Friday, September 2, 2011

If gays can marry 'depravity will prevail!'

In my previous post I dismantled a chain email claiming that President Obama parallels Adolf Hitler in many ways. Since it's usually religious Republicans who distribute and consume these ridiculous attempts at character assassination, I pointed out that the parallels, tenuous as they are, that exist between Obama and Hitler also exist between President Bush and Hitler. One of the examples I used was restrictive marriage laws. The Nazis endorsed such restrictions through implementation of the Nuremberg Laws, and many conservatives today endorse comparable restrictions on gay marriage. Therefore, all conservatives are Nazis! Okay, not really. But I wanted to see what it was like to indulge in the use of tortured logic for a second.

 Anyway, the individual who originally sent me the Hitler/Obama email took me to task over the above argument and for my "endorsement" of the homosexual lifestyle. Since this is such a contentious issue - one that most Christians are wrong about - I thought I'd give it some attention, perhaps show my fellow believers that you can disagree with people's choices and not use the state to bludgeon them into cooperation.

 My view of marriage in religious terms is rather orthodox. I don't think we need to reinterpret the Biblical passages that deal with homosexuality; it's pretty clear that the Bible condemns the practice, see here for example. That being said, I have no desire to tell homosexuals whom they can marry, or anybody else for that matter. There should be no laws restricting what kinds of agreements consenting adults can make with each other, provided they harm no one else. And when you think about it, that's where all the disagreement arises. The government has granted a special status to married couples and denied the opportunity to marry to a segment of the population. Just privatize the whole institution and call it day. I have yet to find a decent rebuttal to that position, and my political sparring partner didn't offer one, though he gave it his best. Take a look and tell me what you think.
Hopefully, it would be none-of-the-governments business about what one does in the privacy of their own home. Let Fred love Ed, Milany love Mary, Bobby have sex with his sister, MANBLA can have a coterie of young boys, and why not a young woman make some money off the use of her body, you know, to pay her college tuition, car payment, etc.? Its none of the damn governments business what one does in the privacy of their own home, stay in the closet, right?
Basically - though my standard was consenting adults entering into voluntary contracts. A relationship between an adult and a child obviously doesn't fit. Otherwise, I don't much care. Furthermore, as we've seen with other forms of prohibition, drug and alcohol laws for example, criminalizing an activity doesn't necessarily reduce it. So if your concern is that these degenerate behaviors left unabated will destroy society, I want some evidence that legal restrictions will have some positive effect. By the way, restating my argument as a rhetorical question isn't a refutation of any kind.
Hey, moral standards are like the Bible; you should get to pick and choose cafeteria style those that you like and ignore the one's you don't. So, yes, to maintain civil order, coerce standards of public conduct and public health, a government of the people must apply standards of personal conduct.
I didn't say you could pick and choose Christian morality, only that legislating it isn't always necessary. There are no laws condemning those who refuse to honor their parents, yet I never hear any calamitous cries from the Christian Right about it. And I still see no justification for coercion in this case. How is civil order disrupted by granting people the privilege to marry? you can see all around you, especially in elementary and secondary education, GBLT acceptance have become endemic. Within a couple of generations we'll become a purely bisexual society and God only knows what other depravity will prevail.
And you thought the blog title was hyperbolic.
God defined the marriage arrangement, and if we change that, condone a type of marriage that was not to be, then we are saying that we know better then God, and you know the result of that. But, if one is an atheist then its purely academic.
Oh, yes, the "you're defying God's will and just asking for his wrath to be poured out on thee" argument. As I said, it's not a matter of ignoring Christian morality, but deciding what needs to be made into public policy. God condemns many things people do. But society need only be concerned with the choices that harm others. In closing, I'm just going to plagiarize my last entry and recommend that you eat another delicious sandwich and chill out even more. Really, Christians have a lot to defend already. For what purpose should we hold on to pointless, restrictive marriage laws? EDIT: Coincidentally, John Stossel just carpet bombed the misplaced fear of gay marriage.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Obama isn't Hitler - chill out

Like everybody, I receive a lot of ridiculous chain mail, and like most people I simply send it through my spam filter or delete it. But occasionally I receive a message that irritates me so that I respond to it, especially if it's sent by someone I think would consider my comments.

Yesterday morning there was a chain email in my inbox suggesting that the Obama administration parallels the Nazi party in many striking ways. The article in the email was supposedly written by historian David Kaiser (it wasn't), and that, I was told, lends credibility to the argument, which it doesn't, because the argument is lousy whoever concocted it.

Below is my response to the email. All the information comes from Richard J. Evans' history of Nazi Germany.


"If there are parallels between the Obama administration and the Nazis, then there are just as many between the Bush administration and the Nazis. Their policies are no different. We're still fighting the same wars, torturing prisoners and holding them without trial, American citizens included. We have laws restricting who can marry whom, restrictions on free speech, enforced by the FCC, and endless other regulations that dictate people's personal behavior. Parenthetically, Republicans like yourself typically approve of everything I mentioned above.

But could you say there are parallels between Germany in 1930s and 40s and America today? Yeah, I guess. But my point is that the party you trust to change America for the better doesn't deserve that trust. In practical terms the Republicans and Democrats are nearly identical. If nothing changes, I think America may end up a totalitarian state, but we have a ways to go.

The parallels that Kaiser [not Kaiser, but some anonymous blogger] discusses are tenuous at best. The misery the Nazis rained down on Germany makes the Democrats look like dedicated defenders of individual liberty. For example, if you were to distribute a pamphlet in Berlin during World War II that was anything like this email, you would have been lined up against a wall and shot, you're family and friends sent to a labor camp to work until they died of exhaustion or starvation.

The German government controlled every newspaper, book publisher, radio station, theater and museum in the country. In fact, the Nazis assigned a Block Warden to every neighborhood in German cities to make sure the population wasn't listening to or playing unapproved music in their homes.

Even looking just at Kaiser's examples it's easy to see the difference. We don't have anything comparable to the Hitler Youth, Obama can't dissolve the Congress as Hitler did the Reichstag, there are no political party militias beating up dissenters in the streets and no secret police keeping a watchful eye on the public's behavior [ed January 2014: alright, so we might have this now].

There was also the attempted genocide of the Jews and mass murder of anybody deemed unfit for life. Good luck finding a parallel there.

I could provide many more examples, but you get the idea. So in summary, what I think you should do is eat a delicious sandwich and chill out. Though we should be informed citizens and remain critical of government, we still have a lot of freedom in this country.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goodbye, attention spans? More on e-reader phobia

Last week I commented on a Sacramento News and Review story about the transition to digital reading, explaining why the fear of e-readers is a bit excessive. Part of that post appears this week in the SN&R as a letter to the editor - though a link to this blog is absent. So much for shameless self-promotion.

I emailed the editor in hopes of writing a full-length response to "Goodbye, books?," but I'll take a published letter. Perhaps a few bookworms will read it and quit fretting about the supposed digital assault on our attention spans and books.

Really, there are all kinds of actual problems we can worry about. Why get so bothered over the fact that people are beginning to read words on a screen instead of a book page?

Anyway, here's the unedited letter. Thanks to the paper for publishing it.

This was a very interesting story. I’m glad the News and Review decided to cover this issue, but I think the concern about e-readers (and technology in general) expressed in the article is misplaced.

As I mentioned in a blog post about the article, “we don’t value learning new things as much as we once did, and I think it’s because our education system sucks out loud. If we could make the appropriate changes in our classrooms, I’m optimistic that we could easily recover our attention spans, regardless of how much we tweet or surf the internet."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why all the fuss about e-readers?

Whenever new technology changes how we do things, people tend to panic. The latest example is the concern espoused by many readers and writers that e-readers and other digital information sources are eliminating physical books and negatively impacting our reading habits.

There's a story in this week's Sacramento News and Review by Hugh Biggar surveying local bookworms on the issue, and many of them are troubled by the introduction of digital reading, which is rather ironic since their opinions are published in the online edition of the SN&R. Nonetheless, the story made some interesting points that I'd like to comment on.

Perhaps the most common criticism is that modern information consumption, absorbing lots of little bits of information, is shortening our attention spans and reducing how much we read as a result. Despite acknowledging the potential of technology like e-readers, UC Davis professor Andy Jones and librarian Stacey Aldrich gave voice to this concern in the SN&R article.

That argument may have some validity but I think there's a better explanation. We've become less curious as a society. We don't value learning new things as much as we once did, and I think it's because our education system sucks out loud. If we could make the appropriate changes in our classrooms, I'm optimistic that we could easily recover our attention spans, regardless of how much we tweet or surf the internet.

There's another reason not to worry about electronic information: it can speed up the learning process. Because I didn't have to go pick up a physical copy of the SN&R, I can read this article, blog about it, and search for more sources of information simultaneously. Somehow that habit has not destroyed my attention span.

Along similar lines, an agricultural scientist quoted in a recent NPR article on this subject pointed out that access to instantaneous information improves his research.
'I don't read books ... in my real job,' says Curt Emanuel, who works in the Cooperative Extension Service in Agriculture at Purdue University [...] 'If I'm working with, say, a farmer on developing a fertility program for his corn crop for this coming year, I'll want to look at field trials done within the last couple of years on corn hybrids he or she is using. For that, it takes recent articles and research — the information is just better than that contained in a book which may already be outdated.'

The SN&R article also made reference to the "digital divide," the gap between people who have access to electronic information and those who don't. But I suspect this isn't a serious problem. There are thousands of e-books available for free online and free computers on which to access them in public libraries. E-readers can be purchased for under $100, and they'll only get cheaper as the technology improves and more devices come to market in the next few years.

Finally, the article bemoaned the loss of the bookstore as a community resource. According to one local bookstore owner named Richard Hansen, "The era when cities are bustling with bookstores is over ... There will come a point when a city will have only one or two bookstores, and small towns will have none. I am not sure what will take their place." I'm not convinced by this either, however. Some bookstores have gone under, but retail bookstores haven't disappeared yet, and probably won't. Competition is a powerful motivator.

But even if technology actually does eliminate the local bookstore one day, there's little reason to worry. As long as there are people who enjoy reading physical books and networking with like minded people, there will be book clubs, fairs, festivals and other outlets designed to cater to them.

In sum, as an avid reader and aspiring writer, I love books. Anything that serves to make them less accessible or devalue reading as a source of information and entertainment should generate concern. But technology is not one of those things. Chill out.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Misusing science: the Four Loko ban

Last November, the FDA banned Four Loko and similar alcoholic energy drinks because of the supposedly devastating impact they were levying on young drinkers. Proponents of the ban claimed that the stimulants in the beverages mask the depressant effects of alcohol, making it more likely that those who consume them will engage in risky behaviors that they otherwise would not. In response, manufacturers of the drinks removed the caffeine and other stimulants that caused the panic.

But that's not good enough. Some state legislators are now pushing for a more comprehensive ban that would prohibit the sale of drinks like Four Loko - now just fruity malt beverages - in every retail outlet except liquor stores.

There's a lot of hype behind the efforts to ban these "alcopops," but is there any science? Nope. And there never was. Supporters of the heavy handed regulations cite two studies that supposedly demonstrate the elevated risk posed by consuming caffeinated malt beverages. But the research often touted in support of the ban actually suggests that a much more modest policy would be appropriate.

For example, one study conducted by Wake Forest University researchers in 2007 surveyed 4, 271 college students from ten universities about drinking and its associated risks. 697 of those surveyed reported trying the drinks. The study found that consuming alcohol mixed with caffeine was associated with a “significantly higher prevalence of alcohol-related consequences,” including riding with an intoxicated driver and engaging in risky sexual activity.

What was usually not reported in the reactionary news stories, however, is that the study did not demonstrate a causal relationship between consuming the drinks and increased risk taking. While it is certainly possible that caffeinated alcohol is to blame for increased risk taking, the data may also be explained by the fact that “sensation seeking individuals may be drawn to energy drinks, heavy alcohol consumption, and risky behaviors,” according to the researchers. Essentially,  the association could be backwards; it is impossible to know from the study.

Not only do advocates of the ban assume causation where there is only correlation, but the data for the study were obtained by self-report. That means the students surveyed could have easily overestimated how much alcohol they consumed and the consequences that resulted from their drinking.

The Wake Forest study is not the only one plagued by such serious limitations. In 2008, scientists at the University of Florida conducted a similar survey of over 800 college-aged bar patrons as they left seven bars near the university. Participants completed self-administered questionnaires that asked about their drinking history and intention to drive that night, and researchers tested participants’ breath-alcohol concentration levels.

Of all the students surveyed, 6.5 percent reported mixing alcohol and caffeine and were three times as likely to be intoxicated as students who consumed only alcohol. The average breath-alcohol concentration reading for those who mixed alcohol and energy drinks was 0.109, much higher than the 0.08 legal limit. There's just one major problem. The researchers did not determine how much caffeine the study participants consumed. As a result, they write that their “...findings provide no information about the extent to which potentially dangerous antagonist effects were produced in the patron sample.” How is it possible to know if people who consume caffeinated-alcohol are in harm's way if you do not know how much they consume?

Given the limitations of these studies, the authors of both suggested that the beverages carry labels indicating their caffeine content and a warning that the stimulant will not counteract the effects of alcohol, not an outright ban.

Beyond the very limited research available, there is no way to tell if Four Loko is more harmful than "regular" alcohol. Jacob Sullum at Reason Magazine points out that "[t]he National Highway Traffic Safety Administration counted 13,800 alcohol-related fatalities in 2008. It did not place crashes involving Four Loko drinkers in a special category."

 Furthermore, college students were drinking too much long before the introduction of alcoholic energy drinks. Sullum says, citing data from the federal government, that "more than 100,000 18-to-20-year-olds make alcohol-related visits to American emergency rooms every year."

As usual, it's just hype generated by overzealous health nannies. Remember that the next time, and there always is a next time, a politician or consumer advocacy group wants to ban something.


O’Brien, M.C., et al., Caffeinated Cocktails: Get wired, Get drunk, Get injured, annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (2007), Abstract # 166629

Thombs, D.L., et al., Event-level analyses of energy drink consumption and alcohol intoxication in bar patrons, Addictive Behaviors (2009), doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2009.11.004