"Pretty dang fair"

Those are the words Wayne Kerschner used to describe himself as an Alachua County Sheriff's Office corrections officer. Mind you, he's an active member of the Ku Klux Klan, blogs regularly on a KKK website, and is an officer in the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. But he's a "pretty dang fair officer." Or was--he's been fired.

I wonder how he's using "fair" here? Does he mean he's slightly better than average at his job, as in "he's a fair second baseman, decent range but not much pop in his bat"? Or does he mean he's even-handed in his treatment of the people he's in charge of as a corrections officer? Or is he describing his complexion? He's a white-supremacist, after all.

Okay, the last one isn't likely.

I can't say I'm shedding any tears for Kerschner here. He was fired for "violating a departmental ban on subversive or terrorist organizations" (presumably, it's membership in those organizations which is banned), and I'm fine with that. The Klan has been linked with hate crimes and terrorism for a long time, and I'm glad to see that law enforcement is calling them that.

Another interesting thing to me on this story is Kerschner's defense--he's claiming that the Klan is a "faith-based organization." I wonder how mainstream Christian churches would react to that claim? Most would probably deny any connection vehemently, much like they do the rabid Phelps family. And that would be fair--the Klan no more represents mainstream Christianity than, oh, the Taliban represents mainstream Islam. Something for those people freaking out about the underwear bomber to consider, perhaps.

Spelling and Usage

I tweeted this link last night with the message that I'd be passing it along to my students in the spring, perhaps even testing them on it. It's titled "10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling," which is funny because there's only 3 actual spelling errors they listed--wierd for weird, definately for definitely (though they missed the far more common, in my experience, defiantly), and alot for a lot. The rest are all usage errors--fairly common ones too, though I have no idea how some of them are happening.

For instance, when did loose become mistaken for lose? I've seen this error for a couple of years now, and Andrew Shields, on my Facebook wall, said he thought it was only his German-speaking students who had that problem. Nope, Andrew--apparently it's widespread.

The inability for some of my students to distinguish between "then" and "than" is also a pretty recent phenomenon, and it's also pretty freaking aggravating because the error throws off the whole meaning of a sentence at times (makes the writer look like a dumbass the rest of the time).

And when I get "weather" for "whether," I start drinking, because it's going to be a loooong paper to grade.

The Incertus blog has been gathering tumbleweeds for a while, now, and Brian's already mentioned some reasons why: he's been tweeting, po-editing at the Rumpus, and then there's just the exhaustion. My only excuse is the exhaustion. And the source my exhaustion is my own damn fault: it's the way I've been living my life.

Technology has been changing our brains for a long time, and overall I think that's great. In societies without writing, people can remember verbatim not just innumerable myths and legends, recipes and folk wisdom, but the receipts of commerce going back several years. I can't even tell you what my co-pay for a specialist is, and I've paid it several times.

But in the end, it's better overall to have writing than to have super-awesome memories. And we could all improve our memories if we really wanted to. But, ya know, Mythbusters is on, and I want to see them test the earwax candle while playing Bejeweled Blitz and watching my friends' Facebook status updates, although I'll really be thinking about the 50 things I need to do that I'm not doing.

In other words, just like so many others, my focus has decreased beneath the length of a tweet, and I've been sucked into the vortex of modern life in which tasks whirl about at the ends of my attention and the end of my every rope is frayed.

Because it's changing my life, I decided to do some research on the subject. It took me a while though, because I did it while doing 20 other things. ;) I've discovered that, contrary to popular wisdom, younger people who multi-task by habit are not "better at" it, not even at Stanford, and that by making ourselves so distracted we're increasing our chances of death. There's more: frequent multitasking so stresses the body it makes us age faster by pumping us full of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol also makes us gain weight. And when we do two or more things at the same time (or try to) we're less productive and the work gets done less well. Multitasking even shifts tasks to a part of the brain that doesn't retain memory, meaning you'll go through your work like an Ambien-amnestic, waking to discover you have no idea what you've read or done. It's all a big clusterfuck of best intentions gone horribly awry: as forgetting was brought to us by writing, all this was brought to us by technology too.

But while writing was probably worth the loss of our full memorizing ability, is being able to play games, chat with friends, and be entertained in multiple ways at the same time worth getting old, fat, incompetent, and amnestic before our times? And what of the corroding effect on our relationships? How many of us are now in love with someone who must struggle to put down his iPhone and laptop and whatever else just to look us in the eye?

I think, after all, having these fantastic technologies at our fingertips is less like the advent of writing or some other useful technology than it is simply the decadence of over-abundance. We are like children let into the eternal candy shop, and we do not know how to show restraint. There is a pain welling in our bellies telling us to slow down, to stuff fewer things into our faces, but everything tastes so yummy and there's always another treat we haven't yet tried.

In the Star Trek universe, they have the holodeck, a room where real-as-life computer-generated people, places, and things allow people to live novels, go skiing, or relax on an alien beach. It took a long time for Trek's authors to address the idea that some people might get addicted to that world, might not be able to show restraint. The suggestion is that most people could handle it; just one or two would have "a problem." But that flies in the face of what we know of human nature: in our world, few are able to show any restraint at all. If we had holodecks, only a few people would live in them, but most people would frequent them to distraction. Very few would naturally show restraint.

And that's where we are: a smorgasbord of delights abounds around us, and we're making ourselves miserable with them. Some say technology is changing what it means to be human, but so far, that's not true: nothing could be more human than the way we indulge, the way we sacrifice our long-term happiness to achieve short-term desires. If there is to be a change in human nature, it would be this: that we develop an extraordinary ability to self-control, a machine-like regularity in how we indulge or refuse to, in our ability to focus on a subject or task absolutely when we are required to. We would have to develop these new abilities, because the technology's not going away, and there will only be more and more, and soon.

So my goal is to grow as a human being, to evolve to meet the needs to the technology around me. That doesn't mean making myself more available to it; that means developing the ability to refuse. Hopefully I will slow my consumption, and I will do only one thing at a time, and I will be less exhausted, and I will have the attention to write a blog post longer than a tweet. That's what I hope.

Stealing Books

Side note: last post was number 3,500 here at Incertus. Holy hell we can jabber on about stuff.

Via The Rumpus, Margo Rabb has a funny piece in the NY Times about book theft. As anyone with a wry sense of humor might expect, the Bible is the most-stolen book around, even in Christian book stores (where it might be the only thing worth reading).

These paragraphs near the end got me thinking a little, though, in large part because my own book is being published (fingers crossed) in 2010, and though I doubt there's going to be much of an issue with digital piracy--I can only hope that I'm in demand enough that people would want to steal it--I am interested in using the web as a marketing tool for my work.

Many publishers and authors fear that piracy, and the general transition from print to digital media, will cause irreparable harm to the book industry, as it has in the music world. The writer Sherman Alexie, who has refused to make his fiction available in digital form, agrees. “The open source culture is coming for us,” he told me, “and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”

John Palfrey, a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the author of “Born Digital,” is more optimistic. “The way young people enjoy music is very different from the way they enjoy books, and I don’t think that we’ll see the same pattern of piracy emerge that we’ve seen in the music industry — at least not in the near future,” he said.
There's little doubt in my mind that the transition will force the publishing industry to evolve, and that the companies which currently dominate the landscape will mostly fail to do so. The companies will survive in some form or another, but they'll be the IBM's of a generation ago--once-powerful, now an afterthought.

Palfrey is correct--for now--that the way young people (and middle-agers too, for the record) access music is different from the way they enjoy books, but that's going to change, and I think the switchover will come when e-book readers become textbooks for schoolchildren. Adult readers stick to books now because that's what we're comfortable with. Read the arguments against e-books and one place they always hit is the tactile sensation of turning pages, of the smell of the paper and ink, the must of age in the cover. You lose all that with an e-book, absolutely. But if you've never really had it? If your first book was a child-proof Kindle or Nook or Tablet? Then a paper book will be a curiosity, but it won't evoke the same emotional attachment it does for us.

And once that's the expected way of accessing books, then piracy will grow quickly. We have a generation of people who are adults now who may have never accessed music other than via a computer, and we're getting that way with movies. The DVD has a top end life span, I'd wager, of ten years, even with the introduction of HD versions. Streaming delivery is the model of the future. So why not with books?

That's why I'm interested in making my book available in digital format, even if I never sell a copy that way. I'd like it to be open-source, though my publisher will no doubt have objections to that--but whatever agreement we come to, I want it to be available on as many readers as possible (so no Amazon-proprietary format no matter what happens). For the current generation of young people, and the ones that follow them, if it's not online, it doesn't exist. Writers have to acknowledge that--Sherman Alexie is right when he says open-source is coming for all of us, and that we can't stop it. The question is how we engage with it.

One thing publishers need to do in order to survive this evolutionary moment is do a better job of selling the costs of publishing. The music industry failed badly in this respect because it allowed the frame of "a blank CD costs pennies; why does a music CD cost 17 bucks?" to become the focus of the debate. The fact that the record companies exploit new artists horribly and that they were raking in billions of dollars while churning out some of the least interesting music ever didn't help much, but where they really failed was in making the case that producing songs is expensive, even if you don't see it in the end product.

Publishers need to make the same case. Right now, the argument goes that a digital download costs next to nothing compared to a printed book--therefore, a digital download ought to cost next to nothing. And for some books, namely, those in the public domain, I agree completely. But making books--and I'm not taking about the physical making here; I'm talking about the writing and editing and formatting and selling of books--is expensive. But most readers don't get that, because the costs are hidden, and because they haven't actually tried to do it themselves, they have no idea how hard a job it is. I've never done a job as tedious as copy-editing, and I worked in a grocery warehouse pulling cases for 3 years.

Publishers have to pay people to do these jobs, and those of us in the industry would like to earn a living wage doing it. And in order to do that, publishers have to set a price point for electronic books that's higher than the average person might expect. Amazon hasn't helped matters with its Wal-Mart-esque bullying of publishers, but in the end, it's publishers who control the content, and right now, the market is malleable enough that they can still exert some control if they're willing to fight for it. And one of the ways they can do that is by making the case that there's value in the book itself, regardless of the format. Don't ask me how--I'm not a marketer. I don't even expect to make more than beer money off this book. But I know this is where we're heading, and if publishers want to thrive, they'll have to find a way to convince people to buy their books.

Bunch of Commies

When I read this piece on financial planners using the Bible to back up their advice, I thought about Leviticus 25, and the Jubilee. Okay, my first thought was that the "financial planners" were reading the Bible the way people interpret Nostradamus's quatrains or the way psychics read Tarot cards (and it looks like I'm right, if the examples in the story are par for the course).

But after that, I pulled one of my Bibles down from the shelf (yep--an atheist with multiple Bibles) and looked at Leviticus 25 again, and I was surprised. I'd forgotten just how anti-capitalist this section is. For example, property sales were to be considered temporary, and the price was to be pro-rated according to how many years were left before the next Jubilee, because in the Jubilee year, all property was to be returned to its original owners. And the seller had the right to redeem his property within a particular time frame, regardless whether the purchaser wished to sell it back or not. There were land use restrictions, as well as bans on the selling of certain property.

It's verses 14-17 that I really find interesting, though:

14 "'If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other. 15 You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. 16 When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. 17 Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God.
The theory of capitalism, as I understand it, is that all sides in any deal are doing their best to get the deal that is most advantageous to their side. In practice, this means that all sides are trying to take advantage of the other participants in the deal--it's a zero-sum game. The exception is when you get groups playing a non-zero-sum game, where everyone benefits as the result of a deal, but even in those rare circumstances, there are generally some zero-sum games being played in the background.

But the whole theory of the economic system described here in Leviticus is one which precludes the zero-sum game. Even if one party were in a position to take advantage of the other, the law required that they not do so. I have little faith that this requirement was honored much in practice--greed is one of our more common characteristics across cultures--but it's interesting to me that this culture tried, at least, to codify the fair deal as an ideal of conduct.

This section also exposes just how out of keeping with the Old Testament tradition the Prosperity Gospel is. From the article I began with:
For instance, in the gospel of John, Jesus says "I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full," which some "prosperity gospel" preachers see as a promise of material wealth to faithful givers. Others say it's an assurance of joy or contentment.
The Jesus portrayed in the Gospels was educated in the Levitical Law, and some theologians argue he referenced the Jubilee in Luke 4:19-26. To portray Jesus as a capitalist, as the Prosperity Gospel movement does, is to ignore the foundation of the society he was raised in.

Which is a little beside the point, frankly. We live in a global economy that's intricate in ways even the wisest people in the world 2,000 years ago couldn't have imagined. Anyone who's using a book from that period to justify the advice he or she is giving on financial issues is banking on the willingness of the mark recipient of that advice swallow the appeal to authority. If the advice is good, let it stand on its own. Don't hide it in hokum.

It's Just a Game

Dear NFL Fans:

I'm one of you. I've been a fan since I was a kid, since I first started to get a grasp on the game. And I'll continue to love it well into the future. But it's time we had a talk about the relationship that exists between us, the fans, and the NFL ownership.

Let me put this bluntly. I will not attend an NFL game held in a stadium financed with public money, which means I won't be attending an NFL game any time in the foreseeable future. And this story is a good illustration of why. (This argument extends to Major League Baseball and the NBA as well, though in all honesty, I don't attend many sporting events in the first place.)

The article is about how the owners of the Cincinnati Bengals screwed over the city of Cincinnati financially, and how the city is really starting to feel the pinch now.

In 1996, voters in Hamilton County approved an increase of half of one percent in the sales tax that promised to build and maintain stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds, pay Cincinnati’s public schools and give homeowners an annual property tax rebate. The stadiums were supposed to spur development of the city’s dilapidated riverfront.

But sales tax receipts have fallen so fast in the last year that the county is now scrambling to bridge a $14 million deficit in its sales tax fund. The public schools, which deferred taking their share for years, want their money.

The teams have not volunteered to rewrite their leases. So in the coming weeks, the county plans to cut basic services, lower its legal bills and drain a bond reserve fund with no plan for paying it back.
This for a team which in 2007 was estimated to be worth $912 million, with 13% of that worth coming from the stadium, and whose record since 1990 is 110-193-1. (I'm assuming that a more successful team on the field might be worth a little more money.) So how did the Bengals get such a sweet deal on their stadium?
The 1996 proposal to build stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds had plenty of proponents. The economy was growing, Riverfront Stadium was outdated and the Bengals were hinting that they would move, as the Browns had done.
For some time now, I have felt that the only proper answer to this argument is "be seeing you," and I think that answer is even more appropriate now, because we have real problems in our cities and states that require tax money to fix--decaying infrastructure and underfunded education systems are at the top of the list, but there are other issues as well--and making NFL owners richer than they already are shouldn't even be on the list.

Because here's the thing--there really aren't a lot of options for NFL owners when it comes to cities which are able to support an NFL team in the manner to which they are accustomed. And the one city the NFL owners want desperately to put a team in--Los Angeles--really isn't in a hurry to snag one. Cities hold more cards in this game than most people seem to realize. Pro sports teams of any stripe don't do a lot to bring in tax money--a smart city would tell owners they have to pony up if they want access to the dollars a thriving city can provide in terms of gate and merchandise revenue. None of these NFL owners are losing money--they're raking it in, at the expense of the citizens who support the team with both tax money and disposable income.

I'll watch the Saints on tv when I can, streaming online when it's not being aired, and other football games as the mood suits me, but I won't support a team playing in a publicly-financed stadium. I'm paying for it once--that's enough.

So let me get this straight

Miller is saying that Miller Lite is indistinguishable from urine?

Thanks to Ian from Brother Tucker's for showing us this commercial. Best place to get good beer in the Fort Lauderdale area, bar none. And the soup! Gods, the soup is incredible.

Fundamentalist Atheism

I've been thinking about this (again) since I read Amanda Marcotte's piece on Houston electing its first openly gay mayor. She writes:

What’s it going to take to get people to stop misusing the word “believe”? If you think homosexuality is a sin, then you think that it exists, and therefore you absolutely believe in it. I’m usually sanguine on the way that words shift meanings, but in this case, I have to protest. People are using the word “believe” instead of the more accurate words “approve” or even “accept”, because they want cover for their bigotry. They hope the word “believe” puts their bigotry into the Religion Zone, therefore above criticism.
She's responding to a woman who said she doesn't "believe in homosexuality," and her analysis of where the usage comes from is spot-on, so far as I can tell. That's why, for instance, I refuse to say I believe in evolution--I say I understand how evolution works instead, because 1) I do, and 2) belief in it is sort of beside the point. It happens whether I believe in it or not, and this is proven by the fact that evolution happens around us every day and the lack of belief by a (sadly) significant percentage of the population has no effect on that.

It's this misuse of words that has me upset (again) about the notion of fundamentalist atheism; well, that and the people who, in my experience, tend to use the term. Let's start with the term, though. When used to describe a religious group, fundamentalism refers to those worshipers who claim to revert to the fundamentals of the faith. In Christianity, they tend to be Creationists who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and they come in lots of flavors--Jehovah's Witnesses are fundamentalists, for example, along with many of the charismatic Protestant sects. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are fundamentalists, as are the more radical Muslim sects. What these groups all have in common is that they claim to be the purest form of a religious tradition which stretches back centuries, and which they claim has been corrupted by modern thinking and secularism.

So in order for a group to be fundamentalist, there has to be a dogma, and that dogma has to have changed over time, so that there is a desire to return to a simpler, more fundamental era. Which is why there's no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist. Atheism lacks a dogma, which means its dogma can't have evolved (heh) and therefore there are no fundamentals to return to. There are no tenets of atheism, no liturgies, no ethical requirements or suggestions for behavior. There's simply the lack of belief in a personal God who is involved in the affairs of humans.

One could argue, I suppose, that all atheists are fundamentalists, if they all hold to that basic definition, but that would be like saying that everyone who believes Jesus was divine is a fundamentalist Christian. The definition would be so general as to be meaningless, since fundamentalists generally separate themselves from the mainstream.

But just as the woman Amanda quoted didn't mean "believe" when she said she didn't "believe in homosexuality," people who refer to those of us who openly espouse our atheism as fundamentalists don't really mean "fundamentalist." No, they mean something a bit more hurtful--they're just too cowardly to use the word they mean.

In my experience, the people who call atheists like Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers or Amanda Marcotte "fundamentalists" really want to call them "assholes." We're assholes because we point out that religion isn't always a force for good, and in fact, it's often quite damaging to societies. We're assholes because we refer to religion as magical thinking even though that's what it is. We're assholes because we we're not ashamed to not believe, and we're especially assholes because we've been a bit more vocal about that lack of belief in recent years.

And to be fair, some of us are assholes. Christopher Hitchens is a loud and proud atheist, but he's also Prime-Cut quality asshole. Many's the time I've read an opinion piece by him and I've thought to myself "why on earth does he get to be the spokesperson?" because I really don't want to be associated with him. What can I say? There are assholes in any group. I'm sure there are Catholics who cringe every time Bill Donohue opens his piehole and who would love to distance themselves from that douche-hound's version of Catholicism.

But that's not fundamentalism.

The reason that people who use the term "fundamentalist atheism" use it is because they see themselves as moderates in the great religious debate, and calling us fundamentalists is a way of distancing themselves from those noisy people who make jokes about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They often identify as agnostic, and claim that just as one can't prove the existence of a personal god, one can't disprove the existence of a personal god, as though those are two equally valid propositions. They erect straw atheists who claim absolute certainty about the non-existence of any manner of deity, from a universal consciousness to Yahweh, and then call them as extreme as people who believe the earth is only 6,000 years old, and they do this so they can play the part of the open-minded sage, inoffensive and mild, who no one could ever object to. It's the safest position to take. No one can ever accuse them of extremism.

But I accuse them of dishonesty, of misusing language, and of cowardice. Don't tell me what I believe or don't believe in. Ask me, and when I tell you, take me at my word. When I say to you that I see no reason to believe in a personal God who interferes in the affairs of humans, don't distend that definition to mean I don't believe in the possibility of some as-yet-undiscovered connection between all matter in the universe that you call God. And most of all, if you honestly think I'm an asshole for being open about my atheism, just call me one. I can take that a whole lot better than I can being called a fundamentalist.

Happy Holidays, Everyone

From Amy and Brian, from Eliot, Wally and Romana, and most importantly, from little Optimus Prime laying in the manger. Have a good 2010, and may it be better than 2009.

Artwork by Amy, Master of Photoshop!

I'm coming up on six years of blogging next January, and I'm not sure there will be a seventh--the world of the internets has changed on me, and my life has changed too--I don't have the time or the energy to follow or get worked up about politics the way I have in the past, and I'm way more likely to just tweet links than write a whole post like I used to.

Of course, I could just need a little break from it and I'll come back with a vengeance afterward. I doubt that I'll shutter the site or take it down--Google owes me a little ad money, after all--and I like having access to all the ridiculousness I've written over the years. Or maybe I'll rebrand it--you never know.

Last week, I went 8-8 here, 9-7 on the Facebook pick 'em, since I changed my Pittsburgh pick to Baltimore there. Not a good week. But the Saints won in convincing fashion, and that makes everything good. Winners in caps.

NY Jets at BUFFALO Which Jets team will show up? Which Bills team? This could be a blowout either way or a tight game at the end. Buffalo has been playing a little better than the Jets have lately, and they're at home.

Tampa Bay at CAROLINA So, we get to see Carolina's backup quarterback finally. Wonder who they'll draft in the first round next year?

NEW ENGLAND at Miami When Indianapolis beat the Patriots after Belichick's controversial 4th and 2 call, the word (from me and others) was that the Jets would feel their wrath the following week. And they did, to a point--the Jets kept it respectable until late. So the assumption will be that the Pats will try to pour it on against the Dolphins after their dismantling by the Saints Monday night, and I suspect they'll try. The Fins are two games back in the division and need this game to have a shot at the playoffs--and the fact that I can say "playoffs" here is pretty amazing given how the season has gone for them--but I don't think it will happen this week.

Detroit at CINCINNATI Should be a piece of cake, but Cincinnati has already laid one egg against a team they should have handled easily. Watch out.

Houston at JACKSONVILLE These two teams have been the bane of my picking existence this season, so I figure this week, I'll get a tie out of them.

Oakland at PITTSBURGH Roethlisberger is probably for this game, but I'd pick them even if Dixon was starting again.

PHILADELPHIA at Atlanta Starting QB, RB, and 3 WRs out or questionable for Atlanta this week. Philadelphia is erratic, but this shouldn't be too tough for them.

St. Louis at CHICAGO The Bears have to win this game if Lovie Smith is going to keep his job. They might have to win out, but at the very least, they have to win this one.

Tennessee at INDIANAPOLIS I think this is the week Vince Young falls off the fun train.

DENVER at Kansas City Denver has beaten the teams they're supposed to all season long. I know they don't do well traditionally at Arrowhead stadium, but I think they do okay this week.

NEW ORLEANS at Washington I think this game might be closer than many expect. It should be a blowout, but the Saints have had tough games from lower-tier teams all season long, and they're coming off a really emotional Monday night win. I wouldn't be surprised to see this as a slow-out-of-the-gate, come-back-hard win.

SAN DIEGO at Cleveland San Diego is currently the three seed in the AFC. I expect they'll be number two by the time the playoffs start. And no one, it seems, is talking about them as a potential Superbowl team. That's a mistake.

SAN FRANCISCO at Seattle This is the crappy Sunday game of the week. Tonight's game is just as crappy, but it's on the NFL Network, which means almost no one will watch it.

DALLAS at NY Giants Dallas continues in its quest for the 3 seed in the NFC, and the honor of losing in the playoffs yet again.

MINNESOTA at Arizona Kurt Warner is probably back, which makes this the battle of near-retired, future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The Vikings are the better team, though the Cardinals are certainly capable of beating anyone.

Baltimore at GREEN BAY It took the vaunted Baltimore defense overtime to beat a Pittsburgh team led by a third-string QB making his first start. I think the Packers romp here.

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