority instead of individual analysis and understanding. For all of our technological achievement, we remain a collection of societies that is built upon bronze age foundations, in which all too few value or apply critical thinking to the “facts” they encounter.

Here are just a few examples of currently circulating beliefs, unsupported by the balance of the evidence yet persistent and often growing in popularity. Our President is a foreign born Muslim. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were actually a US government run conspiracy. There was a missile fired over southern California, probably by a hostile nation. The moon landings were faked on a soundstage somewhere. Vaccines cause autism, are a plot by the government to poison us, or are corporate profit mongering based on engineered diseases. A few thousand years ago people rode on the backs of domesticated dinosaurs. Galileo was wrong because the Earth is flat and at the center of the solar system. Modern climate science is a conspiracy to force a hoax on the world.

Ideas like those flourish not because people are stupid. Very often it takes some spectacularly creative mental gymnastics to justify those beliefs. These ideas take root because our societies not only undervalue critical thinking, we all too often scorn it as being rude, disloyal, or a dangerous threat to cherished faith. Compounding the problem is that we have turned our technological tools of mass communication into instruments of belief proclamation that do not empower people to think so much as reward them with expected bias confirmation. So, like our Bronze Age ancestors we continue to judge our beliefs based on misinformation, superstition, and spectacularly poor thinking. We just have more voices in the cacophony.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Great Signs from the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear

This last one is my personal favorite:

I grabbed most of these pictures from an article on the Huffington Post website and a few from the LA Times website.

Blaming Atheism

History has recorded some truly terrible events.  Perhaps the worst of them are the mass murders orchestrated under the regimes of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler.  Which has resulted in a oft cited proclamation that atheists have more blood on their hands than all other religions combined.  

To begin with, atheism is not a religion. It is the absence of a specific belief, the belief in the existence of a God or gods. That's it. That's all it means. In order to build a philosophy or worldview from that point one needs to add something. Humanism, naturalism, or perhaps one of the classic philosophies like Stoicism would be necessary to then provide some kind of guidance/framework for behavior. Which are themselves not religions either, though they do act as substitutes to some aspects of religion in ways that atheism alone simply cannot.

Stalinist and Maoist communism became such a substitute philosophy, imposed from the top down upon the Soviet and Chinese peoples. That the architects of those atrocities happened to be atheists is not actually relevant, because it cannot be shown that it was their atheism that motivated them to commit mass murder.  Saying that the great purges of the 20th century communists were caused by the atheism of Stalin or Mao is no better supported than saying they did so because of their shared hair color. Stalin and Mao both had dark hair (before age caused greying and/or balding), so are we then free to conclude that it was their hair color that inspired their purges? No, not without evidence to support such a statement.

Instead their purges were conducted under a known set of justifications and paranoias that revolved around the individual mental unhealth of those men and their Soviet/Maoist philosophies. These were deeply irrational men who employed/empowered psychopaths against their own people to horrific effect. It ought to serve as a warning to us all that irrational beliefs and people are profoundly dangerous.

Moreover it can be shown that the presence of religious beliefs does not prevent similar inhumanity.  One need look no further than Hitler and Nazi Germany.  Adolph Hitler was a Roman Catholic.  He was not an atheist and enacted policies that persecuted atheists.  The overwhelming majority of the Nazi Party officials that carried out the Holocaust were Lutheran or Roman Catholic.  Not only did their Christianity not prevent them from committing genocide, it served as a twisted justification for doing so.  No, Nazi atrocities cannot be blamed on atheism either.

"I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so"
-Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941

In the Spring of 1933, Hitler outlawed atheist and freethinking groups in Germany.
BERLIN, May 13. - In Freethinkers Hall, which before the Nazi resurgence was the national headquarters of the German Freethinkers League, the Berlin Protestant church authorities have opened a bureau for advice to the public in church matters. Its chief object is to win back former churchgoers and assist those who have not previously belonged to any religious congregation in obtaining church membership.
   The German Freethinkers League, which was swept away by the national revolution, was the largest of such organizations in Germany. It had about 500,000 members ..."
-New York Times, May 14, 1933

"The greatness of every mighty organization embodying an idea in this world lies in the religious fanaticism and intolerance with which, fanatically convinced of its own right, it intolerantly imposes its will against all others."
-Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf" Vol. 1 Chapter 12

"The National Government will regard it as its first and foremost duty to revive in the nation the spirit of unity and cooperation. It will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built. It regards Christianity as the foundation of our national morality, and the family as the basis of national life...."
-Adolf Hitler, Berlin, February 1, 1933

"In the ranks of the movement, the most devout Protestant could sit beside the most devout Catholic, without coming into the slightest conflict with his religious convictions. The mighty common struggle which both carried on against the destroyer of Aryan humanity had, on the contrary, taught them mutually to respect and esteem one another."
-Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf" Vol. 2 Chapter 10

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Value of Animal Life

Do you consider the value of a human life to be greater than the value of an animal life?  I was in an online  conversation about this topic not long ago in which the relative values of various kinds of  life were debated.  Though I argued that my personal ethics placed the value of human life way above that of animals, that did not mean that I thought we ought to mistreat animals or that sadistic cruelty ought to be tolerated in our societies. 

I personally feel a responsibility for the animals under our care, to provide for them a life that recognizes suffering and seeks to limit it. Likewise with wild animals, I think we should take steps to prevent human caused extinction. But that does not mean that I would place a greater or even equal value on an animal's life as compared to a human's under normal circumstances.

In a general sense, the value of an animal's life, its right to life, is a human concept not one derived from Nature. What right to life has the zebra being eaten alive by a clan of hyenas? None. Nature is harsh, cruel, and unfeeling, if you must personify it. Concepts of rights come from us, from our desire to be humane, which I applaud. But those human origins of the right to humane treatment represent values that flow one way, from us to them. We have no right to expect similarly compassionate treatment from the rest of the living creatures on Earth.

That we consider such things and make our moral choices based on such things makes us the responsible party. I think it makes us obligated to some extent. But that general obligation in no way implies a moral equivalency to humanity between the value of a human life versus an animal life. Nor should it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf

Iman Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man who is trying to get the so called Ground Zero Mosque built, was just on 60 Minutes and had some interesting things to say.

When asked why he is working to build this community center:

"Because we wanted to prevent another 9/11. We wanted to -- we wanted a platform that would enable us to speak, to strengthen the voice of the moderates."

When asked why build the community center at the proposed location and not somewhere else:

"If another 9/11 happens again, I want to be the first to die. Muslims want to stand right there to say that we are here. It's my duty as an American Muslim to stand between you, the American non-Muslim, and the radicals who are trying to attack you."

This doesn't at all sound like a radical Islamist. He sounds like a patriotic American and moderate Muslim. Beyond those two quotes, his background supports the idea that he is working to rob power from the radicals in Islam. It seems to me that we need brave men and women like him to win the contest against the radicals within their faith. Instead of bickering with our fellow Americans over this building, we ought to be encouraging them in their efforts to forge a post Age of Enlightenment version of  Islam.  Or at least not getting in their way.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Air Cannon, Year 2

How did I forget to put this into my blog?

Once again this Summer some friends and I got together to fire our air cannon.  You can see a short video I assembled of last year's mayhem here.  This year, one of our number included a videographer and editor who shot footage and put together the following video.

Our plans for next Summer are to rebuild the cannon with a faster valve to make it more efficient and to set up some high angle shots to simulate meteorite impacts.  There has also been some talk of making sabot encased, fin stabilized, steel rods to... well... shoot at stuff.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Discovery Channel Gunman

Although I consider myself to be a left-leaning moderate, I have been accused by some conservatives of being a leftist loon.  Fair enough with opinions being what they are, but I won't quietly accept a label by the fringe right as being safe to lump in with the fringe left.  Truthfully, I don't really care all that much about ideology and I certainly have no loyalty to one.  I care about evidence based reason and rational discourse.  So when a perspective is blatantly, offensively wrong, it must be spoken out against regardless of the political "side" it came from.

The fringe environmentalist movement is an example of something that I will not associate with and will speak out against.  Why?  In short because their ideology is neither based upon nor acted upon out of respect for rationality.  This sad fact attracts unbalanced people whose behavior is all too often sociopathic.

The Discovery Channel's Washington DC area headquarters were the setting of a hostage situation this week in which a very disturbed man used the threat of violence to change policy at the Discovery Channel and its network.

James J Lee entered the building with a firearm and explosives.  He took three employees hostage and demanded that the network change its programming to better fit his own beliefs. Beliefs that can be summed up as, "Humans are evil.  We must save the planet from ourselves.  I'll use violence as a means to my end."  You can read his list of demands here:  Washington Examiner article.

The man was mentally deranged.  His beliefs were extremist and his behavior was disgusting.  He needed to be in treatment for his unbalanced mind, not formulating or executing an attack on a TV network.

[Picture is from CBS News]

Monday, August 30, 2010

Penn and Teller on Vaccination

Penn and Teller have sounded off on vaccines on their show, Bullshit.  As is typical of that show this clip is rude, direct, and pointed.  It is not safe for work.

It is good to see that there are celebrities out there who do not join in on the anti-vaccination hysteria and even better to see that there are a handful who are actively speaking out against the misinformation surrounding the unsubstantiated dangers of vaccines.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Biased News and Public Discourse

It is tough to get fair or balanced or unbiased news, but I submit to you that those aren't worthwhile goals.

Every media outlet has bias.  This is unavoidable as news organizations are made up of  reporters and editors who have various biases. Moreover we, the information consumer, have our own biases and tend to judge the degree of bias around us through our own standards. In order to appear fair, news organizations attempt to show both sides of every issue so that they can claim to be balanced and therefore unbiased in how they present the news.

This is why extremism seems so prevalent. It isn't necessarily that a greater percentage of people are being pulled to the extremes on issues. It is that the extremists are being given national voices and bestowed some legitimacy by the nightly news. It doesn't matter that these people often have opinions that are demonstrably false or intended to sow misinformation. That they have opinions at all and are willing to talk about them, means that news outlets present those views in the name of fairness and balance.

I contend that in most cases this practice is folly. News should be biased. It should be biased towards facts, evidence, and reason. Very often the counter opinion, if there is one, is so far to the fringes of a political extreme that there is nothing to it but hysteria and hyperbole. Such a view need not be presented in the name of balance and ought to be excluded as irrelevant in reasoned discourse.  Although, I will concede that there are some news stories about matters of opinion in which showing both sides is the story. Like in local news when two sides of a proposed highway expansion are interviewed ahead of a coming referendum.

The drive to be unbiased by creating debate where there isn't any reasonable debate to be had is nurturing insanity in public discourse. When faced with such lunacy, I still contend that the best response to extremists is to respond with rationality, even if I personally fail in that sometimes. Because if we make a habit of responding to what we consider extremism with extreme counter-points then we are no longer discussing anything, we are just yelling at each other.

Monday, August 23, 2010

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Dr. Jim Laidler has a blog post over at Science Based Medicine that gives a summary of actual evidence concerning high fructose corn syrup (HFCS.)

As a corn farmer, I am partially responsible for HFCS since I help grow the corn that makes production of this sweetener so inexpensive and therefore omnipresent.  So I care about the scientific evidence that ought to drive whatever debates revolve around the use of HFCS.  I care because this can effect a use for the product I grow and therefore can potentially effect me financially, but even more because I cringe at the accusation of helping to produce something that is inherently harmful to my nation.

Much of the debate about HFCS has struck me a playing off public fears and providing little more than correlative comparisons between Europe and America, that have never struck me as being compelling arguments.  Dr. Laidler's article takes a different approach, comparing the actual content of various "sugars" including HFCS and its alternatives like cane suger.  The whole article is absolutely worth reading and I recommend you do so.  But I'm going to spoil the ending by quoting from it below:

So, what are the take-home messages from all of this? 
  1. HFCS 42 and HFCS 55 have essentially the same amount of fructose, as a fraction of their total sugar, as honey, sucrose (cane or beet sugar) or maple syrup/sugar (to be agonizingly precise, HFCS has slightly less, and HCFS 55 has slightly more).
  2. HFCS 42 and HFCS 55 have an equal or smaller amount of fructose, as a fraction of their total sugar, as many commonly consumed fruits.
  3. Agave syrup has higher fructose content than any type of HFCS except HFCS 90. 
For people who are worried about their health or their children’s health — and who isn’t, these days — the data suggest that the best choice is to reduce intake of all sweeteners containing fructose. That includes not only the evil HFCS, but also natural cane sugar, molasses (which is just impure cane sugar), brown sugar (ditto) and honey. Even “unsweetened” (no addedsugar) fruit juices need to be considered when limiting your family’s fructose intake. 
Finally, the best nutritional advice is to eat everything in moderation — and that includes sweets. While a diet high in fructose may increase your risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — maybe — a fructose-free diet is not guaranteed to prevent those diseases. Eat a variety of foods, including a small amount of sweets, get enough exercise, watch your (and your children’s) weight and see your doctor for regular health check-ups. 
And stop worrying that HFCS is poisoning you and your children. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Vaccines and the Value of Herd Immunity

Many vaccine preventable diseases are all but unheard of here in America. When was the last time you saw a child with polio? Unless you work in epidemiology or travel overseas a lot, you probably haven't seen a child with polio or any of a number of other vaccine preventable diseases. The reason is that for decades our vaccination rate was 90% or more. Although those diseases did (and do) exist overseas, America had very few outbreaks of those diseases. Our herd immunity was great enough that even most of those who didn't or couldn't get vaccinated were still protected.

The problem is that because people aren't seeing these diseases as any kind of real threat, the perceived danger of not vaccinating is considered negligible. If no one in the community has had measles in recent memory, why bother with the vaccination, is probably a common thought. Add into the equation that the anti-vaccination movement has made very real inroads into public consciousness and we can see why some parents weigh the risks as they perceive them and opt out of vaccines.

If one or two families out of a few million decide not to vaccinate, it is really no big deal. Herd immunity will protect them. But as the percentage of unvaccinated children rises, that herd immunity is threatened. Especially if we realize that the unvaccinated aren't equally distributed throughout the country. They tend to clump together geographically to some extent as some whole communities have dangerously low vaccination rates. These are the places where epidemics can catch hold. And where epidemics probably will run amok before people again see these diseases as real dangers and start taking vaccinations seriously again.

So a few people get sick? Big deal, right? Well, yes, actually. Many vaccines cannot be given to infants or some people with compromised immune systems. So at any one time we cannot have a 100% vaccinated population. Even if their parents will vaccinate them as soon as they can or the adults would get vaccines themselves if they could. All of those babies and adults rely on the herd immunity that the rest of us who get vaccinated provide for them. When our societal vaccination rates drop, we endanger them. And this is a major contributor to what is happening right now in California with the babies dying of whooping cough.

We as a people are far more mobile than at any other time in history. When it comes to disease transmission we really are a hair's breadth from being a truly global community. So the diseases that do run amok in other countries are a real threat right here in our own communities. Because we are probably never more than five degrees of separation from most diseases in the world.

Traveled overseas recently? Been to an airport recently? An international airport? Been on an airplane, or a bus, or a train? Interact recently with someone who has? What about the people they know? Those are all potential vectors of transmission that can bring what we might think of now as exotic diseases home. So it is actually more important than ever to keep our societal vaccination rates up. And disheartening that we aren't.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Video of Phil Plait's TAM 8 Speech

When I got back from TAM 8, I wrote up my impressions of Phil Plait's speech.

 The JREF has put up their video of that speech on their Vimeo site.

Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

I want to encourage you to watch that speech, especially if you couldn't be there in person, and see if your interpretation is at all like mine.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Riding Again

In February I broke my arm.  I fell while roller skating and broke the end of my radius in my elbow.  The bone itself healed quickly, but the soft tissue damage in my elbow reduced my strength, mobility, and dexterity for several months.  As a motorcyclist, this injury was really awful.  It just hasn't been safe or comfortable for me to ride throughout most of this season.

A few days ago, my bike had accumulated fewer than 200 miles this year, way down from a typical year when I'd have ridden at least 5000 miles by now.  Although my arm continued to improve every month, I seem to have reached a point where it wasn't getting much better.  I still can't straighten it all the way.
The trouble has been that even though most of my strength and motor control returned, with my arm stretched out as pictured, it hurts.  It feels like I am already pushing it past the locked position of the joint and into mild hyper extension.  And the riding position on my bike puts my arms almost that straight.  I just don't have much more extension left to use and what there is hurts to use.

So I settled on a solution.  I installed a small part on my motorcycle to raise and move rearward the handlebars.  This makes a small change to how much I have to bend my elbows in ordinary riding, helping me remain more comfortable and giving me some arm extension in reserve.

In this picture they are the grey bit directly above the top triple clamp, right under the bottom bracket for the handlebars.  It isn't a huge change.  Perhaps moving the bars 3/4" closer to my shoulders.  But that is enough to change the bend in my elbows a little bit.  Although I'm still not 100% comfortable, this one little change does prevent my arm from getting really sore in just a few minutes.  I'm probably not up to a cross country trip, but I can ride.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Letter to my Senator

Senator Richard Durbin
309 Hart Senate Bldg.
Washington, DC 20510

Senator Durbin,

I am writing to urge you to oppose our President’s proposed change to the law designed to make it easier to obtain internet usage information without a court order.

As I understand it, these additional powers are intended to be used for counterterrorism and are related to the extraordinary authority given to law enforcement by the Patriot Act.  As with the Patriot Act, this is too great a threat to our civil rights to be reasonable.

I do understand the very real threat that terrorism represents.  I applaud the hard work and dedication of our local and national law enforcement agencies as they strive to protect us and our way of life.  But our way of life also includes protection from unreasonable search and precludes such without a court order.  To circumvent those principles in the name of expediency is to change the very nature of our nation.

I would also like to urge you to support genuine internet neutrality.  Just as I think it is in the best interests of my nation to prevent its government from censoring and monitoring the internet, so to do I think that it is in our best interests to prevent companies from doing the same.

Whether telecommunication companies like it or not, the internet has become the wonderful, unruly, stream-of-consciousness of the world.  Though we may pay them for a doorway into this often obnoxious place, the content is ours and how we use it is not something they should be allowed to manipulate with impunity.

Thank you for your time and consideration of these issues.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Distracted Driving

We are all busy with many things we either want or need to do.  Multitasking has become a way of life for many of us as a way to squeeze 26+ hours worth of activities into a mere 24 hour day.  Not all of our obligations in life are good candidates for multitasking.  Imagine chatting on a cell phone in the midst of a funeral service… nope, not acceptable.  But there are plenty of other opportunities that are both socially acceptable and legal, like driving, right?

The daily commute is a routine that uses up so much time in an activity that many consider to be so mind numbingly boring that it can be a perfect opportunity multitask.  Having some breakfast on the way to work saves real time.  Checking the paper for last night’s sport results can make the drive a lot less monotonous.  Modern smart phones let us check our email, watch a movie, send messages, and of course chat on the phone.  Sometimes the drive is so undemanding that it can be a chance to paint fingernails.

The truth is that all of those activities take attention away from the road, perhaps for only a moment at a time, but that can be enough for something catastrophic to happen.  For example, last year Lora Hunt was driving in a northern suburb of Chicago while painting her fingernails.  She approached an intersection at speed, failing to notice that a motorcyclist, Anita Zaffke, was stopped there.  The resulting accident claimed the life of Anita Zaffke and sparked a debate in Illinois about whether to treat distracted driving as a criminal offense, like driving intoxicated, or continue to issue a ticket and a small fine, even if the result is a death.

The debate is likely to continue, but the legal precedent has been set.  Lora Hunt was found guilty of reckless homicide in May and sentenced to 18 months in the Lake County jail this past week.  Circuit Judge Fred Foreman said before passing sentence, “In our society, distracted driving is becoming an epidemic.  People don't appreciate how dangerous that vehicle is or what they could do to other people.”

If the thought of causing an accident and taking a life isn’t enough for you to stop multitasking while driving, perhaps the idea of a reckless homicide conviction and jail time will be.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The TAM8 Watershed

There were many speeches, presentations, and ideas that covered a diverse range of topics at TAM8.  I would love to be able to recount them all with perfect clarity and understanding in this blog, but I have neither the memory nor the depth of knowledge to do them justice.  The James Randi Educational Foundation says that videos of the speeches will be available soon, so I want to encourage people to watch the videos and perhaps even purchase the DVDs when they are available.

And here is the video of Phil's speech:

There was a theme that developed over the weekend in some of these speeches that I think will be remembered as an overall tone for the conference and perhaps as a watershed moment in the skepticism movement.  Although Carol Tavris and Steve Cuno had similar things to say, I am referring most to Phil Plait’s speech, in which he implored us, all of us, to craft our message with the goal of effectively promoting skepticism, not just expressing ourselves.  It seems that his speech has ended up being informally entitled the “Don’t Be A Dick” speech.

Early in the speech, Phil asked the audience how many of us at one time believed something we now consider silly.  He rattled off some examples of things like horoscopes, flying saucers, etc.  A lot of us raised our hands, which didn’t seem to surprise anyone.  Then Phil asked us how many of us changed our minds about those things because someone insulted us into sharing their view by calling us stupid.  Not very many hands stayed up after that.  Which is the public relations problem we skeptics are having that he highlighted in his speech.

Phil related a story that I thought was particularly poignant.  He was giving a talk at a school somewhere in the South.  Being an astronomer, he talked about the age of the Earth, our solar system, the universe, etc.  A particular teenage student was a young Earth creationist and had prepared some questions for him.  She had clearly gone to websites like Answers in Genesis to research and prepare for this chance to set him right.  *

Her ideas were wrong.  He explained how her questions about the Moon do lead to the conclusions of a young Earth until all the variables are taken into account.  What he didn’t do was berate her, insult her, or mock her beliefs.  He took the time to encourage her to pursue all the information on the topic and how those facts were discovered.  She was clearly a bright kid.  She had the basic tool kit of a good scientist in that she was curious, knew that she needed to research her position, and then did so.  That her sources were poorly informed isn’t her fault and poking fun of her would not have encouraged her to expand her knowledge or critical thinking skills.

It is tempting to loose our patience with irrationality.  Hearing the same tired and long debunked concepts trotted out time and time again is frustrating.  Phil acknowledged that, but stressed that we skeptics would be better served by being diplomats for reason rather than warriors.  Since being aggressive and insulting, however satisfying it might feel, alienates potential future allies by pushing them away from skepticism altogether and into the open arms of familiar irrationality.

If we are to set for ourselves the goal of reaching people and helping reason become valued, then our tactics need to be taken into account.  I think the following analogy demonstrates this TAM theme:  If we want to carve a beautiful sculpture from block of stone, we will be more successful by carefully chipping away at the unwanted stone to reveal the statue within, than to blast the block with a single dramatic explosion.

Skeptics have been debating this for years and honestly there is nothing groundbreaking here.  What makes Phil Plait’s speech important is that it illustrated with eloquence a theme that was expounded upon at TAM8 by other speakers and guests alike, becoming an important talking point there that has already reached far beyond conference itself and perhaps will influence our outreach for years to come.

*  I've made a change in that paragraph.  Originally I had written that the girl in the story was in elementary school.  Phil tweeted me with the correction that she was in high school, so older than I had implied.  That was a memory and comprehension failure on my part.  Sorry folks.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pascal’s Wager

There is an argument used by some theists against atheism that since there is nothing to lose by believing in God and much to lose by not believing, it is better to believe than to disbelieve.  This is called Pascal’s Wager after the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal who formulated that conclusion in some notes that were assembled and published after his death in 1662.

Though as a child that argument frightened me, as it was intended to do, I have come to regard it as little more than a mostly  pointless intellectual exercise at best or a harmful bit of nonsense at worse.  It is a flawed argument that relies on unfounded assumptions that leads irreconcilable conclusions.  In short, it has no practical function and despite being dressed up as logic, it is merely an appeal to fear.

The biggest assumption at work here is that there is a God, but since the Wager it is commonly used as an argument in favor of belief in that God, I’ll just let that one go so that we can proceed to the next assumption, the afterlife.  The big penalty for disbelief is an eternity of suffering in Hell after death and the reward for belief is an afterlife in Heaven.  Actually that is really three unfounded assumptions: that we possess a soul that continues on after our deaths, that there is a Hell with a specific set of entrance prerequisites, and a Heaven with another set.

Given the utter lack of any verifiable evidence for those assumptions we are left to simply accept them on faith.  No, near death experiences are not evidence of a soul, they are evidence of the brain’s effect on the mind.  The only support for those assumptions comes from the theology making the claims and that does not constitute evidence anymore than the argument that says, “My religion is true because my holy book says it is true and my holy book is true because my religion says it is true.”  That kind of circular thinking gets us nowhere.

And since I’ve brushed upon the idea of a true religion let’s address that issue as it pertains to Pascal’s Wager.  If it is a valid application of risk assessment to the matter of choosing to believe in the Christian God, then why doesn’t it apply in the same way to all the other gods that humans have worshiped over the millennia?  Not all of those other gods supposedly provided a reward after death for belief or punished disbelief, but ruling out those who didn’t, one is still left with a substantial list of potentially angry deities to avoid offending with disbelief.  The logic ought to work in otherwise identical applications should it not?

If one takes the Wager to heart, then the only reasonable course of action is to believe in all of those deities.  Which is fraught with impossibilities, not the least of which is compiling the list.  Surely there were deities worshipped by tribes that have long since gone extinct, whose religion we now have no record of or ability to reproduce.  Then there is the problem of deities that demand to be worshipped singly or religions that have beliefs that would be taboos in another.  It is not possible to believe them all nor is it possible to use the logic of the Wager to choose among them.

To me that is where Pascal’s Wager falls on its face, it’s logic leads to untenable conclusions.  So long as there is a reward for belief and a punishment for disbelief, the Wager demands that to be on the safe side we ought to believe.  If I sit here and dream up some vindictive absurdity, you’d better be prepared to believe it, just in case I was divinely inspired.  What manner of scams and injustices could be, I dare say have been, perpetrated upon the gullible when credulity is treated as a virtue?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day

Why draw Mohammed? Because Muslims say I can't. I am not a Muslim and do not need to follow Islamic social taboos. Because murder, intimidation, and threats by Islamists should not influence us to give them what they want. Because free speech is a non-negotiable foundation of Western civilization. Because I'm participating in a day of solidarity for free speech advocates around the world in the face of religious extremism.

One will notice that my depiction of Mohammed is simplistic say the least.  I'm no artist.  It is also by any reasonable standard inoffensive.  There are no embellishments or editorials designed to insult the memory of Mohammed.  There is no need for such, since my intention is not to actually insult anyone.  Really.  I'm not being sardonic.  This is an exercise, a demonstration, of free speech.  A simple stick figure gets the point across without any need to go further with the drawing.  To make the picture pornographic or something would be going far beyond the stated purpose and needlessly offend people.

Just because I have the legal right to do something doesn't mean I ought to do it.  I agree with that in most instances.  However, Muslims have killed people over drawings of Mohammed.  Newspapers have refused to show readers the pictures that cause violent riots, even as the riot is reported, for fear of Muslims.  Television networks refuse to air comedy programs, or dramatically censor them, for fear of Muslim reactions.  Artists are issued death threats, even the organizers of this event have been threatened by Muslims on Facebook.  All of this is wrong.  My participation in Everybody Draw Mohammed Day is to assert with my single voice, joined in chorus with thousands of others, that free speech belongs to us all and it will not be muted.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Teacher

My Mother used to be a teacher.  When she graduated from college she taught elementary school for years.  She gave up that career when I came along so she could be a full-time mom for me and later for my sister.  But that by no means ended her role as an educator.

After my sister and I had been in school for while, Mom embarked on another career, founding a crafts and arts business.  It was successful and it wasn’t long before she was teaching employees how to paint, construct, and sew her various items so that she could concentrate on selling.  I mean to use employees in the loosest meaning possible, as these women were friends and neighbors who worked from home.  The business model was as much an excuse to socialize as to make money and I think it is fair to say they all had fun.  In particular, Mom enjoyed going to the craft shows to sell.  Her skill at doing so bordered on being a calling.  This also became a great excuse to travel around the country going to craft shows as far away as Arizona or New York.

As the years marched by, the hectic pace and long hours of craft shows got to be more difficult.  There also started to be some shifts in Mom’s personality as she developed a growing concern with her health.  We all change as we get older and with so many of her friends undergoing various treatments we didn’t think it too unusual for Mom to worry a little about her own health.

That worry slowly turned into a growing obsession.  Soon she was seeing doctors of one specialty or another nearly every week and amassing a collection of medical books of her own.  These things so concerned her that it was nearly all she would talk about with us.  I suppose in a way she was trying to teach us what she considered to be valuable information that would save our lives.  Creeping in around the edges was a worsening memory loss.  Dad would tell stories of how Mom would forget the names of people she had known her whole life.  This didn’t happen often at first, but it did contribute to a sense of unease in our family.

Mom too knew there was something wrong.  She worked hard to mask her problems and exercise her memory.  She had read somewhere that playing checkers is good for the brain.  So playing checkers with Dad became a daily ritual.  Actually the word ritual can be applied to a lot of the things she did.  She had very specific ways of getting through daily life such as: alarm clocks that were scattered around the house and her car to remind her to take medications at very specific times or to remember to eat; or tables that would be set for events, weeks in advance to be a daily reminder to prepare for that upcoming meal.

Her methods of coping with her memory loss were clever and effective.  Looking back on it now, I am so proud of her.

Eventually though these changes she underwent came to crisis moment.  This past March she ran a red light and was pulled over.  This event wasn’t part of her plan and she was unable to adapt to it appropriately.  The officer knew there was something wrong and called for an ambulance and backup.  She was uncooperative to say the least and the police called me to try to help calm her.  So I went to the scene and tried to reassure her while she was in the ambulance before they took her to the emergency room to be certain she wasn’t having a stroke.

Those hours in the ER will haunt me.  The stresses of that day’s events were too much for her to continue to maintain her masks and her self control eroded away in fits.  No words from her family or doctors could reach any part of her mind that could be reasoned with.  She had to be restrained for everyone’s protection and sedated before they could diagnose her altered state.  Mom was just not herself.

Over the next few days she was seen by a parade of neural specialists of one kind or another and each in turn decided that she hadn’t had a stroke or similar sudden catastrophe.  Instead this seemed to be some form of dementia.  When she finally got a psych consult, he explained to us that she definitely had dementia and needed to be moved to another hospital where there was a mental health floor, so that he could try to treat the symptoms with medications and diagnose her condition more accurately.

The next three weeks were hard for Mom.  She was so afraid for her health.  All of her rituals and routines were disrupted.  She felt she needed to get home and back to her good diet to save her life.  Physically she was in excellent condition for a 68-year-old woman and daily tests confirmed that, except for her.  Medications did help her think a little more clearly and calmly.  But not as well as her psychiatrist expected and he continued to look for an answer while we made arrangements to get her out of the hospital and into a nice assisted living home.

Then Mom’s psychiatrist had a eureka moment and pieced all of her symptoms over the last few years with her brain images and slow response to medication.  I got a call from him a few nights ago in which he explained that Mom has a rare, specific form of dementia called Frontotemporal Lobe Dementia.  In his whole career he has seen it less than five times, but in reviewing the literature, Mom’s case is a textbook example.

This is a particularly aggressive dementia with an average survival of eight years after the onset of symptoms.  Mom had first shown signs of this nearly ten years ago.  It was good to finally have a firm diagnosis, but heart rending to discover that Mom’s prognosis was so bad.  I suppose we all hoped that the medication would help her enough to come home for a few years.  That isn’t to be.  So we’ll move her soon to the nice place we’d arranged as a transition from the hospital that will now be her home until the end.

It has been arranged with her psychiatrist to do some MRI scans of her brain to chart the progress of her decline.  So rare is her condition that little is known about the stages and how that relates to the physiology of the brain.  We’ve all decided to help so long as Mom isn‘t upset.  Mom knows that once we get her moved into her new place that she’ll have appointments with her doctor once in a while to have a new MRI so they can see how she is doing.  She thought that sounded nice.

This one last time Mom gets to be a teacher.

[edit:  Mom will not be part of a study or have any more MRI scans that aren't needed for further diagnostic purposes.  Her psychiatrist has neither the students nor the funding to assemble such a study at this time.]

[edit 2:  Mom passed away today, December 2, 2013. Her long fight with dementia is over.]

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who are you better than?

One of the things that I have come to really enjoy about the internet is that it allows so much overlap among my various interests.  One of the motorcycle forums that I visit has an active politics section and there are some real gems of political analysis posted there from time to time.  What follows is a post made on the forum ADV Rider by a writer who uses the name Jinx.

Jinx named this "...who are you better than?".  He started it with a quote by the character Agent Rupert Anderson from the crime drama Mississippi Burning.  Then he continued on with his own thought provoking article that I will reproduce in its entirety below.  I found this to be an amazing critique of the motivations behind some of the more extreme Tea Party activists and what this says about politics and racism in our country today.  Thank you, Jinx, for letting me quote you here.

"You know when I was a little boy, there was an old negro farmer that lived down the road from us, named Monroe. He was ... (subtle laugh), I guess he was just a little more luckier than my daddy was. He bought himself a mule. 
It was a big deal in round that town. Now my daddy hated that mule. Cause, his friends were always kidding him about, "They saw Monroe out plowing with his new mule and Monroe is going to rent another field now he had a mule." 
One morning that mule showed up dead. They poisoned the water. After that, there wasn't any mention about that mule around my daddy. It just never came up. One time we were driving down that road and we passed Monroe's place and we saw it was empty. He just packed up and left, I guess, he must of went up north or something. 
I looked over at my daddy's face, I knew he done it. He saw that I knew. He was ashamed. I guess he was ashamed. He looked at me and said, "If you ain't better than a nigger son, who are you better than?"
- Agent Anderson, Mississippi Burning 

And welcome to the Tea-hadist mindset. With Barack Obama in charge...who are you going to be better than?
And don't think some of us recognize the symptom because we are a pack of condescending know-it-all asshats. We are...but that has fuck-all to do with the observation.
It's just that we have seen this before. Up our so-called "enlightened" neck of the woods. 
Want to know the difference between North and South? Well, a man once told me that up North, it is OK to have a Black as your boss, but you will be damned if you will have one for a neighbor. Down South, it is OK to have a Black neighbor...but you will damned if you will have one as a boss. 
So we went through all this Tea Party nonsense up North, about 20-30 years ago. And the reaction was just as vehement, inarticulate, and dumb as what is being spewed now. If you want to see hate and spittle, you should have seen how South Boston reacted to school integration. 
But you would not have seen it 24/7 as you do today. It happened...but not in a perpetual echo chamber. And thank Christ for that. 
And if you think the enlightened liberal North embraced integrated housing with open hearts, think again, It was called "white flight" and it damn near emptied some cities. "Sure, we support excuse us while we move to the suburbs where those Zulus won't be able to spear us with their assegais." 
But white flight was a safety valve. It kept the pressure at reasonable levels. It also prolonged it and led to new levels of stupidity, but you could, after all, vote with your feet. Many did. Many still do. 
OK, the job front was a bit stickier. Northern Industry has always been (at least since the 1950's) largely integrated. Steel Mill owners don't give a fuck what your skin color is. Besides, you could only tell on the way into work, on the way out everybody pretty much looked the same. 
But you always knew what hand you were playing, because the cards were mostly dealt face up. Your boss was still white. Your union steward was still white. Your mayor and your chief of police were still white. And, as much as it pains me to tell you this, Michael Steele did not run the GOP. And even if he did, at least up north, you went home at the end of the day to your own private Idaho in the suburbs, and played golf on the weekends at a club where Michael Steele was never going to get in. Well, not the front door 
The workforce may have been integrated, but you still knew who you were better than. Nobody dared yell "You Lie!!" at a white boss. 
Over time, most of that has changed (but if you take a shot every time you can name a Black mayor of a predominantly white New England are going to bed sober). But it took a very conscious effort to change it. Acceptance of diversity does not come easy when the question is: "who are you better than?" 
And now the way the cards were dealt 18 months ago has upset a huge segment of the population. They no longer know who they are better than. They are lashing out. And there is fuck-all for a safety valve and it does run 24/7 in a perpetual echo chamber. 
They say it is about "freedoms"...but they can point to no freedoms that have been lost over the last 14 months. 
They say the Constitution is being destroyed, but when you ask them what parts of The General Welfare Clause or Congresses' power to regulate Interstate Commerce are being violated...they stand mute with rage 
They say it is about taxes...but they can find no drastic tax increases in the last 14 months. 
Come to think of it, I don't really remember anyone getting speared with an assegai thirty years ago either. But that didn't stop people screaming about the danger. 
And they say they want their Country Back. 
Well, Bing-fucking-O. 
Now we have it. They want to return to a time and place where they at least knew who they were better than. 
And the fact that most of this spittle is flying from the mouths of the poor, the semi-educated, the low information voter, and from By-God Dixie...well, that is only because it is your turn. A lot of the rest of the Country has already gone through this exercise 20-30 years ago. And the same spittle flew from the same confused lips when it was our turn. 
So we don't look on Tea-hadists with scorn because they are alien and unfathomable. We do so because we recognize these very traits as ours and those of our neighbors."All in the Family" wasn't the most popular show in the Northeast because Archie Bunker was despised. It was popular because he was comfortably familiar. But at least he was a character. Nobody tried to run him for President. 
And it ain't just President Obama. It is a lot else: If your job can be done on the Indian sub-continent, who are you better than? If China can launch a spaceship, who are you better than? If the world looks at the mighty Dollar as little better than an American Peso, who are you better than? If an immigrant can work your ass into the ground, and do it smiling for a lot less money, who are you better than? 
A whole lot of life has been shaken and stirred the last couple of decades. 
This whole Tea-Party nonsense will eventually pass. Because there is no "going back". OK, you can move to Idaho, or Montana, and it will feel like you have found what was missing. And you might even be happy. As long as you never watch the POTUS on the national news while you are trying to answer the question: "Who am I better than?" 
But Jesus wept, people are going to keep asking that damned question. Soccer may be watched for it's beauty...American Football is about who is better. We are more of a class society than people want to admit. There is still a very strong vein of Scotch-Irish pride that runs through this Country's character. Unfortunately that pride is seldom based, at least lately, on personal or collective achievement...just who you are better than. You can hear it every time a factory closes in this Country and people cheer. No, they really don't believe that closing the Auto Factories will make America stronger. But it adds a whole bunch of people to the list of those they are better than. 
Still...what the fuck. 600 years of violence and oppression was bound to warp the Scotch-Irish a bit. Hell, you can even consider them heroically well adjusted given their, and my, history. And history will eventually change us again once all the dogs adjust to the new Alpha Male reality and find their place again in the pack. Until then we live in the land of flying angry spittle. 
PS - I never wanted to be better than anyone else. Just faster.