Monday, June 29, 2009

At Long Last, An End Is Near

Yesterday, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said there could be an end to the madness:

Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) said Sunday he has no plans for further delay in certifying the results of the state's disputed U.S. Senate election so that Republican Norm Coleman can pursue a federal court challenge.

Pawlenty told CNN that he would abide by whatever ruling the Minnesota Supreme Court makes in the contest, where Democrat Al Franken appears to have an upper hand.

Pawlenty Won't Delay If Court Rules For Franken

There seems little doubt that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Franken. Every other court has ruled in his favor, and the facts seem to be on his side. Nate Silver (of Five Thirty-Eight) predicted in November that Franken would win the recount, and last month he noted that Pawlenty was losing popularity at least in part thanks to the battle over the Senate race. Little wonder then, that he wants to see the back of this controversy. Whatever the reason, Pawlenty's numbers are falling, and the ridiculous lengths the Republicans seem to want to go to prevent Franken from being seated aren't helping his image.

It's unclear when the court will rule on the election. Rumors had the date as being last week, and the week before. Clearly, any speculation at this point would be as pointless as picking a date at random. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable that it should occur within the next month or two.

Once that's done, Minnesota's long nightmare may finally be over.

UPDATE: Corrected the first sentence of the second paragraph. Originally, it said "There seems little doubt that the Supreme Court will rule against Franken". As commenter Eric noted, it was clear that this wasn't what I meant, but somehow I missed this. Thanks for pointing out the error, Eric.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

You Don't Need Gods To Feel Small

There's a persistent myth out there among certain believers, Christians in particular, that somehow a person who doesn't believe in a god must not be able to imagine anything more important than himself. Here's an example of such "thinking", courtesy of some random fool whom I found in a Google search:

Perhaps the issue comes down to the inherent narcissism of our times that too many of us can’t imagine something or someone bigger than ourselves and the idea of confronting our moral failings has become too damaging for our inflated self image. It would be great to live in a world where self esteem was never lowered and where any act we commit, or omit, can be justified to ourselves and our fellow humans and where shame became obsolete.

For Goodness Sake: Who says Atheists have no Sense of Humor??

Here's another example, courtesy of this putz:

No. Becuase then they wouldn't be an atheist. I belive that people who are atheists are just ignorant fools who do not want to open thier mind to the fact that there is something bigger than themselves (and science) out there. Everything needs a beginning. I just belive that that beginning is God.

Can atheists hate God?

To my way of thinking, this attitude demonstrates ignorance on a scale that is breathtaking. By "ignorance", I mean an ignorance both of the world and non-believers. Let me illustrate with a picture:

Image credit: Cujo359

It's a picture of the Grand Canyon, in northern Arizona. Those little specks in the upper left hand corner (click the picture to enlarge) are people. This picture doesn't even show the full depth of the canyon, yet the people look tiny in comparison. If they had been dressed in clothing that matched the surroundings, they'd have been barely noticeable. If placed the bodies of all the people who have ever visited it in the canyon, they wouldn't come close to filling it. A back of the envelope calculation suggest that literally trillions of human beings would be required.

The largest structures human beings have ever built would be lost at the bottom of the canyon. The Boeing plant in Everett, WA is roughly a million times smaller than the canyon.

So far, we've only considered linear dimensions. Looking at the time scale of the place suggests even more reasons to feel insignificant in comparison. As the National Park Service's website notes:

Grand Canyon National Park [see Photo 1] is one of the best places in the world to gain a sense of geologic, or “deep,” time because the canyon exposes a great swath of geologic history. Rocks exposed in Grand Canyon are truly ancient, ranging from 1840 million years old (m.y.), or 1.84 billion years old (b.y.), to 270 m.y. The Grand Canyon landscape is geologically young, being carved within just the last 6 m.y. There are younger geologic deposits in Grand Canyon too, such as the Ice Age fossils found in caves, a 1000-year-old lava flow in the western canyon, and even the debris flow deposits that continue form each year.

The Grand Age of Rocks: The Numeric Ages for Rocks Exposed within Grand Canyon

Image credit: National Park Service

The Colorado River, which formed the canyon, is now cutting through rock that is nearly two billion years old. At that time, the only form of life was unicellular. There were no plants, let alone animals. The Wikipedia entry on the canyon says that it has been formed over the last 40 million years. Biologists estimate that the species homo sapiens sapiens is perhaps a quarter of a million years old. When the first human beings walked the planet, the canyon was scarcely shallower than it is today. In an ordinary human lifetime, only the most superficial changes will occur.

Speaking of time scales, here's another interesting picture. It's roughly where our solar system is in the Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across. If the earliest humans had boarded a spaceship that could travel at the speed of light to circumnavigate the galaxy, they'd still be out there somewhere. The nearest galaxy to our own, Andromeda would take roughly ten times longer to reach. Our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. To call our planet a fly speck in the universe is to overstate its relative size by many, many orders of magnitude.

If you're a believer, the next time you feel tempted to assume that non-believers must see no reason to feel humble, try learning something about the universe you live in. The truth is that the universe is vast in any terms human beings can imagine. We exist on one tiny speck of rock in one little corner of it. Unless we can figure out how to live in other solar systems, we will probably be gone in a blink of an eye on its time scale. The universe cares nothing about us as individuals or as a species.

Non-believers live with this knowledge. We don't assume there is some deity taking care of us. We know that, in the end, all we humans can count on is that our survival rests on chance, and our ability to understand and adapt to the universe we live in. We also know, as geology teaches us, that even that may not be enough.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

PZ Myers On Science And Religion

The other day, NP asked a question at her blog Coffee Stained Writer:

If you had a DeLorean, what book (or books) would you snatch away before it made it to bookshelves? Why?

Should I Seek Publication? Should You?

My answer was Rocks of Ages, a largely nonsensical attempt by paleontologist Stephen J. Gould to explain how religion and science were not incompatible. In that book, he espoused the idea that science and religion were Non-overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA. The basic idea of NOMA was that science and religion aren't in conflict, because they try to find answers to different problems. As with all attempts to explain away the conflict between religion and science, it was a muddled mess. Considering the quality of Gould's mind, his book should serve as an example of how absurd his proposition was.

Yesterday, biologist P.Z. Myers did a great job of explaining why Gould and others are wrong. As John Pieret wrote about Myers' essay:

PZ Myers has a good post up on the accommodationist/incompatibilist flap that is, despite the unnecessary slap at "feeble accommodationist claptrap," a reasonable attempt at clarifying matters that I can agree with in large part.

PZ Explains

Others, such as Richard Dawkins, have tried to cover this ground with varying degrees of success. I think PZ's essay is well worth a read, because it's both succinct and thorough. Rather than try to quote it, I'll just suggest you go read it for yourself.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Oh Guardian Council, You've Done It Again

An image from a protest in Iran that occurred on June 22. Apparently, some among Iran's clerics think that there hasn't been enough bloodshed yet. Image credit: .faramaz.

It looks as though Iran's Guardian Council hired Mr. Magoo to look into the charges of election rigging in their country:

Iran's top electoral authority, the Guardian Council, said Friday that it has found no significant violations after 10 days of investigating the disputed June 12 presidential election. All three defeated candidates have protested the results, charging electoral fraud.

The Council's spokesman, Abbas-ali Kadkhodaie, told the Iranian news agency (IRNA), that it was one of the cleanest elections the country has ever had and he said there was no fraud in the election.

Iran's Guardian Council Endorses Results of Disputed Election

For all I know, the Council's spokesman is correct about this being the cleanest election ever, but it makes the worst Chicago elections look spotless in comparison. Over at Five Thirty-Eight, Nate Silver did some analysis a few days ago, and came to some rather startling conclusions:

For all the complex series of statistics that have been run on Iran's election, it's the simplest that might prove to be the regime's downfall. More people "voted" than were eligible to vote -- in a lot of places. The interior ministry admits to 50 such instances out of the 300+ jurisdictions in which Iran tallied results. That is widespread, prime facie and admitted-to evidence of fraud, and I don't see how the Guardian Council expects people to buy the argument that whatever caused the tub to overflow in those 50 cities was not also tainting the results throughout the rest of the country. The Chatham House report we linked to earlier today found that there were more "votes" than voters in two entire provinces.

Worst. Damage Control. Ever.

Considering how shameless our own politicians can be, this should surprise no one, but it gets worse. Apparently, at least some mullahs think this is a great excuse to start killing protestors:

Elsewhere, at the Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University, hardline cleric Ahmed Khatami urged Iran's judiciary to "punish key rioters ruthlessly and savagely."

Rioters, he insisted, should be considered "moharem," or people who wage war against God. Such individuals, he said, should be punished by death, according to Islamic law.

Iran's Guardian Council Endorses Results of Disputed Election

While this may simply be the opinion of a fringe element, given what's going on in Iran, it's a troubling demand.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Farrah Fawcett

Speaking of mid-life crises, an icon of my youth passed away today:

Farrah Fawcett, 62, golden-haired sex symbol of the late 1970s most remembered for her appearance on bedroom posters and the detective series "Charlie's Angels" and who later found a niche portraying troubled women in made-for-television dramas, died today at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., of cancer.

Actress Farrah Fawcett Dies at 62

The poster of Fawcett that leads this article was, for a time in the late 1970s, as ubiquitous as Betty Grable's was in the 1940s. While I wasn't much of a fan of hers at the time, this poster evokes that time as much as disco music and the big hair she helped inspire.

The Washington Post story I quoted and this Guardian story provide synopses of her career. Suffice to say that after her brush with stardom, she did some good work, some of it in less-than-stellar productions.

Condolences to her family and friends.

This Time, I'm Interested

From a political perspective, my apathy at South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's recent marital infidelity is nearly as great as it was for these two. What separates this from the normal case of politicians having affairs is:

  • The utter fecklessness of it. As if having the affair weren't enough, he lied about his whereabouts via his staff, and left folks wondering where he was for days. As dday explains at Hullabaloo:

    [T]his Sanford case is much, much different. He left his state, in fact he left the country, for seven days without telling anybody. Setting aside the fact that going to Argentina to "say goodbye" for seven days doesn't make any kind of sense, and if he got away with this I'm sure there would be additional hikes on the Appalachian trail, so to speak, in the future, leaving the country with no proper explanation is a severe dereliction of duty. He apparently lied to his own staff, lied to the Lieutenant Governor, and left his state in the lurch, despite the unpredictability of events (aren't we in hurricane season?). That's probably a firing offense. If I was a South Carolinian, it would be to me, regardless of party.

    Anything Happen While I Was Away?

  • He actually used as an excuse that he had been exhausted by his battles over the stimulus spending his state was to receive. A good summary of that battle was "screw the poor and middle class".

  • He was one of the ones who led the charge against President Clinton for his infidelity. He's been a sanctimonious jackass for a long time.

As I mentioned when I wrote about John Edwards' affair with a campaign staffer, how the politician handles the revelation of the affair tells you some interesting things about him. In Sanford's case, what it tells us is extremely unflattering.

Even though I'm a man who is experiencing much of what men go through in mid-life, it's really hard to feel sorry for a guy like this. It's even hard to say I'm not interested in his peccadillo, thanks to all the peripheral issues. What I can't help feeling here is that if there was ever a case of karma coming home to roost, it's here.

Politicians are human beings. They have weaknesses. As long as those weaknesses don't make them unable to perform their jobs, I don't really care what they are, and I wish that the public would spend less time paying attention to them and spend more of it looking into what they're doing when they're on the job. In Sanford's case, though, it's hard not to contract a case of schadenfreude.

(h/t to Dana Hunter, who found most of these links.)

UPDATE: Blue Gal administers a giant whack with the clue stick to some raving dumbass who thinks that Democratic politicians are getting a pass on sex scandals. The selective memory required to maintain such an opinion is breathtaking, as Blue Gal amply demonstrates.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Protesting Hypocrisy

This isn't Tehran in 2009, it's St. Paul in 2008. If it weren't for the signs being in English, you might not be able to tell.

Image credit: Andrew Ciscel/Wikimedia

Middle East and expert Juan Cole wrote this today concerning the protests that President Obama and other federal politicians have made concerning Iran's treatment of its citizens:

I applaud the Iranian public's protests against a clearly fraudulent election, and deplore the jackboot tactics that the regime is using to quell them. But it is important to remember that the US itself was moved by Bush and McCain toward a 'Homeland Security' national security state that is intolerant of public protest and throws the word 'terrorist' around about dissidents. Obama and the Democrats have not addressed this creeping desecration of the Bill of Rights, and until they do, the pronouncements of self-righteous US senators and congressmen on the travesty in Tehran will be nothing more that imperialist hypocrisy of the most abject sort.

Washington and the Iran Protests: Would they be Allowed in the US?

Whether it's viewed as imperialist hypocrisy or just ordinary hypocrisy is probably a matter of one's political views (not to mention where one lives), but as I've written before, it is hypocrisy nonetheless. The same question Prof. Cole asked in the title of his post occurred to me. The Minneapolis Republican convention last year is a case in point. The protests there were not violent, except in a few isolated cases. Yet the police used violence to break up the protests. They arrested many people, including journalists, who they must have known were doing nothing wrong. Few in the upper strata of Washington politics have objected to what happened there in any way, let alone in the terms they've objected to Tehran's behavior.

I don't recall those politicians objecting to the so-called free speech zones, which, in fine Orwellian tradition, were set up to make sure that speech wasn't free anywhere else during the 2004 national political conventions.

When the United States starts living by the rules it seems to expect Iran to live by, then pronouncements of the sort President Obama made yesterday may have some weight. For now, though, they're clearly not helpful. I suggest that the President and the Congress turn their attention to making our country a good example of how to treat citizen protests.

Monday, June 22, 2009

An Era Ends

Image credit: John Naughton

You probably have to be a certain age to appreciate this story, but for those of us whose early experiences with photography involved trying to thread photographic film into a camera, this Reuters story will be especially interesting:

Kodachrome, the film brand touted as the stuff of memories, is about to become a memory itself as Eastman Kodak stops production due to overwhelming competition from digital cameras.


"The majority of today's photographers have voiced their preference to capture images with newer technology -- both film and digital," said Mary Jane Hellyar, president of Kodaks Film, Photofinishing and Entertainment Group.

Kodachrome was once the film of choice for many baby boomers' family slide shows and gained such iconic status that it was celebrated in the mid-1970s with a song of the same name by Paul Simon, with the catch-phrase: "Mama don't take my Kodachrome away."

Kodak Kills Kodachrome Film After 74 Years

I've viewed this change with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the convenience and economy of being able to take lots of pictures without having to have them processed, together with the ability to import the images directly into a computer, has been nothing short of revolutionary. It's now possible, for a cost of $100 or so, to record high density images and moving images and then store them on disk. Thanks to sites like Flickr and Photobucket, it's now possible to share those photos on the Internet.

On the other hand, commodity digital cameras still don't quite match the color and clarity of the best film technology. Nearly all the digital photos I take, even in bright sunlight, seem a little off color to me. Their resolution, while good enough for small images, inevitably gets worse with even a modest amount of optical zoom. Still, that's a price we pay for convenience.

The move to digital technology has also had a profound effect on how we communicate with each other. Flickr sites such as .faramaz's Iran Election can show us what's going on in a country even when its authorities are trying to black out the news. On a more personal level, we can share information about our experiences with others without having to make them sit and watch a slide show.

For that last benefit alone, I suppose I can do without vibrant colors.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Yesterday In Iran

Image credit: .faramaz

It looks like the crackdown promised by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has begun. Al Jazeera reports today:

Iran's state media has said that at least 13 people were killed on Saturday as police and pro-government militia clashed with protesters gathering over the disputed presidential election.

Tehran Clashes 'Left 13 Dead'

The pictures that appeared yesterday at .faramaz's Flickr page, which is where I found all of the images that appear in this article, would seem to confirm this. There are no large crowd shots. There are, however, shots that illustrate this statement from the Al Jazeera article:

The street appeared to be largely calm on Sunday, with security forces preventing people from gathering in groups.

A number of water cannon were in place on Revolution Square which leads to Azadi avenue, while police and pro-government militia dressed in full riot gear moved about on motorbikes.

"I think the clashes have taken their toll on the people who took to the streets," Al Jazeera's Alireza Ronaghi, reporting from Tehran, said.

Tehran Clashes 'Left 13 Dead'

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the foreign spokesman for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the Iranian opposition leader, defended the actions of the protesters.

"These people are in the streets to say 'We don't want atomic bombs, we want democracy'," he told Al Jazeera from Paris.

Witnesses said that dozens of people were hospitalised after being beaten by police and the pro-government Basiji militia.

Tehran Clashes 'Left 13 Dead'

The crackdown has begun, as the BBC confirms. It looks like how Iran chooses to respond in the next few days will determine whether its aspirations for freedom will come true, or be put on hold for a few more years. It appears that Iran will get there eventually, though. As the BBC's Hugh Sykes put it:

There is a velvet rebellion taking place. It is not a revolution yet - but it could evolve into one if the Supreme Leader and his associates do not listen to the people.

I heard with my own ears dozens of peaceful, young Iranians saying they wanted change.

Sixty percent of the population are under 30 years old. They have no memory of the Islamic revolution in 1979. Many of them use the internet and watch satellite TV. Their window on the wider world is irreversibly open.

Freedom Craving 'Fuelling Iran Unrest'

The stakes are being raised in Iran, as Press TV reports:

Iranian security forces have arrested five close relatives of Iran's Expediency Council head Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, including his daughter Faezeh Hashemi.

Last night, five members of the former president's family were arrested, Iran Newspaper on Network reported.

Five 'Hashemi-Rafsanjani' Relatives Arrested

All but Rafsanjani's daughter have since been released, but the implications are clear. The charges may or may not be valid, but the Iranian government now holds a close relative of the man who heads the country's leading arbitration council, and has shown it has no compunctions about holding more.

It should also be noted that the user name associated with the .faramaz Flickr site that has been providing these images is "fhashemi". Whether that user name is in any way related to Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter who was arrested, I do not know. Nevertheless, it may not be coincidence.

Meanwhile, President Obama weighed in again yesterday on Iran, as quoted by CNN:

"If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion."

Obama quoted slain U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

"I believe that," Obama's statement said. "The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian people's belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness."

Obama to Iran: 'The whole world is watching'

Coming from a President who has abjectly refused to prosecute anyone in the previous Administration for its lying to justify the war in Iraq, or for kidnapping and torturing innocent people, nor even allowed a full airing of the evidence, this can't be all that much of a rebuke. The Republicans criticizing Obama's response as not sufficiently moralistic are so divorced from reality that they ought to be embarrassed, however. In many cases the same ones who gave full-throated support to both the Iraq War and the torture that helped justify it.

Still, the world is watching, and we are remembering. Iran's leaders will wear the disgrace of their actions as surely as our leaders will for theirs.

UPDATE: Taylor Marsh has some harsh words for the U.S. State Department's diplomacy blog, Dipnote, and its coverage (perhaps I should say, non-coverage) of the Iran situation:

Considering the story is unfolding online through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the blogs, it does render judgment on Dipnote. It’s irrelevant. Because as human rights violations play out in Iran, with Pres. Obama offering his strongest statement addressing this subject to date, which I posted earlier, Secretary Clinton’s “official” State Dept. blog remains silent on all things Iran.

While Dipnote Slept

Of course, this is something of a side issue, but as a measure of how effectively our government is using the Internet to disseminate information, this doesn't bode well. Reading Taylor's blog, Juan Cole's, or even this one would provide a reader far more information than the State Department's diplomacy blog has on the situation. It makes you wonder what their purpose was in starting it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My Priorities

Having an affair with a campaign worker.

John Edwards? I'm not interested.

John Ensign? Not interested.

Seeing a pattern yet?

Today's Iran Image

Updated at noon, PDT

Not much to report on Iran. There was supposed to have been a big opposition silent vigil today, but no news of that. Meanwhile, there will be a rally by the "winners" of the election today, as CNN reports:

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will give his sermon during Friday prayers. It will be closely watched for a sign of how the government plans to resolve the stalemate over the country's recent presidential elections.


The Basij militia -- which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps -- declared Friday a day for the Iranian nation to renew its allegiance to Khamenei.

Iran's supreme leader to speak at site of crackdown

[emphasis added]

You might remember awhile back that Sara Taylor, President George W. Bush's press secretary, once said that she took an oath to serve the President. The reaction from Americans was quick and dismissive. We don't take oaths to serve leaders, because, as the Founders observed, for there to be freedom one can't serve others. That those in power in Iran think that its people should take an oath to an individual, particularly one who isn't elected, ought to show you what's going on there. This is a theocracy, pure and simple.

Speaking of America, here's President Obama as quoted by the Washington Post:

President Obama, who has come under criticism from some quarters in Washington for not speaking out directly on behalf of the Iranian protesters, said Tuesday that he hoped the Iranian government would affirm "the universal principles of peaceful expression and democracy" but that the United States was "not meddling" in the "amazing ferment taking place in Iran."

Thousands Rally in Tehran in Protest of Election Results

On this point, the critics the Post alludes to are wrong - the last thing we need to do is give the current government of Iran an excuse to plead that we're interfering in Iranian affairs. We've done that before, and Iranians remember.

Meanwhile, here's today's image from Iran:

Image credit: .faramaz

It's from one of yesterday's rallies.

UPDATE: via Taylor Marsh, here are two images that are allegedly from a rally today:

For what it's worth, the weather appears different from yesterday's. Here's a crowd shot:

I can't vouch for it, because I can't even read the article that this image came from. Nevertheless, there it is.

Taylor also linked to an article in The (U.K.) Independent about a letter that was supposed to have shown that the Iranian election was much closer than the official result:

For the photocopy appeared to be a genuine but confidential letter from the Iranian minister of interior, Sadeq Mahsuli, to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, written on Saturday 13 June, the day after the elections, and giving both Mr Mousavi and his ally, Mehdi Karroubi, big majorities in the final results. In a highly sophisticated society like Iran, forgery is as efficient as anywhere in the West and there are reasons for both distrusting and believing this document. But it divides the final vote between Mr Mousavi and Mr Karroubi in such a way that it would have forced a second run-off vote – scarcely something Mousavi's camp would have wanted.

Robert Fisk: Secret Letter 'Proves Mousavi Won Poll'

There are certainly reasons for suspicion, but this also seems to suggest that what I wrote earlier was true: the current government wanted to avoid a runoff.

The Independent also featured an article by Renard Sexton today, which asserts that a recount won't fix the problems with Iran's election:

[T]he provincial vote counts that were released on Monday were in some cases simply bizarre. The cleric Mehdi Karroubi, a reform candidate, nearly beat Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election, losing by just 700,000 votes. He posted commanding numbers in the western portion of the country, winning 11 of the 30 provinces, including in his home province of Lorestan. Karroubi beat Ahmadinejad in these provinces by an average margin of over 20 points, with Ahmadinejad averaging just 13.0 per cent. In 2009, however, the vote totals told a completely opposite story.

Earning between 53 and 71 percent of the vote, Ahmadinejad pulverised Karroubi's totals in those same 11 provinces. Ahmadinejad posted an incredible win in Karroubi's home province of Lorestan, where the regime claims he won by a margin of more than 65 points, a more than 110 point swing in support between 2005 and 2009.

As such, calls for a re-run of the election, rather than a recount, have been widespread. Unfortunately, it is not clear that either approach will in fact produce an accurate outcome. Either way, the fundamental question of whether top level manipulation has occurred already or would occur in a re-vote or re-count has not yet been answered.

Renard Sexton: A Recount May Not Alter The Result Of The Election

Much of it is a rehash of what he wrote yesterday at Five Thirty-Eight, but Sexton's conclusion is new, at least to me. I suspect he's right about both a recount and a new election. In the latter case, there's no guarantee that a new election would have a more accurate result, assuming the same people are in charge of it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How Lucky Can One Internet Persona Be?

[Pound notes, plus a few dollars, at the donations box of the British Museum. Image credit: Lawrence OP.]

Once again, without even entering, I've won a British lottery:

From: The British Lottery Headquarters
Customers Services
8 Lower Mall, Hammersmith 1010
Liverpool, L70 1NL United Kingdom
Tel: +44 703 188 5012
Fax: +44 870 495 4024


Date: 17th June 2009

Dear Lucky Winner,

We happily announce to you the 2009 British Lottery draw Program held in London in association of the British Promotion Award and of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, among the 2,900 Email addresses of individuals and companies from Africa, Asia, America, Australia, Europe, Middle East, and New Zealand etc. selected by computing electronic ballot system drawn, congratulation that your e-mail address attached to Ticket # 694/7560/0545/721, Serial # 886/09, drawn the Lucky # 016/213/3517, which subsequently won the lottery towards 2nd category file covering it’s share amount to (GBPЈ1,000.000.00) One Million Great British Pounds.

You are therefore, been approved to claim a total sum of (GBPЈ1,000.000.00) One Million Great British Pounds in cash as credited to your File No. RPC/9080/1153/2244. This is from a total cash prize of 125 Million Pound Sterlings.

This year Lottery Program Jackpot is the largest ever for British Lottery; the estimated 125 Million Jackpots would be the Sixth biggest in U.K history, the biggest was the 363 Million Pounds Starlings' Jackpot that went to two winners last year 2008 drawing of the Big Game, Mega Millions' predecessor.

Note that your lucky winning number falls within our African booklet representative office in Southern Africa as indicated in our play coupon, In view of this’ be informed that your (GBPЈ1,000.000.00) One Million Great British Pounds will be release to you by our affiliate bank.

Our agent will immediately commence the process to facilitate the release of your funds as soon as you contact him. For security reasons, you are advised to keep your winning information confidential till your winning fund is processed and your money remitted to you in whatever manner you demand fit to claim your prize.

To file your claim, kindly contact your claim agent immediately through email and call him after you would have sent him email.

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Tel: +27 73 757 9203
Fax: +27 86 540 5411

Email him with your Full Names, Address, Telephone, Fax No. your Ref No. BTL/311OXI/02 & Batch No. 14/211/0374 immediately.

Congratulations from all members staff of THE UK NATIONAL LOTTERY.

Sincerely Yours,

Mrs. Mary Blair
Zonal Coordinator(UKPANL.LLC)

I try not to tell other people how to run their countries, but this is getting ridiculous. If their lottery is this easy to win, I don't see how the United Kingdom can stay afloat financially. In the interest of international harmony, I'm going to forgo this prize, thank you.

The U.K. is such a thoughtful country.

(As always, I assume that the persons mentioned in this e-mail are fictional, or if they are real people that they aren't the ones actually involved in this scam.)

Catching Up On Iran

It's hard to get caught up on the story of Iran's protested election, particularly when I'm not all that familiar with the place, and I haven't been paying attention since this story began.

Nevertheless, I'm getting caught up. Sort of. One thing I've caught up to is what the protests are about, courtesy of Renard Sexton at Five Thirty-Eight. The Iranian presidential election is an open election followed by a runoff, if necessary. If one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, no runoff is necessary. In essence, this is the system used in Louisiana and many other American states. What the party in power appear to have done is tried to avoid a runoff election, or so I've come to believe thanks to Sexton's preview of the election:

Over time, Iran’s Presidential elections have gotten progressively more competitive and pluralistic, as more candidates have been approved to participate, more competitive vote totals have encouraged challengers, and universal voting rights have persisted.


[T]urnout has increased, while the winning share of the vote has dropped significantly, as the elections have become more competitive. In 2005, for the first time, a run-off between former President Rafsanjani and now-incumbent Pres. Ahmadinejad was forced by the first round vote percentages, where the first round winner Rafsanjani earned just 21.1%, and Ahmadinejad 19.4%.

In the 2009 election, even though Ahmadinejad has gotten a bump from his incumbency, the momentum for his challengers has been growing. Many observers are predicting another run-off for the Presidency after today's voting to be required, in the case that no candidate reaches 50% plus one.

Polling and Voting in Iran's Friday Election

That's a problem for the incumbent President Ahmadinejad, since it's possible that all the folks who voted for someone else in the runoff wouldn't vote for him in a runoff. Sexton goes on to write:

While the numbers have been extremely variable between polls, and making a decision about what polls to include or exclude from aggregating in a case like Iran is nearly impossible, we can see a basic cycle that can be corroborated by anecdotal news evidence over the last two months. The incumbent has been largely held below a majority, which in the Iranian system is significant for two reasons. First, an absolute majority is needed, without which a runoff is certain. In addition, if Ahmadinejad fails to earn a majority, he will be the first incumbent President running for reelection to do this.

In summary, the Iranian system is slowly maturing, with more a more competitive and multi-candidate system. The candidates are still restricted to the mainstream approved by the Guardian Council, but this is certainly no one-party system. In fact, the Guardian Council is quite reminiscent of the party nominating conventions that have long been the deciding factor for the "mainstream" candidates in the United States.

Polling and Voting in Iran's Friday Election

What makes the runoff election a better place to commit fraud? More candidates apparently means more opportunities for vote fraud:

Polling put [reform candidate Mahdi Karroubi's] candidacy at around 7-10% of the national vote this time around, with the strong incumbent expected to pull more in the first round than he did in 2005 (19.1%). Karroubi's numbers in his provinces of strength were better, with polling regularly put him at around 20-25% in his home region, with particular strength in the provinces of Lorestan, Ilam, and Khuzestan. This is where the provinicial results get fishy:

Not only did Ahmadinejad beat Karroubi in his base of support, he crushed him beyond all recognition. Karroubi's share of the vote in Lorestan was cleaved by a factor of ten, and in only two other of the provinces did he break above 1%. Even with a consolidation of conservative support, and possible defection of Karroubi supporters to Mousavi (who was likely perceived as the candidate more likely to win) this large of shift is hard to imagine.

Iran Does Have Some Fishy Numbers

Steal a few votes here, a few votes there, and it starts to add up. That appears to have been the strategy. Check Sexton's second article for a more comprehensive explanation.

The other thing I've caught up with is a bulletin board for reports from Iranians on events in their country. As I mentioned earlier today, there has been a blackout of news from Iran, and there have also been attempts to interfere with other forms of communication, including the Internet and Twitter service. Nevertheless, I found a gallery of photos that has some pictures from the protests. I've included a couple below. Note that what I write about them are only my impressions, which could quite easily be wrong. In most cases, there is little explanation provided:

This is a crowd from Monday somewhere in Tehran. Photo page

These appear to be policemen chasing down people on motorcycles and beating them. Photo page

More police on motorcycles, for comparison/contrast. Photo page

A protest crowd from today. Photo page

These photos were released under the Creative Commons license, which means that they can be used by others as long as proper credit is given. Under the circumstances, I think they should be propagated as much as possible.

(h/t to commenter Betsy at Taylor Marsh's site.)

UPDATE: Speaking of Internet blackouts, Taylor Marsh reports that our own State Department's blog has been silent on this issue.

Why I Don't Have Cable, Revisited

One of the things about being on the road is that you sometimes get to watch other peoples' televisions. Those "people" might be hotel chains, but the idea is the same - you get to see all the stuff you miss by not having cable. Other than being able to watch baseball games, I didn't see much advantage.

Apparently, that's not changing any time soon. As Skeptic magazine publisher Micheal Shermer noted in his blog this week, there's a show that seems to go around trying to punk skeptics and other smart people. So far, it doesn't seem to have been very successful:

Out in the parking lot Brian told me that he thought the entire day was a set up, including phony cameramen, phony directors, phony make-up artist, etc. He was right. I initially thought that it was just Ghostman punking the Showtime people, but it turns out there is no show called “Versus,” the psychic’s real name is Marc Wootton (a British comedian and wannabe Borat character), and that Showtime has a show under production called “Untitled Marc Wootton Project.” (See the IMDB page.)

Here is Wootton’s “Shirley Ghostman” website.

Here are some other Ghostman punkings.

And here are some British skeptics catching on to Wootton’s antics fairly quickly.

Weirdly, I found this guy in real estate who had a similar experience (punking real estate brokers? — only in a housing crisis I suppose): Beware: Little Duke Productions for Showtime. Duping Realtors on camera while actors cause havoc in LA area homes.

The funniest story of all, however, was the punking of the actress and environmental activist Daryl Hannah, who explained in a Guardian article how she was punked by the same people. I have to admit that the image of a miniskirted “research scientist” in a lab coat who told Daryl how she had been fed by condors in the wild is a hellova lot funnier than Lee Majors in a body bag! Here’s the Daryl Hannah punking article.

Punked! (But Who Was Punked, The Skeptics Or The Psychics?)

The basic method of these producers was to lie about what they were trying to do, then bringing on a comedian or actress who pretends to be something he (or in the case of the Daryl Hannah segment, she) is not, and see what happens. As the quote says, these people generally catch on, but selective editing could certainly change that or present the subjects negatively in any number of ways. This is dishonest on many levels, and as Shermer notes, probably won't make for entertaining or enlightening TV:

In my opinion, a hoax is only interesting if those who are hoaxed should have seen it coming, if they were blinded by their prejudices and presuppositions, and who were given clues but ignored them. In James Randi’s “Alpha Project” hoax he instructed his magician charges to fess up to using magic tricks (to simulate psychic power) if anyone ever asked them; but no one ever did, despite obvious clues they left behind. Alan Sokal’s “deconstruction” hoax of the lit-crit journal was beautiful because he submitted an article that was complete nonsense and was so chockablock full of the sort of jargon that lit-crit folks love to read that the editors of the journal who accepted it just assumed that it must mean something. But if you simply lie to someone and deceive them so well that they could not possibly have known you were setting them up, it only proves that you are a clever liar.

Punked! (But Who Was Punked, The Skeptics Or The Psychics?)

It would be nice if the sort of people who still find TV entertaining were exposed to a little science or critical thinking once in a while, but I doubt that you will be seeing such a thing on a show built on this premise.

I'm Back

Yes, I'm back from vacation. It was terrific. One of my traveling companions will recognize the inspiration for this cartoon:

funny pictures of cats with captions
Image credit: I Can Has Cheezburger

The other companion will be annoyed that there's another cat in the photo.

While I'm On Vacation, Things Go Crazy

Image credit: .faramarz

Every time I leave things go crazy. Or maybe it has more to do with a country that's had enough of rigged elections:

Supporters of Iran's defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi have rallied in northern Tehran, witnesses told the BBC.

A BBC correspondent in Tehran said one eyewitness told him the rally was even bigger than Monday's demonstration by hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters.

Iran Demonstrations

They're doing this despite the fact that the Iranian government have been cracking down on demonstrations and have severely restricted news services and Internet access:

"Censoring is very bad here and they have reduced Internet speed," two Iranians said to a friend outside the country. The pair wanted to broadcast images of damage and casualties after a reported attack on a dorm at the University of Tehran. "We managed to upload a few pictures and movies ... please give it to news agencies and ask them to air it."

The witnesses said riot police and militia attacked the dormitory Sunday night after a student protest the day before. Up to 150 students were arrested, according to the account, and at least one was killed. Students were beaten and shot, and one of the buildings caught fire. Some university professors resigned after the incident, the witnesses said.

Witnesses Describe Violence In Iran As Protesters Stand Firm

Pictures like the one at the top of this article have been appearing all over the news now. As several of the articles I've linked to state, people have been trying to smuggle such photos out of Iran so that the rest of the world can see what's really going on. The obvious parallel with how many Americans felt after the 2000 Presidential election is drawn by a sign written in English by protesters in a country that speaks a different language. I think it would be wrong to say that this is about Iran becoming a secular society - there are Muslim clerics representing both sides of this debate. It's probably more accurate to say it's about how much freedom Iranians want.

As part of an excellent roundup of what's been going on in Iran, Taylor Marsh made this observation:

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is rumored through a Twitter feed to have commanded a meeting to unseat Khamenei. Shorter: the corrupt Rafsanjani has done his own meddling and may be at the heart of it all.

The Unwinding In Iran

[links from original]

In many ways, Iran's problems resemble our own - a corrupt government that has manipulated the elections to its advantage.

The rumor that Taylor mentions might be true, according to this recent article by the BBC:

Iran's powerful Guardian Council says it is ready to recount disputed votes from Friday's presidential poll.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election is being contested by rival Mir Hossein Mousavi and other moderate candidates, who are seeking a rerun.

Iran 'To Hold Election Recount'

That's certainly not a confirmation, but it's clear that the real rulers of Iran, the theocratic council that determines who can run for office, are feeling the pressure.

UPDATE: Replaced an AFP photo with one at the .faramarz's Iran protest gallery, which is released under the Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What I've Been Doing On Vacation

I've spent the past week in Arizona, particularly the northern part. Just to prove it, here's something that people don't normally show you when they discuss their adventures in this part of the country:

Image credit: Cujo359

It's called a prickly pear, and the locals make all sorts of things from it, including an interesting variety of vodka.

All this comes to an end in a few days, and I must say I'll be sorry when that happens.

UPDATE (June 12): Added link to that interesting vodka, and the image credit.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What The Whores In DC Are Doing While I'm On Vacation

Updated June 4

In a move that should surprise no one, President Obama today expressed support for a Massachusetts-style plan to make all Americans hostage to health insurance companies:

One day after signaling a fresh willingness to consider taxing employer-sponsored health insurance, President Obama indicated yesterday a new openness toward a nationwide requirement that every American have health coverage.

In his push to enact sweeping health-care reform legislation this summer, Obama previewed what could be the outlines of a compromise on two of the thorniest issues confronting Congress. He said he could support mandates on both individuals and employers to contribute to the cost of health insurance if the bill provides protections to certain small businesses and poor people.

A Move Toward Requiring Health Coverage

Later in that same article, the Washington Post reported that the President also promised to cut Medicare spending by $200 billion or more.

Here's the bottom line - the Congress and the President have sold us out to the insurance companies. There will be no government-funded insurance like medicare. There will be no single-payer system. The President expressed "interest" in such a provision, but realistically that's not going to happen without some cuts to Medicare. That's only going to happen over the AARP's corpse. They have sold us out to the insurance industry for more campaign contributions. They will make it so the only way Americans will be able to receive health care is if they pay off an insurance company.

In short, they're worthless whores.

There will be no meaningful cost controls, nor will any of the restrictions that might be placed on insurance companies' ability to refuse to cover people or refuse to pay for their treatments actually mean anything. The insurance companies will control that process just as they control the states' regulation of no-fault auto insurance. They can use our money to buy out the officials who enforcing the regulations. That's the system, and it works just fine for the politicians and the insurers. The only way of encouraging the insurance industry to provide adequate health insurance at a reasonable cost was to either provide a government alternative or get them out of the business altogether.

UPDATE (June 4): Here's more detail on how the public option will be killed, courtesy of Sam Stein at Huffington Post:

Multiple Democratic sources tell the Huffington Post that the White House and key members of the Finance and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committees are in the process of hammering out key principles on health care reform -- with a meeting scheduled at the West Wing this afternoon. One of the components will be music to progressive ears: that any bill includes an option publicly run health insurance coverage. But it also comes with a caveat that could engender opposition from that very same constituency.

A trigger would pave the way for public option to come into place only after certain market conditions are met -- mainly if private insurance companies are unable to achieve various metrics for coverage within a certain time frame. The proposal would placate many of the private health care actors who consider a public plan the first step towards a single-payer system. Progressives, however, view it as reform in name and not substance.

Obama, Senate Dems Consider Public Health Care Option With A Trigger

Steve Benen at Washington Monthly explains how this is really going to work politically:

As the argument goes, the public option would improve the system by lowering costs, expanding access, and using competition to improve efficiency. But, "centrist" Dems who have ideological problems with this argue, if we pass a reform package and private insurers can lower costs, expand access, and improve efficiency on their own, we wouldn't need a public option. It's better, they say, to wait for the system to get really awful before utilizing a public option to make things better.

This, not surprisingly, is not going over well with supporters of real reform, who are right to see the trigger as a mechanism to effectively kill the public plan.

Trigger Trouble....

Why so cynical, you might ask? As Health Care for America Now (HCAN) explains:

Setting aside the political movement we've seen, with Republicans open to a public health insurance option, this so-called "trigger" compromise, which would trigger a public health insurance option if certain conditions weren't met might make sense if those conditions haven't been met yet. But they have.

Senator Schumer explained as much today on Health Care for America Now's press call announcing our report on the lack of insurance industry competition in this country[...]

Think about it. What would the trigger be for the public health insurance option? Skyrocketing prices? Already there. No choice or competition? Already there. Denying care? Already there. As has been proven time and time again, we have a health care crisis now. Trigger conditions have long since been met.

A "Trigger" For The Public Health Insurance Option? Already Triggered

You have to be in some serious denial to think that the health care system in this country isn't already broken. Nearly a third of Americans either lack health insurance altogether or aren't covered sufficiently. Costs have been going up much faster than either consumer prices or our economy's growth. We pay more for less health care than any country in the industrialized world. If you don't think that's broken, you're not paying attention. Clearly, the folks who run things in DC aren't.

UPDATE 2 (June 4): Corrected the name of HCAN.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Congratulations, Jamie

Jamie Moyer is one of the truly classy people in sports. Yesterday, he earned his 250th victory as a Major League baseball pitcher, at an age when most men are coaches:

The Mayor of Philadelphia and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan were among those who called Jamie Moyer over the past two days to congratulate the 46-year-old lefty on winning his 250th Major League game against the Nationals on Sunday in Philadelphia.

Ryan congratulates Moyer on 250th Win

Moyer was one of the winningest pitchers for the Seattle Mariners over ten seasons. Last year, he pitched in his first World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Congratulations, Jamie.