Thursday, November 30, 2006

Heading to the Mountains...

I'm heading out this afternoon to Snowmass village for the Rocky06 bioinformatics conference. I am well prepared to participate in the conference and learn as much as possible; I've got new skis, boots, poles, a jacket, ski pants, and all the accessories. Bioinformatics won't know what hit it. I'll be back Sunday.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Who Really Cares about Arthur Brooks

Those of you who read this blog regularly (both of you) may remember Arthur Brooks, the guy who claimed that the entire country would soon be hard-core conservative (within fourteen years!) because conservatives were out-breeding liberals. Of course not only is this sheer nonsense because he ignored little things like immigration, it turned out that Brooks' numbers weren't even right.

So when I see that he's got a new book out claiming that conservatives are more charitable than liberals, I'm naturally quite skeptical. My previous experience with Brooks has led me to believe that he is highly disingenuous and not beyond jimmying the numbers to fit his thesis.

So I checked the General Social Survey, one of his sources, to see if the raw data do indeed fit his thesis. What a surprise, they don't. In nearly every case, the GSS data show that liberals contribute more and volunteer more than do conservatives. There are exceptions of course (for example, conservatives donate far more to religious organizations, which do some charitable work but are otherwise just social clubs), and there are many, many cases in which the data is ambiguous. But the general trend is that liberals are more generous than conservatives.

Of course Brooks claims to be correcting for certain things like age and income, and god only knows what else, so I don't doubt that he can pull his desired conclusion out of the data if he tries hard enough. But I'm more interested in what the data actually tell us about charitable giving, not in trying to score points for one ideology over another.

The most salient thing is that there is a huge variance in charitable giving among individuals within any one group. A small number of people give a whole lot, and a whole lot of people give very little. Effectively the same thing is true of volunteering, but even worse. The vast majority of people don't volunteer at all. This makes comparisons among arbitrarily selected groups rather meaningless, because in each group it's only a select few who are doing the giving. To me the central question that Brooks puts forth makes about as much sense as asking who is better at basketball, Americans or Chinese. If you limit the comparison only to the professionals, then Americans are probably better, but it would be meaningless to compare the entire populations of each country because most people either don't play basketball or don't take it very seriously if they do. Additionally, this makes appending percentages (as in, group A volunteers 50% more than group B) very misleading. A tiny number plus 50% is still a tiny number. Such differences would be far more meaningful if volunteering were widespread.

Here's something else that's worth mentioning. All of the data that Brooks number-crunched (a term that in this case may mean more than usual) came from surveys. Surveys are very good at telling us some things, but notoriously unreliable at others. One thing that they are definitely not good at is giving us an accurate gauge of how often people commit behaviors perceived as socially desirable. For example, twice as many people claim to attend church when asked in a survey than actually do attend church. Whether they're fooling themselves or trying to fool the interviewer, people will consistently overestimate how often they do things that they are "supposed" to do. (And they will likewise underestimate how often they do things they're not supposed to do, like drink alcohol.) It's impossible to believe that charitable giving doesn't fit the same pattern. So when Brooks claims that a religious person is 57% more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person, does that mean that he's really more likely to do so, or just more likely to say that he did? Without some method of resolving this issue, Brooks' claims are pretty much meaningless, even if we accept his numbers at face value (which I do not).

Perhaps later I'll look more into this issue and peruse some of the other surveys that Brooks claims to have used (or abused).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Checking In...

I'm in South Carolina at the end of my Thanksgiving holiday. Today was a travel day from Myrtle Beach up to Clemson, and tomorrow is a travel day from Greenville to Denver. After that, things get back to normal until I leave for Snowmass next weekend.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Myth of Insufficient Conservatism

Via Matt Yglesias, I see this op-ed in the LA Times that explains what's wrong with the Republican belief that they lost because they alienated their "base":

No sooner had this year's election ended than nearly every conservative emerged to declare that Republicans had been defeated for betraying the One True Faith. Republicans, George Will wrote, "were punished not for pursuing but for forgetting conservatism." John McCain, who a few years ago was castigating his fellow Republicans for veering too far right, was now accusing them of the opposite, saying they "lost their way" by supporting big government.

Well, let's go to the exit polls. If Republicans lost because they abandoned conservatism, you'd see a big drop-off among conservative or Republican voters. Didn't happen. In 2004, 93% of self-identified Republicans voted for President Bush. This year, 91% voted for their GOP House candidate. The percentage of voters who identified themselves as conservatives barely budged, falling by just two points, from 34% to 32%, according to exit polls.

All the GOP losses occurred in the center. In 2004, Bush lost among independents by just a single point. In 2006, independents voted Democratic by a massive 19-point margin.

If there's one thing that this election has definitely taught us, it's that Karl Rove's "satisfy the base" strategy is dead. The conventional wisdom prior to Rove was that in order to win, you had to capture the middle. You needed to keep your base supporters on board of course, but the margin of victory is determined by that slice of the electorate who can potentially be persuaded to vote either way. Then Rove came along and turned that wisdom on its head. As he figured it, he could win by energizing the Republican base and ignoring everyone else. There was this strange belief that their base was potentially much larger and more motivated than it actually is, and that therefore they could keep a permanent majority simply by running to the right and satisfying movement conservatives.

It was always a ridiculous strategy. Yet Rove was declared a genius because it appeared to work in 2002 and 2004. This was after running Bush as a moderate in 2000, only to have him turn around and act like a right-wing crazybag the second the election was over. In order to believe that Rove deserves credit for these wins, however, you have to ignore the 9/11 attacks and the shameless way in which the Republicans took political advantage of them. And then there was the Iraq war. In 2002, by sheer coincidence the drum-beat of war began in September just prior to the election, an election in which Rove told his candidates to "run on the war". By 2004 the war wasn't going so well, yet one of the most common refrains was that it was a bad idea to switch out the Commander in Chief during a time of war, and that Bush's "stay the course" strategy (which they have since denied ever adhering to) was a sure path to victory. On top of that, Bush was getting higher marks than Kerry for dealing with terrorism, perhaps the only issue on which Bush polled better.

So now we've seen what happens when the Republicans cannot rely merely on demagoguery. Their systematic alienation of everyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh has caught up with them, yet they still only see themselves as the only demographic that matters. I don't expect this to change much either, since it seems to be an endemic myth of the conservative movement that conservatives are the only key to victory, and damn what the moderates think. It's so bad that one leading conservative even blamed the Republican loss of '74 on conservative dissatisfaction with the moderate policies of Nixon and Ford, seemingly unaware of a little scandal called Watergate.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Finally — South Carolina State Superintendent Race Over

The results of yesterday’s recount will be certified today by the Elections Commission, and pro-science candidate Jim Rex appears to have edged out ID advocate Karen Floyd by the narrowest of margins – 455 votes out of over 1 million cast. This is being called the closest general election result in South Carolina history. There is a strong chance that the Floyd campaign will protest the result (they have 5 days to do so), but this will be a last ditch desperation move. I don’t think I’m being premature in saying that, barring anything really weird, the race is over and Rex has won.

I would like to be able to say that Floyd’s anti-science posturing did her in, but that’s probably not the case. Her unpopular pro-voucher stance, combined with the fact that Rex was by far the more qualified candidate (Floyd has no educational experience), was most likely her undoing. Still, this is quite an achievement for Rex and a major blow to the Discovery Institute.

South Carolina prides itself on marching to the beat of a different drummer, and last Tuesday was no exception. While Democrats were winning across the country, Republicans were sweeping offices in SC. It appeared that the State Superintendent race would be no different; nearly every poll prior to the election had Floyd up by a healthy margin (polls for such “down ballot” races must be taken with a grain of salt, of course) and she had a huge financial lead, thanks in large part to gobs of money from an out-of-state voucher advocate who used dummy corporations to skirt campaign finance laws. But she still lost.

This appears to be the last in a series of massive blows to the Discovery Institute’s political agenda, especially given that South Carolina has been a major focus of theirs. Earlier this year, the state Board of Education rejected DI-backed pro-creationism language in the state curriculum standards (which of course prompted the DI to declare victory based on one obscure line that had been added to the standards during a previous year and was not up for consideration). It seems that they can get no traction at all, not even in South Carolina. Maybe they should just give it up already.

(Cross-posted to the Panda's Thumb.)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

We've Tried Everything Else....

Maybe this will do the trick:

Voodoo Practitioner Tries to Jinx Bush

A renowned black magic practitioner performed a voodoo ritual Thursday to jinx President George W. Bush and his entourage while he was on a brief visit to Indonesia.

Ki Gendeng Pamungkas slit the throat of a goat, a small snake and stabbed a black crow in the chest, stirred their blood with spice and broccoli before drank the "potion" and smeared some on his face.

"I don't hate Americans, but I don't like Bush," said Pamungkas, who believed the ritual would succeed as, "the devil is with me today."

He said the jinx would sent spirits to posses Secret Service personnel guarding Bush and left them in a trance, leading them into falsely thinking the President was under attack, thus eventually causing chaos in Bogor Presidential Palace, where the American leader was scheduled to meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Monday.

Unfortunately, Bush has probably brought Jesus Power™ with him, which will block the effects of the goat, snake, and crow's blood. The broccoli however will be his undoing, as it was for his father before him.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Rex is the Official Winnner


Jim Rex is officially the state superintendent of education. For now.

The state Election Commission on Wednesday certified his 564-vote victory over Karen Floyd and immediately ordered a mandatory recount to be held today.

The races finished within the 1 percent margin of victory that requires a recount under state law. State officials previously told county election boards to prepare to count the ballots again Thursday.

“This remains an exceedingly close vote count, perhaps the closest in a statewide race in South Carolina history,” Floyd’s spokesman Hogan Gidley said. “We will await the outcome of the mandatory recount before commenting.”

Of course, he's the official winner before the recount, meaning that it ain't over yet. But again, I'll say that things look very good for Rex and it's highly unlikely that the result will change. We'll know by Friday for sure.

Kirsten Powers: Fool

Browsing through the online opinion section today, I came across this article by one Kristen Powers titled, Election signals decline of old school liberalism. The title pretty much says it all, so I won't quote any lengthy bits of it. Powers is a Democrat, but you wouldn't know that by reading the article. As hard as it is to believe, even after winning an election with a unified Democratic party and an increasingly divided Republican party, there are still some Democrats who just can't help but do Karl Rove's bidding.

Powers' argument, needless to say, is that the election was a repudiation of "old-school liberalism", whatever that is, and a validation of centrism. Aside from a bunch of anecdotes, her only evidence of this is the fact that a slim majority of newly elected Congressional Democrats will join the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. Okay, so there were some moderates elected. How exactly does that spell the demise of liberalism? How many liberal Democrats lost their seats? Zero you say? And if at least some of the newly elected Congressmen were true blue liberals, are there now more or less of these characters in Congress? I'll give you a few minutes to think that one over.

And as for those anecdotes, what is the most prominent one she mentions? Why it's the election of Bob Casey Jr. in Pennsylvania! As if this one isn't already tired and overplayed. (She even repeats the myth that Casey's father was barred from speaking at the '92 Democratic convention because of his pro-life views.) Yes, Casey is pro-life. But from what I can gather, that is about the only "conservative" stance that he takes. And the Senator that he unseated was possibly the most radical anti-abortionist out there, which means that Casey's election was actually a net gain for the pro-choice movement. As for the rest of the Democratic party, it's still solidly pro-choice, as is a safe majority of the public at large, and I can promise you that there will be not one single anti-abortion bill passed by the 110th Congress. So how exactly does Casey's spittin'-in-the-wind abortion stance even matter? If you want to talk about the demise of old-school liberalism, you should at least pick an issue where the liberal stance has met its demise.

What's even more annoying about this is the fact that "pro-life" is not a centrist position. It is a right wing position. I'm not sure that there can be a centrist position on abortion, because it's mostly an either-or type of thing (you want it either legal and available or illegal and unavailable), and aside from playing semantic games and exuding platitudes, there's not much middle ground to be had. So is Powers saying that being a centrist Democrat means adopting a position held only by a minority of Americans and championed by the right-wing fringe? If so, that's precisely why people like her get so richly and deservedly derided by the left. If moderation means being a far-right Republican, no thanks.

Here's another example: Powers is of the opinion that Democratic party has been suffering under the "secular left's political dominance". That's news to me. Given that the last two Democratic presidents and nearly every Democratic member of Congress are openly religious, it's not really clear what this "secular left" is or where it resides. What is true is that there is a difference between how liberals and certain strains of conservatism view the relationship between church and state -- like our founding fathers, liberals support church-state separation, whereas the Theo-cons want to use the state to advance their sectarian theology. By celebrating the demise of old-school liberalism, Powers apparently thinks that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had it fundamentally wrong, whereas Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have it fundamentally right. She probably doesn't really believe that, but this is exactly what's implied when she regurgitates the ridiculous fiction that the Democratic party is somehow hostile to religion. Powers is either too stupid to know the difference between reality and religious right propaganda, or she thinks that being a centrist means supporting theocracy. And to make it even more silly, her solution to this non-issue is for Democrats to wear their religion on their sleeves. Note to Powers: appearing in Church for a campaign commercial and blabbering about God is not an ideological stance, it's shameless politicking. Any asshole can do that. And if you really want to be a hypocrite, you can compare yourself to Jesus like Tom DeLay did, but that doesn't translate into policy very well.

On the other hand, perhaps her conception of centrism means adopting some sort of patch-work ideology where you arbitrarily select various right-wing and left-wing positions without any regard for what those positions are. That's the kind of squishy, opportunistic centrism that inspires absolutely no one. And it's schizophrenic too. You could end up with two people who disagree on absolutely every issue and yet they would both be called centrists. That's what's ridiculous about holding up pro-life or anti-gay marriage Democrats as wonderful exemplars of centrism. These people only make the Democratic party more centrist in that they average out those Democrats who are pro-choice and favor gay rights. But of course that average doesn't result in any coherent middle ground, it just makes the party appear to be without any guiding principles. I don't know if Powers paid any attention to the last 3 elections, but this is a hammer that Republicans have very effectively wielded against the Democrats. I for one am very much against ideological rigidity, but that doesn't mean you can be both pro-choice and pro-life at the same time. You can't. And you shouldn't.

And finally, in what has got to be the dumbest part of this article, Powers points to the re-election of Joe Lieberman over Ned Lamont and proclaims that "even in blue states, voters like centrist politics". Its this kind of thing that makes you wonder where the woman parked her brain. Putting aside the fact that Lieberman is an incumbent and had all the advantages that go along with that, it's rather telling that that the Republican party didn't bother to support their own candidate. As a result, he got maybe 10% of the vote, leaving the vast majority of Republicans and conservative independents to vote for Lieberman. Democrats, however, went solidly for Lamont. This is not a case of centrism winning out over liberalism, it is the exact opposite. Lieberman, as a popular incumbent, should have been able to win reelection very, very easily. What nearly unseated him was a challenge from the left of his own party, while the right was too afraid to challenge him at all. That could have never happened if Connecticut was trending away from the left.

To wrap things up before I get even more irritated, the fact is that the Democratic Party has always been, at least within the last several decades, a center-left party. That a few centrists get elected here and there is no huge surprise -- in fact it's the way things should be. It's not indicative of an ideological shift among Democrats, but rather business as usual. The irony is that while there are indeed some left-wing Democrats who are unreasonable in their complaints about the party's centrist leanings, Powers is unreasonable in the exact same way but coming from the opposite direction. Like the lefties who get upset about any hint of a right-ward drift, Powers is attacking those who think that the Democratic party (not to mention the nation as a whole) would benefit from a more solidly progressive agenda. That makes her Karl Rove's best pal.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

It's all over but the Recount. And the Protest. And the...

The tedious process of figuring out who is South Carolina's next Superintendent of Education rolls on. On Friday, the Elections commissions certified the results of Tuesday's election, and found that Democrat Jim Rex does indeed have the lead by 507 votes. The margin has bounced around a bit since election night, but Rex has always had a narrow lead and the general trend has been for it to grow. What's different today is that all the votes have now been counted, so the Karen Floyd camp can no longer pin their hopes on uncounted absentee or provisional ballots.

But it's still not over. Since the margin of victory is less than 1%, a mandatory recount will commence Thursday. After that, it's likely that K-Flo will file a protest. Apparently she's got nothing to lose by doing this, and up to this point she's shown no signs of bowing out gracefully. What exactly such a protest would mean and what good it might do her I have no idea, but that's where everyone expects this to go.

Still, now that all the votes have been counted, I'm confident that Rex is going to end up the winner once all the dust settles. But we'll have to wait until after next week to be sure.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Oh No, I Too Have Been Assimilated

Via Pharyngula, I found this online quiz (and I normally hate such quizzes, but this one is interesting) which determines which kind of accent you have. Apparently, I'm from "The Midland":

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Midland

"You have a Midland accent" is just another way of saying "you don't have an accent." You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.

The West
The Inland North
North Central
The South
The Northeast
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

Now I don't think that three months of living in eastern Colorado have been enough to change my accent. I did live in Charleston for a long time, but I'm not from there, I grew up in the South Carolina upstate where accents are thicker than iron (that's pronounced, eyern). All I can guess is that I inherited my lack of accent from my mid-westerner parents. Either that or I'm a space alien whose memory has been erased in order to prevent the government from forcing me to divulge my secret plans of conquest once they capture and drug me. One or the other.

News Flash: South Carolina Frat Boys Are Drunken, Racist Idiots.

I have yet to see the new movie "Borat", but it's on my to-do list. Apparently though, a trio of frat boys who fell victim to Borat's guerrilla humor are now suing the producers of the film because they were allowed to act like drunken, misogynistic, racist morons in front of a camera. Since only people who have been to college would know that frat boys behave this way, the trio are suing for "loss of reputation, goodwill and standing in the community". Given that it's not possible to lose what you didn't have to begin with, the suit doesn't stand a chance.

Oh, and the frat boys are from South Carolina. It's not as if similar idiots can't be found at most colleges in the US, but from what I understand, it only took 20 seconds of searching the Palmetto State, so the producers were able to save on gas. According to the AP story, the movie only identifies the frat brothers as being from a South Carolina university, but it doesn't say which one. But it's not as if there are a whole lot of choices; SC has plenty of colleges but only a few institutions that qualify for the moniker "university". It's not exactly hard to guess which one. And this article confirmed my suspicions:

The University of South Carolina chapter of Chi Psi has been expectedly tight-lipped about the incident, which doesn't portray the boys in a particularly positive light. Chapter president Todd Bailey told a Web site that he's not eager to see the film: "Personally, I have no desire to see it, but I have to be aware of what's in the movie."

And at at the risk of spoiling the surprise, here's a description of the behavior that the frat kids engaged in:

Borat gets picked up on the side of the road by three members of the Chi Psi fraternity. David, Justin and Anthony fulfill just about every frat-boy stereotype possible, saying they wished they had slaves, explaining that minorities have all the power, disabusing Borat of the notion that Pamela Anderson is a virgin, and devolving into general drunken boorishness.

Come to think of it, that's not spoiling a surprise at all. In fact, I have to wonder why the producers even thought this was worthy of being put in the film. Seeing people act like themselves is kind of mundane.

Friday Animal Blogging

Long dead edition part II.

A while back I visited the Dinosaur Ridge, located near Morrison, Colorado, just a ways northwest of Denver. It's right near the famous Red Rocks amphitheater. Here are some of the tracks we saw:

The entire area was once near the shoreline of the Western Interior Seaway, which provided soft mud for the dinosaurs to make tracks in. It also left many places with water ripples, which have since been fossilized and upthrust. Here's an example:

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Where things Stand with the SC SSIE Race

Here's an article from (registration required) has the latest on the Rex vs. Floyd race:

Floyd team, Rex both declare victory

Early Wednesday morning, Rex, the Democratic candidate, proclaimed himself the winner. Later that afternoon, the state Republican Party said Floyd was victorious. The numbers showed Rex in front, but they kept changing. [...]

State law requires a recount when the margin is less than 1 percent. According to the unofficial numbers as of 10 p.m. Wednesday, with all 2,059 precincts reporting, Rex was up by 620 votes -- 510,987 (47.52 percent) to 510,367 (47.46 percent). [...]

The next step comes Friday, when county election commissions certify their results, according to Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the state commission. That process includes the counting and contesting of provisional ballots -- those used when there is a question about a voter's eligibility, Whitmire said.

The state commission will certify the results Wednesday. The recount will be held the next day, Whitmire said.

Once the recount is completed, one side or the other will most likely file a protest, Beltram said.

"Having been through a half dozen protests, what I would suggest would be to send teams of people out to suspicious areas now to see what is out there," Beltram said. "Clearly with such a slender margin, there's no downside to a protest."

So we will have to wait at least a week, possibly longer, to see who the winner is. The fact that Rex is up in all the various vote counts is a good sign, but there is no guarantee that a recount won't shift things in Floyd's favor. And while I understand the usefulness of declaring yourself the winner and convincing the public that your victory is a fait accompli (it worked great for Bush in 2000), I for one am not confident enough to declare Rex the winner outright. There have been races in recent times with larger vote margins that ended up switching once the recounts were done.

Oh, and just for fun, here is the Floyd camp's take on Rex's lead:

Just after lunch, state GOP Executive Director Scott Malyerck sent an e-mail to party faithful, saying that "the numbers we currently have show Karen Floyd winning." Spartanburg County GOP Chairman Rick Beltram said Malyerck did not provide any numbers to back up the claim.

It looks like Floyd and her team are using a strategy they've learned from hobnobbing with the intelligent design creationists: claim that you've got the evidence, but refuse to show it to anyone.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

More on the Elections

Here's some more analysis of the races that I was following.

In Colorado, Bill Ritter (D) is the new governor. In my Congressional district, Ed Perlmutter (D) is the new Congressman. These are both Dem pickups. Unfortunately, nut-case Marilyn Musgrave retained her Congressional seat in the 5th district, as did even bigger nut-case Tom Tancredo in the 6th. Still, Colorado's Congressional delegation is now majority Democratic.

I was disappointed in the ballot measures. The anti-gay marriage amendment passed, while the domestic partnership referendum failed. They were relatively close, and with the long-term trend in public opinion moving against anti-gay bigotry, this issue just isn't going to work for Republicans much longer. I predict we'll be revisiting this issue again within the next decade, and results will be different. There was also a ballot measure to legalize possession of marijuana. I voted in favor of that, not because I smoke pot (I once did, but I didn't inhale), but because I think the drug laws are stupid. Unfortunately, it failed. There was also a measure to increase the minimum wage, which passed, and an amendment to institute term limits for Supreme court and Appellate court judges, which failed. I viewed that last one as another part of the Right's War On The Judiciary, their on-going attempt to make our 3rd branch of government irrelevant, so I'm glad it failed. There's a reason why our founding fathers preferred lifetime appointments for high court judges -- it isolates them from the whims of politics. And that's exactly why right-wing extremists hate the judiciary, because when judges uphold the Constitution, the Right can't do anything about it. Here's another prediction: With the Dems controlling both the House and Senate, and no small number of state legislatures, the Right will suddenly forget that they are at war with judges and start running to the courts to try to block as much legislation as they can. And as usual they will be completely oblivious to their hypocrisy.

In South Carolina, the anti-gay marriage amendment passed by a huge margin. No surprise I guess. Mark Sanford, who is such a genius that he forgot his registration card and was turned away at the polls, won reelection easily. Andre Bauer narrowly won reelection for Lt. Governor. I saw Bauer speak once at MUSC, where among other things he tried to convince a crowd of bio/med professionals that our health insurance system was fine and right-wing's War on Contraception was a good thing. I don't think he won too many friends that day.

In the race for State Superintendent of Education, The Republican (and proponent of teaching creationism) Karen Floyd was heavily favored to win, but it appears that Democrat Jim Rex has eked out a narrow victory. As of right now, the margin is 217 votes out of over 1 million cast. Rex has claimed he's won, although we'll be seeing a recount for sure. None of the news articles I've seen have mentioned anything about the possibility of a run-off, so I may have been wrong about that. If so, fine. I'd rather not have to go through with that.

All in all, it was a very bad night for the proponents of "intelligent design". Aside from Floyd's upset loss (assuming it sticks), we had the joy of seeing Rick Santorum, author of the infamous "Santorum Amendment", go down in a flames. The Discovery Institutes's biggest supporter in Congress is thus finished. In Ohio, the creationist members of the Board of Education got slaughtered, (update: Dick Hoppe has a post about the Ohio school board at the 'Thumb) as did the religious right kook running for governor. In Kansas, sadly, the two pro-science candidates challenging the creationist Board of Education incumbents lost. But fortunately, thanks to a huge win in last summer's primary, the creationists will once again be a minority.

Democrats Win.

My predictions sucked. In a good way.

The Webb campaign (VA) is claiming victory. That may be premature, but they've got the raw vote totals. McCaskill (MO) has declared victory, and Talent has conceded. Tester in MT is ahead by quite a bit. It's all about Virginia. If that holds out, the Democrats will take the Senate.

And as for the House... not even close. I predicted a Dem pickup of 22 seats. The news networks are predicting 32, give or take. It'll probably be worse by the morning.

Here's one race that matter a lot to me. In my home state of South Carolina, where the Republicans have done quite well as they usually do, the one race that matters to those of us in the evo-cre debate is State Superintendent of Education. Karen Floyd was predicted by some polls to win by 55%+, with her Democratic challenger getting something in the mid-30s. Well, here's the best numbers I can find for now:

Rex: 49.23%

Floyd: 45.77%

Others make up the difference.

What this means apparently is that we go to a run-off because neither one got 50%. More on this soon...

Monday, November 06, 2006

My Predictions for Election '06

With the election looming tomorrow, I figure I may as well make my predictions.

1. The Dems will pick up 22 seats in the House. That will result in a solid majority, but not a massive wave.

2. The Dems will pick up 5 seats in the Senate. This will leave the Senate 50-50, but still gives the Republicans control because of Cheney's tie-breaking vote. The Dem pick-ups will consist of easy wins in OH, PA, and RI, a slightly less easy win in MT, and a squeaker win in either MO or VA but not both. Tennessee will be won by the Reps with relative ease.

3. The Dems will have a major wave in governor's races. I have no idea what the numbers will be, but they'll do far more damage in state elections than they will in federal elections.

4. The Republicans will blame the media, Democratic dirty tricks, George Soros... everyone and everything but themselves. And they'll also prophecy impending DOOM for our economy, safety, heterosexuality, and the very fabric of society and the universe itself.

We'll see by Wed. morning how close I get.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Five Reasons Not to Vote for Karen Floyd

Karen Floyd is the Republican nominee for State Superintendent of Education in South Carolina running against Democrat Jim Rex. Here is why you should pick Rex over Floyd:

1. Floyd wants to teach creationism.

The paper trail on this is extensive. But Floyd has come out and said quite clearly that she favors the teaching of "intelligent design" (i.e. creationism-lite) and is an ally of the Discovery Institute. Here are some examples:

From the Charleston Post and Courier, Nov. 3rd:

The six candidates for state superintendent of education have found much to disagree about, but when it comes to whether intelligent design should be taught in schools, all but one see eye to eye.

While Republican Karen Floyd is not the only candidate who thinks teaching alternatives to Darwin's theories would benefit students, she is the one who says it's appropriate to discuss intelligent design in public school science classes.

The public schools need to do more to satisfy students' curiosity, she said. "Education is about the quest for knowledge, every question should be answered."

Forbidding teachers, even science teachers, to broach the subject of life's origins creates an atmosphere of fear that's unfair to children, she said. Students are smart, she said, and they connect the dots: Some will wonder "how many dinosaurs boarded Noah's Ark."

That last statement is particularly disturbing, because it shows that Floyd wants to teach Young-Earth Creationist arguments as well.

The idea that teachers can't broach the subject of life's origins is sheer nonsense. That's the whole point of teaching evolution. However, there is the proper, scientific way to teach evolution, and then there's the improper, religiously dogmatic way. If a student asks "how many dinosaurs boarded Noah's Ark", you tell them the correct answer: Zero. Because Noah's Ark is a fable and the dinosaurs were extinct millions of years before humans existed. Telling them anything else will be teaching them a big, fat falsehood.

But there is more. From the Greenville News, Nov. 3rd.

"I support the Education Oversight (Committee)'s premise that we should have critical analysis so that the discussion of intelligent design is not prohibited and could be part of the classroom discussion," Floyd said.

The Discovery Institute must be pulling their collective hair out over this one. After having carefully cultivated the lie that their "critical analysis of evolution" is not the same thing as teaching ID, here Karen Floyd goes and ruins it for them. And then there is this bizarre statement:

Floyd said she believes "what's being taught in school should never undermine what's being taught in the home," adding that it's "absolutely critical that we don't prohibit any young person from asking questions that they think are relevant."

So apparently if someone tells their kids at home that the Earth is flat, it would apparently be wrong for geography teachers to say otherwise. This lady has no business in the educational sphere, period.

But it gets worse. To see Floyd's sheer, unbridled pro-creationism craziness, you'll have to check out this article on the South Carolina Parent's in Education (SC-PIE) website. Don't let the name fool you, it's a far right-wing anti-public school organization (I discussed it previously here).

There are a growing number of prominent scientists who are "poking around" in the foundations of evolutionary theory. Irreducible complexity is just one issue that causes heartburn for the evolutionists.

I hate to break it to you Ms. Floyd, but "irreducible complexity" doesn't cause anyone heartburn, and there is not a "growing number of scientists" who support ID. The number of scientists who support ID has stagnated at just slightly above zero.

Long gone are the days when God was excluded from scientific circles. If we ignore that reality, we will only limit our children's scientific knowledge.

Really? Someone forgot to send me the memo. I'm a working scientist who attends seminars on a weekly basis given by other scientists from around the country, and I have yet, even once, to hear anyone invoke divine intervention as part of any theory in biology.

I'm afraid that Floyd is one of those who just has no clue about what goes on in scientific circles and makes the mistake of thinking that the propaganda put out by the Discovery Institute is actually truthful. That's the last person you want in charge of education.

2. Jim Rex is far more qualified for the job; Floyd has no relevant qualifications of any kind.

I'll let Laurin Manning handle this one:

Irrespective of political parties (I think this should be a nonpartisan race), the difference in job qualifications of the candidates makes this race a no-brainer. Mrs. Floyd is a former prosecutor with some business experience and a stint as Chairwoman of the Spartanburg County Council. She’s a smart lady, and in my book, she’s much more qualified to run for Attorney General than she is for Superintendent of Education.

The Democratic nominee, Dr. Jim Rex, is former high school English teacher, football coach, Dean of both Winthrop University and Coastal Carolina University, former president of Columbia College, and former Vice President for Development at the University of South Carolina. I couldn’t gin up a better resume for this position if I tried.

3. Floyd is the recipient of wads out out-of-state money from pro-voucher advocate Howard Rich.

Not only is Howard Rich trying to buy the election for Floyd, he's spitting in the face of the state's campaign laws to do so. Sure, he's only donated the maximum that a person is allowed to donate. Only problem is, he's done it no less than sixteen times, using various front-groups and dummy corporations to hide the fact that it's all coming from the same person. Whether that's technically illegal is something I don't know, but it clearly violates the spirit of the law, if not the letter.

4. Floyd's pro-voucher position is extreme.

I have kind of mixed feelings on vouchers. I think they're acceptable in limited circumstances in areas where 1) the public schools are doing very poorly (mostly in poor neighborhoods) and 2) there exists a sufficient array of private schools such that students actually have a choice, rather than, for example, one single Catholic school getting all the funding. Those two don't coincide very often, but when they do, I'm not against vouchers. What I am against are broad voucher programs that do little more than transfer public monies to wealthy or super-religious people who already opt out of public schools. And I'm not alone; 70% of South Carolinians are against vouchers. But Karen Floyd is not among them.

It's hard to believe, given her association with SC-PIE, her association with Howard Rich, and her general support for religious right positions, that Floyd isn't simply an opponent of public education, period. Like the Bush administration's running of the federal government, Floyd will most likely look for any opportunity to make SC schools worse, not better, so that she can turn around and say, "See, government doesn't work". (Her terrible plan to put video cameras in every classroom, aside from being Big Brother style creepy, appears to have the purpose of making public education just that much more expensive and bureaucracy laden.)

5. Floyd's own step-mother is supporting Jim Rex.

I'm not sure if this one is funny or sad. I guess a little of both.

The State, Oct. 24th:

Republican Karen Floyd’s stepmother contributed $100 last week to Democrat Jim Rex in the state superintendent of education race, a decision that prompted Floyd’s father to send her an identical donation Tuesday.

Jean E. Kanes wrote the Rex campaign a check Friday, and her donation is included in a summary of campaign contributions compiled for a mandatory report for the State Ethics Commission.

If anyone wants to add anything else in comments, please do share. Unfortunately I can't vote against Floyd because I now live in Colorado, but I'll be lending moral support to the Rex campaign.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Ted Haggard, We Hardly Knew Ye.

I haven't had much to say about the allegations against Pastor Ted, the Colorado Springs religious right leader who has been accused of hiring a gay prostitute and doing crystal meth. Even though it's happening in my neck of the woods, I don't know anything that hasn't been reported in the national media. As things stand now, Haggard temporarily stepped down from his position as head of his church, has resigned his position as head of the National Evangelical Association, and has admitted to some of his fellow church leaders that at least some of the allegations are true. And while I'm all for reserving judgment on the accused until the facts come out, I've got the feeling that when the dust settles, all or nearly all of the allegations against him will have turned out to be true. Haggard is finished.

I first heard about Pastor Ted in a Harper's Magazine article I read last Summer. If anyone wants some background on who Haggard is, what he represents, and the kind of impact that he has on our political landscape, this is the article to start with. It's long but it's good. There is much that could be said about the highly commercialized and politicized phenomenon of the fundamentalist Megachurch, which Pastor Ted embodied, but I'll let the article speak for itself.

The author of that article, Jeff Sharlet, also has an interesting blog post about the new allegations. I'll reproduce some parts below:

Details are still coming in, but it seems a gay man in Denver named Mike Jones was watching TV recently when he saw one of his regular sex partners, whom he knew only as "Art," on the tube: Ted, welcome to celebrity.

I just talked to Jones on the phone. He's not vindictive, nor particularly political; he's voted for Republicans and Democrats. He struggled with his decision, out of compassion for a man in the closet. He was motivated, he said, simply by being a gay man who's been around long enough to know how Ted's politics play out in the ordinary lives of people Jones cares about. That's about as good a motive for outing someone as I've ever heard. This afternoon, Ted announced that he was temporarily stepping down from his positions of authority. A press conference of national evangelical figures that planned to express support for Ted has been called off. Jones has made available recordings he says are of Ted asking him to procure meth, and an envelope in which he says Ted mailed him money. [...]

If the story is true, Ted's a hypocrite of the worst kind; then again, he's also another victim of the very closet over which he publicly stands guard, as are all the New Life church members he's led into it. That story may not make the mainstream media. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Ted's downfall will be reported with any more nuance than that of Mark Foley's political collapse. Sex, it seems, blinds the press to politics. [...]

The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it's a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism. I wrote about the role of sex in Ted's theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right's men's sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted's sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they're intimately bound in a worldview of "order," one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

This, I think, is a critical point. Ted is hardly the only evangelical leader to be outed for scurrilous behavior (usually gay sex it seems) in recent times. It is almost a weekly event these days to hear about some pious fire-and-brimstone type being caught up in a massive scandal, in spite of the fact that were we to believe their own self-righteous proclamations, they should be the least likely people to commit such behavior. But commit it they do, and in spades.

It is therefore impossible not to conclude that there is something rotten in the heart of Christian fundamentalism. I could go on and on about the superstitions, tribalism, repressiveness, and belligerence that tend to exemplify the fundamentalist movement, but I see these as symptoms of a much deeper problem. What exactly that problem is I'm not sure, but I would dearly love it if for once -- just once -- the national media would at least recognize that there is a problem that needs explaining. I'm afraid, however, their kid glove treatment of religion will wall them off from even asking such questions, and instead Pastor Ted's transgressions will be regarded as just another juicy scandal, with the trifecta of sex, politics, and religion that the media love, and no one will ever bother to ask just what the hell is wrong with these people.

Update: You can watch snippets of an interview with Haggard and a lengthy interview with Jones here. I'll repeat what I said before: Haggard is finished. His excuses make no sense and his accuser appears to know all the right details. Watching Haggard squirm, seeing that pained look on his face that screams of guilt, I couldn't help but feel a strong wave of pity. I don't know if I should be happy that I have a sense of empathy or if I should smack myself back to reality. This guy has done more than his share of damage.

The sad truth is, just as this isn't the first time (or the second, or fifteenth) this has happened, it won't be the last either. The fundies will continue to blindly follow leaders who commit crimes and spit in the face of their own moral dictates. To the rest of us, they'll continue to look like demented, raging hypocrites. To them, the rest of us will continue to look like The Enemy. Not until they're finally made to account for themselves, somewhere within our national discourse, is this kind of thing going to change.

Friday Animal Blogging

I've got birds. Here are a couple of pictures:

Notice something strange? They're always congregating right next to each other, even though they've got lots of cage to roam around in. Don't they have a concept of personal space?

Then, one day, I caught them doing it:

So I've had to resign myself to the shocking truth: My birds are gay. First Pastor Ted, and now my little birds. When I bought them at the store, I was told that the whole flock was male, but I wasn't told that being segregated from the women had turned them into homos.

After a great deal of soul searching, I've decided that I can accept them for who they are. All I want is for them to be happy. If and when the voters pass Referendum I, which allows domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, I'll make sure to sign these guys up.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies, and Stem Cells.

Ed Brayton has a post about a common lie that's being peddled by opponents of Embryonic Stem Cell (ESC) research, namely that there are supposedly 65 (or 80, or whatever number they pull out of their hat) cures that have been derived from adult stem cells, so therefore ESC research isn't needed. Ed puts the lie to that claim, pointing out this letter appearing in Science which shoots down that nonsense. I have a bad feeling though that like so many other myths, this one will continue to spread unabated. The far-right of American politics truly lives in its own little world and rarely, if ever, allows any daylight in.

But what irritates me most about claims over the superiority of adult stem cell is what a complete and total red herring it is. And Ed points out, it isn't an either/or type of issue; researchers would like to use both adult and embryonic stem cells, and the only way to know the limitations of one is to explore the potential uses for the other. Making hay over adult stem cells is purely a distraction from the main issue at hand, which is as follows: Is it somehow immoral to take microscopic blastocysts, which are destined for destruction anyway, and attempt to culture them so that the resulting cell line can be used for research? To rational people, the answer is of course not. Opponents of ESC research either find themselves in the odd position of having to oppose in vitro fertilization outright, since this is what creates all of those surplus embryos that end up being discarded, or they invoke an absurd slippery slope argument which holds that if we allow ECS research to go forward, next thing you know we'll be harvesting live babies for their organs. The sheer ridiculousness of these arguments is precisely why a red herring like adult stem cells gets dragged into the debate. Debating the actual point of contention isn't going to win them any converts, and they know it.

So in reality, it is not even relevant how much promise ESCs may or may not have, or whether some other alternative might exist. The truth is that most research ends up going nowhere, but of course there's no way to know that until you do the research. For opponents of ESCs, pointing out that there are no cures yet derived from them before the research has even been done is used as some kind of a knock-down argument against allowing the research to be done. That makes about as much sense as arguing that Columbus should have never sailed to the New World because, at the time, there was no evidence that there was anything there to be found. But putting aside the stupidity of this argument, the fact is that it wouldn't even matter if the prospects for finding cures with ECS research were slim. As long as there is no ethical problem with using ECSs, and there isn't, then there is no rationale for banning the research.