Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Middle Eastern Humans, Twice as Old?

An archaeological find in Israel suggests that modern humans may have been in the Middle East before Africa, and twice as long ago as previously believed. And they traded and made tools to boot.

Read all about it at the Daily Mail.

We caution enthusiasts against aligning the levantine provenance of the find with biblical teaching, as if the Bible definitively says that humans arose in the Middle East. We're simply not sure that's the case, not least because the location of the primeval narrative seems deliberately and consciously obscure (two of the rivers of paradise are well known and two aren't known at all) and because the readers are, after all, from the Middle East, suggesting that the story is written for their perspective and not to put a point on a then-nonexistent map to satisfy the curiosity of then-nonexistent paleoanthropologists.

That is not to mention that the significance of this finding will certainly be revised as it is scrutinized, which is not to mention that it could be displaced entirely by yet another discovery.

None of which will keep people from using the find for their own ends, like crowing that all humans aren't Africans after all--or that the must be still somehow. Better to draw small conclusions than big ones, given the ridiculously fragmentary nature of our knowledge. It's a tooth, for goodness' sake!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Something to Consider While Shoveling "Climate Change"

So there's this British dude, Piers Corbyn, who has been more right about long-term weather forecasting in the UK than the Queen's meteorologists. Seems he does it by studying the sun.

Seems the sun might have a lot to do with how warm it is on earth. Who knew?

Seems he is predicting the possibility of a mini ice age by mid-century, or maybe even a real one.

Is it time to burn more coal?

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Polarized Sociology of the Sciences and Religion

Apparently there's more to the University of Kentucky than basketball.

WaPo reports that the fabled flagship university of the Commonwealth is being sued by Dr. Martin Gaskell, an accomplished astronomer turned down as director of UK's student observatory because, he alleges, the university's faculty demonstrated prejudice against his religious views.

Dr. Martin is a Christian, not a young-earther but one who is willing to discuss publicly various views of scientific and Christian cosmology. Holding the best CV of applicants for the UK job, Martin was turned down, he alleges, because faculty from various university departments of the sciences campaigned against him, alleging that he would be something akin to Ken Ham. This despite the fact that he is a member in good standing of the astronomy faculty of a certain largish state university in Austin, Texas.

The article suggests that Dr. Martin has no relish for the legal process but believes that universities must be held to account for anti-religious prejudices. Good for him.

The only aspect of this story that will surprise most readers is the revelation that UK has a student observatory that apparently doesn't train its telescope on the floor of Rupp Arena. It's no shock that academics are tribal and petty, that those trained to use evidence rigorously in their academic disciplines are often completely uncritically swept up by gossip and slander, that folks who routinely examine the deaths of whole worlds in our galaxy won't hesitate to use apocalyptic language to describe their fear of social chaos if this or that person becomes part of their little club.

Once upon a time SWNID worked with a state agency to get approval for his IHE to offer a certain professional license issued by the state government. At the beginning of the process, an honest and open-minded functionary of the state agency said to us, "I have been the object of prejudice, and I don't think you should be." At the end of the process, a functionary who had been won over as a friend said to us, "At the beginning of this, someone in our office said, 'They can't get authorization! If students from that school became teachers, they'd want to faith-heal kids every time they got hurt on the playground!'"

Life is complex. Time is short. Stereotypes are efficient. Like "all Christians are young-earth creationists," "all scientists are militant atheists," "evolution and biblical Christianity are incompatible," and "UK is only about hoops."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

When Is Enough Enough?

Do the rich already have enough money that they should be glad to share it with the government?

Does government already have enough money that it ought to be able to fund genuinely necessary public purposes?

How rich is "rich"? How necessary is "necessary"?

WSJ's Daniel Henninger touches on these perennial questions by asking matters differently. Traditionally, per Henninger, we've asked whether we have taxed ourselves enough to support good government. Henninger asks whether we can sustain global competitiveness if we continue to tax and spend.

Good question. Somehow we suspect that sustaining investment in Our Republic is threatened more by the prospect of rising taxes than the prospect that the Affordable Health Care Act might be repealed or high-speed rail might not connect Des Moines and Chicago.

So Who Got the Best Deal from the Bush Cuts? Answer: Not the Wealthy

The reality checks just keep coming.

Cliff Asness at Forbes today points out what SWNID has experienced personally, along with most gentle readers who pay taxes to Our Republic and do arithmetic: the Bush tax cuts benefited everyone who pays federal income taxes, but especially the middle class. We won't repeat his argument; we'll simply say that it has to do with the effective rate of tax that people actually pay at various incomes, rather than marginal rates alone. In sum, federal income taxes were more progressive after the Bush cuts than before.

If one adds to the equation such middle-class-friendly measures the increased deductions for dependents, added deductions for children, and deductions for tuition, then it comes as no surprise that after the Bush cuts, many middle-class households found themselves paying no federal income tax, while the percentage of federal tax revenues from the wealthy went up sharply. We remember fondly the year that every penny paid by the SWNIDs in federal income taxes was refunded. Sadly, the same could not be said for the insidious 15.3% tax that calls itself "payroll," "FICA," "self-employment" or "Social Security and Medicare." Throw that one into Boston Harbor.

Poll: Donks Like Compromise, 'Phants Don't

The latest WSJ/NBC poll shows that voters like it when BHO compromises with Rs.

In particular, Dems like it when their party's leader compromises with the other party. Since their party's Congressional delegation manifestly does not like it, we understand that the Party of the People is out of touch with The People.

The GOP rank-and-file, on the other hand, is at best ambivalent about compromise. Roughly equal numbers of Rs don't care for the idea of compromising with Democrats presently.

We think this can be interpreted two ways.
  • Democrats are pragmatists; Republicans are ideologues.
  • Both rank-and-file Democrats and rank-and-file Republicans distrust the Democratic leadership.
The first interpretation is the one that media pundits will offer. The second requires explanation, not because it involves complex reasoning but because it runs counter to the conventional wisdom.

So, why should ordinary Democrats favor compromise with Republicans while ordinary Republicans don't favor compromise with Democrats? Lunchbucket Dems want compromise because they think their party's leaders have extreme positions that ought to be moderated by compromise. Lunchbucket Republicans don't want compromise because it means compromising with a party whose leaders have extreme positions.

In other words, Dems wish they were Republicans, and Republicans are thankful that they're not Dems. For now.

This position is more serious that it appears, by the way. The Republican brand has been seriously damaged by a decade of war and anti-Bush, class-warfare rhetorical hysteria. But 24 months of Democratic governance has created a bipartisan consensus that the Democrats who lead in Washington simply can't be trusted.

Foreign Language in College? Depends on the Outcomes

In today's WSJ Curmudgeon Jim Sollisch argues against foreign language requirements: students don't learn to function in their languages, and other courses are more commercially valuable.

How does SWNID respond? That Sollisch has a point about the way that most colleges teach and most students learn foreign languages, which argues for something different from both than what he proposes. We suggest, in other words, a tertium quid.

Sollisch says his daughter studied French but can barely read a menu. Probably so. Her college French teachers likely had as little interest in teaching conversational French as she had in learning it. The profs' real interest was French literature and teaching the same to grad students and advanced undergrads. Like most humans, college language profs want to create others in their own image.

Sollisch says that his son took Swahili as an easy way to knock out his undergrad requirement (which makes us inclined to guess where Sollisch Junior went to college, but that's a matter for Northwestern University to take up). So he made a bad choice because he reflected daddy's indifference. No surprise there.

We think there's a more excellent way than simply indulging Sollisch's cynicism. There's Drake University's approach.

Note quite a decade ago, Drake dismantled its foreign language department after honestly concluding that its students were learning about what Sollisch says they learn. But they didn't stop trying to teach students to speak other languages. Now Drake has a department of World Languages and Cultures. Students who study languages meet in very small groups led by native speakers, mostly foreign students at Drake, supervised by profs who do instruction on language acquisition, culture and such. Examinations are oral. The program ruthlessly pursues a single outcome: ability to speak the language and understand it when it is spoken.

Obviously there's no sitting back and slipping by in such a program. So much the worse for indifferent students like Sollisch's son, who work hard not to learn. But students sign on for college so that someone will force them to learn what they wouldn't otherwise, ci?

Somehow we think that such a program will be at least as valuable as a course in web design or some other commercial skill du jour. So much for your Weltschmerz, Mr. Sollisch.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Krugerrands from Heaven

Why does the earth's crust contain an unexpectedly large amount of elements like gold and platinum when those metals should have followed iron to the earth's core as the planet formed and cooled?

Because in the early stages of its development, the earth was pummeled by large space objects containing the metals, leaving them where we can get at them.

Such observations as these fit nicely into the cosmology that we old-earth Christians are coming to appreciate. We live on a planet replete with resources for our thoughtful use or our pernicious exploitation, shaped over a period of time staggering to our imagination but inconsequential to our beneficent and almighty Creator.

And when one adds the observation that such elements forged by quantum furnaces left by ancient, collapsed stars, one appreciates that it may well take a universe of temporal and spatial magnitude of the one we observe to support even one planet exactly like ours. Perhaps there are more--that is certainly the prospect held out by every press release related to astronomy these days, in hopes of keeping a tired public's interest in funding basic astronomical science. But there is one, magnificently shaped by billions and billions of events large and small to be a home for people like us.

But he could have done it in an instant! Indeed. Of course, ours is not to critique how he did it, but to observe what we can and draw what conclusions we are able from our observations. When we do, awe is the result.

God bombed earth with gold. Cool.

Lost in Narnia?

As Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens at your local multiplex, SWNID expects to learn that yet again, Hollywood has forced a Christian narrative onto the Procrustean bed of broad cinematic appeal.

Peripatetic commentator on religion Terry Mattingly anticipates as much noting that the movie looks set to disappoint the Lewis faithful in ways that Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy deliberately did not. Meanwhile, the Christian-right World magazine's reviewer, who has actually screened the film lauds the first third and notes that latter portions are bruised but not broken by filmmakers' accretions. At least we can be comforted that the books most lapidary episode, Eustace's redemption from dragon to boy, has made it through mostly unscathed, though one wonders what use there is in a climactic struggle with an non-Lewisian sea dragon.

Elsewhere, The Stone Water Jar argues that Lewis can never be successfully rendered cinematically. Perhaps so. For us, any film adaptations of Narnia are successful because they warmly remind us of reading the books, not because they add anything to the experience of reading.

So if Dawn Treader finally kills the enterprise, we will be satisfied to know that the books will live on, as will Tom Baker's masterfully understated rendering of Puddleglum.


Not since the celebrated Richard Nixon was forced to release his surreptitiously recorded Oval Office tapes has such statesmanship been on display in Our Republic's capital as it was when the Democratic Party Congressional Caucus met to review its party leader's framework for fiscal compromise.

So now we know: if the Republicans are the party of "no," the Democrats are the party of a word that will not be repeated on a family blog.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Waiter: Here's Your Reality Check Sir

For those who shall remain nameless whose comments seem to indicate the belief that BHO's popularity funk is the consequence of progressives' disappointment with the man, we offer Mark Mellman's analysis of the 2010 midterms from The Hill.

Mellman notes well that compared to the 2006 midterms--not the 2008 presidentials, an invalid comparison--all the indicators show that the party of the left lost because voters who voted D in 2006 voted R in 2010.

The dramatic shift to the GOP happened in all demographic categories except African-Americans (whose political isolation is thereby indicated, but that's another topic). The only group with under-par turnout was union members, who still voted in numbers disproportionate to their percentage of the population at large but didn't respond to their leaders' marching orders with the same esprit de corps demonstrated in 2006. And if the term "Reagan Democrat" means anything these days, it has to suggest that at least as many who wear the union label were stay-at-homes because they were angry with the leftward direction taken by their patronage party as were disappointed that the Internationale is not yet the national anthem of the People's Republic of Lands Unfairly Taken.

BHO is in trouble along with his party because they really can't believe that this is an intrinsically center-right country. They believe all the fantasies that the Common Folk should Rise Up when they encounter the properly gifted and enlightened Beneficent Leader. And they get really prickly when the Common Folk don't do what they're supposed to do when given the chance.

Leave that waiter a good tip.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Reason for Previous Post?

By coincidence, SWNID heard a live radio broadcast of BHO's brief announcement that he and the leaders of the GOP Congressional delegation had reached an agreement on a "framework" for a compromise sparing Our Republic a tax increase in 2010.

Listening to the President announce this compromise, really the first of his presidency, with the opposition party now empowered by a midterm landslide, we wondered whether anyone will ever apply the adjectives "statesmanlike," "generous-spirited," "noble," "conciliatory," or "gracious" to any of his political rhetoric. Essentially, the speech amounted to a tirade in which he petulantly complained that he was only allowing a tax break for the wealthy because the Republicans, who are utterly wrong on the issue, would hold America hostage if he didn't.

Since the tax deal will be for two years, it will be the centerpiece of the 2012 campaign. The GOP and BHO now are both wagering that they can win an election on their respective tax policies.

That, finally, explains what makes Obama Obama. He really, really believes that he's right about needing to redistribute wealth through the tax system and government programs. It's what's best for poor saps like SWNID, mired in the middle class.

Tonight we know why Dubya is now officially more popular than Obama. And unless something big and different happens, we'll know why Republicans will control all elected branches of the federal government in 2013.

America Sings "Big Yellow Taxi"

Per Politico, Americans presently have a more favorable view of Dubya's job performance than BHO's. By a one-percent plurality, citizens of Our Republic rue the day that a big yellow taxi took away their Old Man, as they now know what they got because it's gone.

Having spent much of our blogging defending Mr. Bush against his rabid detractors, we feel our labors were not entirely in vain.

Definitive: Why Sarah Palin Can Never Be President

Camping on TV with "Kate Plus Eight" is equivalent to lifetime membership in the Communist Party.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Ken Ham's Ark Adventure

A group called "Ark Encounter" is now officially in partnership with Answers in Genesis and the Commonwealth of Kentucky to construct a Noah's-Ark-based theme park somewhere in Northern Kentucky.

We'll venture the guess that somewhere on the Internet, someone is commenting on the good taste involved in a project like this. We lack the interest to research fully the relationship between Ark Encounter LLC and AIG and Mr. Ham personally. We note that on the Ark Encounter web site one first encounters a scale to indicate the capital needed to launch the project as compared to the money raised. As we blog, the money raised amounts to 1/2 of 1% of the need.

We note also the answer to the FAQ, "Why are you building an ark?" which we quote in its glorious entirety:

Through the construction of a massive full-scale Noah’s Ark, the Ark Encounter will present America and other nations with a reminder about the Bible’s account of the Ark.

Many of the same talented team members that built the successful, high-tech Creation Museum are returning for the Ark Encounter. This new project is positioned to become an attraction that will capture the world's attention.

So, as described by its initiators, this is a global publicity stunt. Noted.

The SWNIDish curiosity now wonders what the future will hold. Will the project succeed? Will it never go forward? Or will it be initiated and prove to be a drag on the ongoing existence of AIG, perhaps even the cause of its demise?

Theme parks nationally are not doing so well. This one sounds lame to us, though we are admittedly no fan of Mr. Ham and his not-for-profit exploits and no longer of an age so much to enjoy such experiences even when they aren't lame.

But the cycle of organizational development that reaches a point of over-expansion and threatens ultimate collapse is very well known. Despite its claim to Christian orthodoxy, we judge the operations of Answers in Genesis to be built on sand, especially in terms of biblical interpretation but also in terms of mission and business model. So when the rains come, we wonder whether the Ark will sink AIG.

Wilson-Plame Fulfills Its Manifest Destiny

What do evil human beings (note the redundancy) want most of all? The answer, of course, is power, with wealth and fame as its adjuncts.

Therefore, people are sorely tempted if something offers both wealth and fame simultaneously.

So it was for Beltway functionaries Joseph Wilson and his current bride, Valerie Plame, when a set of bureaucratic circumstances put them in the middle of the controversy about the Iraq War. Wilson smelled the opportunity to gain fame and eventually wealth by cooperating with the partisan sensationalizing of his inconsequential role in Iraq intelligence, thereby pimping his wife's inconsequential job with Central Intelligence on the way to an illogical, counter-empirical and ultimately inconsequential savaging of the Dubya's motives and actions in calling for war against Saddam.

All that is the stuff of ancient posts on this blog.


The good folks at WaPo have set the record straight as far as the unintentionally humorously titled Fair Game, the cinematic misportrayal of the Wilson-Plame self-promotion partnership, is concerned (flashback to their cover story in Vanity Fair and ask whether anyone who reads the contemporary magazine knows that its title is lifted from a classic of social satire). The movie, like most "historical" films, is fictional, point out the journalists who cover our capital, but fictional in a despicably self-serving way that continues to poison political debate. Fair Game does not just dramatize imaginatively. It distorts tendentiously.

Meanwhile, we are sure that Wilson and Plame can console themselves with royalties for rights to what purports to be their story, not to mention B-list invitations to soirees filled with the near famous but thoroughly politically correct.

Postscript: Fair Game was produced by Airplane's Jerry Zucker and directed by the Bourne franchise's Doug Liman. Satire or thriller? You decide!

Only in America . . .

Wikileaks to Expose Area 51!

SWNID has little to say about the Wikileaks revelations, inasmuch as they simply tell us what we've always known to be true: that world leaders speak poorly of each other in private, that Foggy Bottom is always trying but seldom succeeding in the influencing of global events, that people are untrustworthy, and all that fallen-human-nature, limits-of-power stuff.

But we think it's time to characterize the antiheroic Julian Assange not just as an alleged international sex criminal but as a kook. To wit: the Daily Mail quotes Assange as asserting that he will soon dump docs about UFOs.

Wikileaks has been a sort of journalistic abstract painting: the viewer sees what the viewer wants to see. Assange, on the other hand, has all along been a maladjusted, manipulative, narcissistic nut-job. Let us now therefore ridicule him, which doubtless is the one thing that will frustrate him most in his quest for notoriety.

Parents, this is why, if you get rich, you want to leave your fortune to charity. Otherwise, your progeny might spend their legacy on public fecklessness like Wikileaks.

The Event Is Tonight, The Story Will Continue

SWNIDish friend Dale Mikes tonight will be feted at a benefit by fellow Hamilton County Deputy Sheriffs. But his story will go on, told in this local news video.

Pulsating Universe Cycles Back

Gentle readers are likely aware that the present state of knowledge in physics accords well with biblical cosmology: the Big Bang works out to something strongly reminiscent of Genesis 1:1.

But dissent is not just a religious phenomenon. It is even more a scientific one.

Enter Oxford's Roger Penrose, who posits that certain circles of uniformity in the cosmic background radiation are vestiges of black holes in the previous universe. That is to say, the universe cycles around: starts with a bang, ends with a collapse, and then starts again.

We, of course, are unqualified to discuss the physics of the hypothesis--hopelessly so. We'll simply note what any thoughtful person can note.

First, both Penrose's hypothesis and the prevailing one involve leaps of logic yet unproved experimentally. Everyone would do well to remember that science is always provisional, even if it tends over time to describe reality with increasing accuracy.

Second, apologists of the great Eastern religions and related worldviews are just as anxious to cite Penrose apologetically as Christians are to cite the Big Bang. Check out the comments on the Economist article linked above. The Marxists and Hindus have already declared intellectual victory on this one, novel hypothesis. For the public, science is only interesting if it makes for cool gadgets or revises our story of ourselves.

Third, we imagine that the outcome on this issue will not settle the religious and philosophical questions of cosmology. A pulsating universe need not pulsate eternally, for example, any more than a Big Bang universe need not be the only universe that exists. Behind every empirical observation and its explanation lie other possibilities than can alter its significance.

None of this is to say that Big Bang cosmology is irrelevant to Christian thinking. The fact that the universe seems once not to have existed and then to have begun to exist, culminating in the existence of bloggers, is still potentially significant as the hypothesis that best explains what we observe presently. But those of us who understand it in accord with the good news of Jesus do so because that good news also explains a host of other experiences, all of which contribute to the reason (a word deliberately chosen) for our belief. The Big Bang is not the keystone of our apologetics but a strand in the web.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Quotable on "Social Justice"

The phrase “social justice,” when invoked by members of the Catholic left, is a euphemism for the agenda of the Democratic Party. “Social justice” refers not to objective principles of justice but to specific policies of Democrats on health care, labor, welfare, and other matters.

That from George Neumayr of Catholic World Report. Substitute "Christian" for "Catholic" and you've got a more comprehensive statement, no less true.

We also enjoy this one:

Voters were in no mood to hear about “social justice” from Catholic Democrats whose party during its time in power has presided over increasing poverty and unemployment.

And this one:

The Catholic left’s monopolistic claims about the “common good” and “social justice” now meet with appropriate skepticism, and its equation of “Catholic concerns” with amnesty, carbon taxes, government-run health care, and so on, is seen as insultingly specious.

Let us not forget that economic growth, enabled by liberty and the rule of law, have lifted more people out of poverty than all redistributive and protectionist policies put together. If you want to help the poor, you can't do it with socialism. Cornel West is famous for distinguishing "justice" from "charity." How about distinguishing a specially pleaded definition of "justice" from "opportunity"?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Four Cs of Presidential Politics: A GOP 2012 Primer

We hereby designate the following four categories as necessary to the success of any presidential candidate, if success is defined as getting elected and governing with reasonable responsibility. All begin with the letter c. For those who look forward to 2012 as the moment when the Grand Old Party regains rightful control of the Executive Branch, the model will be crucial (make that a fifth "c") to their backing of the proper candidate.

To succeed, a presidential candidate must excel in each of the following:
  • Communication. It's always been the case that leaders communicate with their followers with exceptional clarity and impact. It is a commonplace to assert that such is all the more the case in the digital age.
  • Cool. At least since JFK but probably always, the cooler candidate, if any candidate is indeed cool, always (we'll allow the absolute) prevails. Sometimes there is no cool candidate (Bush v. Gore, Ditto v. Kerry). But when there is (TR, Coolidge [it's hip to be square], FDR, Ike, JFK, Reagan, Clinton, BHO), coolness wins.
  • Correctness. Policy may seem secondary in the battle of negative political advertising, but the truth is that many people vote for what they think is the better policy position. When there's a consensus, you'd better fall in line. Nixon may have been a miserable communicator and entirely uncool, but McGovern was wrong on the issues, and so he never came close. In 2012 the correct position will be fiscally conservative. BHO will struggle mightily as a consequence, and any successful GOP candidate will need unassailable credentials in thrift.
  • Competency. You've got to be able to run something, and not into the ground. As the present administration demonstrates, that something needs to be more than a campaign. A record of administrative success is always helpful. In 2012, after four years of an administration headed by someone who had never run anything except a campaign, voters will doubtless expect proven ability to accomplish goals in running something real. Obama's election may have shown that competency isn't necessary for victory, but his administration has reminded voters that it ought to be from now on. Look for this category to matter a lot.
Really, none of this is worthy of SWNIDish attention. Except for the tidy alliteration, these categories are routinely cited by all pundits at all times. But presently they are more than pedestrian observations, thanks to a singular personage on the political stage: one Sarah Palin.

Mrs. Palin is certainly not yet the presumptive GOP nominee for 2012, but presently she is the most visible person who will run in 2012. No one garners the attention that she does, either from devoted followers or from the media preoccupied with her. No one has so shamelessly exploited media as she, not least with her daughter's epic run on Dancing with the Stars (SWNIDish interpretation of the title: two absolute reasons not to watch) and her own program about the state whose governorship she resigned.

Mrs. Palin is unarguably a considerable candidate--because she excels in communication (gaffes aside, she delivers speeches that mesmerize the faithful), cool (sure she's goofy, but she's prettier than any politician except for Mitt Romney, and her family creates a narrative that people like), and most of all correctness (she says everything that conservatives want to hear, and in a way that they want to hear over and over). Granted, in all these things she's as divisive as anyone since Nixon. But in all areas she's considerable despite her divisiveness, and in a way that might suggest that she'll compete for her party's nomination even if she can't appeal to a wider electorate.

But note well the missing fourth c. Mrs. Palin has not demonstrated competency. She resigned as governor of Alaska after only two years, offering a rationale that was barely coherent at the time and now is revealed by her behavior to have been a fig leaf. Mrs. Palin resigned to make money, to run the Palin celebrity franchise, a job for which she is obviously well suited.

But that's not running something real. And voters, we think, will know it, especially the GOP base, which may like to listen to Miss Congeniality but won't need to think much about being led by her.

So SWNID has no expectation of a Palin nomination, though we fully expect her to run. Voters may be stupid, but we seriously doubt that they'll be that stupid in that particular way.