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Apr. 4th, 2015

11:59 am - The Easter Challenge

Dan Barker, former child evangelist and now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has a simple challenge for Christian believers: “What happened on that very first Easter morning?” To answer, they must use only the accounts found in the gospels of the New Testament, but they must use all of them — no cherry-picking — to compose a complete, coherent narrative.

You’d think that this would be a trivial task for anyone working off a book supposedly inspired by an omniscient, infallible deity, and that ardent Christians would be leaping at the opportunity.

To see why they’re not, I've prepared a 4-page columnar document which lays out the 4 gospel accounts of the “resurrection” side by side. It's too complex for me to render here on this website, but a PDF copy of it is available to you upon request to Richard S. Russell.

Apr. 1st, 2015

01:31 pm - How Bad Is Rick Scott's Florida?

I know that lots of my fellow Wisconsinites think we’ve got it bad with Gov. Scott Walker, but he’s arguably only the 4th or 5th worst governor in America. Topping the list of awfulness has to be Florida’s Rick Scott, who, prior to aspiring to elective office, was CEO of a major medical company when it was hit with the largest civil fine in US history for Medicare fraud. Unlike Richard Nixon, he provably was a crook.

Florida is, you will recall, the state that provided angry white men with a legal excuse to gun down young black men with its “stand your ground” law and which has fired state environmental-agency employees for daring to utter the words “climate change” in public.

And now it’s on the high-stakes-testing bandwagon promoted by publishers of high-stakes tests (duh); proprietors of for-profit “academies" who dearly love to paint the public schools as “failures” using whatever tenuous, filmy evidence they can dredge up; and minimal-government types who just don’t want to see any public good being provided via taxpayer money.

Guess who’s already figured out that this latest “reform" is a massive scam. No, not necessarily any of Florida’s elected officials. Turns out to be one of our hopes for America’s future, 4th-grader Sydney Smoot.

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You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.

— George W. Bush (1946- ), 43rd US president, explaining his education policies, 2001 February

Mar. 10th, 2015

05:31 pm - Daylight Savings Time. Why?

John Oliver of Last Week Tonight asks Daylight Savings Time: Why Is This Still a Thing?

A question I've been asking for years. Best response I ever heard was from syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry in his 50th-birthday column "25 Things I Have Learned in 50 Years":

#2: You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe Daylight Saving Time.

True in 1997 when he wrote it; still true today.

Mar. 1st, 2015

11:23 pm - A Little-Noticed Anniversary

We went sailing right past January 18 without anyone, including me, noticing that it was a significant anniversary. But better late than never, so here:

200 years ago, 1815 January 18, the British withdrew their troops from Louisiana after the Battle of New Orleans. There has not been a hostile soldier’s boot on American soil for 2 entire centuries. Think about that for a little while. What an astonishing record that is!

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If you can read this, thank a teacher.
If you're reading it in English, thank a veteran.

Feb. 26th, 2015

03:28 am - Wisconsin Republicans Lie about "Right To Work"

Wouldn’t it be nice if Republicans were held to the kind of “truth in labeling” requirements that we expect of cereal, detergent, and medication manufacturers? But no! They can label their legislative proposals with any kind of deceptive feel-good wording they want, so as to disguise their true regressive character. For example, during the 21st Century they’ve given us legislation masquerading as the ...
  • Clear Skies Act
  • Healthy Forests Initiative
... and on subjects which they characterize as ...
  • "partial-birth" abortion
  • tax “relief"
  • tort “reform”
And now they’ve come up with “right to work”.

Listen, I’d be 100% slam-dunk in favor of a real right-to-work law, if that’s what the Wisconsin GOP were really pushing. An honestly labelled right to work would mean that anyone who really wanted a job would be guaranteed of one, with the government serving as the employer of last resort, the way it was in the Great Depression, when millions of unemployed people were put to work by the New Deal’s “alphabet agencies" like the WPA, PWA, CCC, and NYA. This would be an excellent way to provide everyone with the dignity of gainful employment while simultaneously getting cash circulating in the economy at the local level, where it’s needed most.

But no. They’re lying about it. Again. Their so-called “right to work” legislation is nothing of the sort. It’s being pitched as promoting “worker freedom”, when really it’s all about “right to fire” for the employers and “I got your freedom right here” for the workers.

Corporations do not lack control over their workers. They have almost all of the power as it is. About the only thing counterbalancing them is the collective will of society, expressed thru legislation, that common people should not be taken unfair advantage of. If only the Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature were working on behalf of the common people who elected them, instead of the fat-cat corporations and millionaires who finance their campaigns, my beloved Badger State wouldn’t be marching steadily backward toward peonage and feudalism.

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Q: How come corporations are cutting way back on lobbying expenses?
A: They've decided that, long-term, it's cheaper to own than to rent.

Feb. 23rd, 2015

03:36 pm - Why "$" but not "%"?

Dear Skeptical Inquirer:

Charles A. Reichardt and Ian A. Saari performed a valuable service with their research into “When Don’t the Highly Educated Believe in Evolution?”, and Skeptical Inquirer is to be commended for publishing it.

I am writing because the article was festooned with the word “percent” — occurring 6 times in the opening big-type paragraph alone and many more times thereafter. References to percents of the population are only to be expected in analyses of shifts in public opinion, and I have no problem whatsoever with their usage in such a context.

What continues to drive me up the wall, however, is their formatting — always as the spelled-out word “percent”, never as the more efficient and more readily apprehended symbol “%”. See it right there, the capital “5” on your keyboard, chummy next-door nabor to “$”, the capital “4”, which nobody ever seems to have any problems using, and only 3 doors down from the hugely popular "@"?

So why does Skeptical Inquirer, along with all major newspapers and magazines, continue to eschew the “%” in favor of the “percent”? The answer should be an embarrassment to any group dedicated to critical, forward-looking thinking and not being dragged down by the heavy chains of tradition and cultural conditioning. It’s the same reason we’re all still stuck with QWERTY keyboards: a relic of the technological inadequacies of a bygone era.

Christopher Sholes invented the awkward QWERTY key layout back in 1873 for the express purpose of slowing down early touch typists, so their mechanical keys wouldn’t keep jamming all the time. And the Associated Press Style Book insisted on spelling out the word “percent” because the lowest-common-denominator teletypes of the 1930s and 1940s didn’t have that symbol as part of their character set. Teletypes! Hell, you can hardly even find a fax machine any more.

Just as the NFL has no excuse for continuing to use Roman numerals for the Super Bowl when Arabic numerals are available and easier to translate, just as the US has no excuse for obstinately clinging to ACHU (the accidental collection of heterogeneous units) when the rest of the world has gone metric, so too does Skeptical Inquirer have no excuse for using “percent” instead of “%”. You guys, at least, should be open-minded enuf to do something about it.

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If God had wanted us to use the metric system, he would have given us 10 fingers.

— Ashleigh Brilliant

Feb. 13th, 2015

02:20 pm - Not My Kinda Guy

I am an atheist.

So is Craig Stephen Hicks, who on Feb. 10 murdered, execution style, 3 young students at the University of North Carolina, ostensibly because he hated religion in general (and Christianity in particular) but for whatever reason felt compelled to take it out on Muslims.

Let there be no mistake about my own reaction to this:
 • I respect the right of anyone to believe any damfool piece of cockamamie horse manure they want.
 • This does not mean I have to respect the people who believe it.
 • It certainly doesn't mean I have any respect for the horseshit itself.
 • But under no circumstances should anybody ever, ever, ever go out and bully, harass, discriminate against, torment, threaten, harm, or kill anyone else because of their beliefs. Never! Always wrong!

I condemn the despicable actions of Craig Hicks in the most emphatic terms possible.

He does not speak or act for me or any other atheist I know.

Feb. 9th, 2015

06:24 pm - Wisconsin's Shameful Election Schedule

To Rep. Mark Pocan, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and Sen. Ron Johnson:

I work as an election official at a campus ward in Madison. We used to do beaucoup registration business for the September primary elections, since many many students had just begun their new leases on Aug. 15, and the primary always used to be held in early September. No longer, however. The primary's been moved back to August, and simultaneously the unfailingly franchise-friendly administration of Gov. Scott Walker extended the lead time needed to qualify as a resident from 10 to 28 days. This means that almost zero students will qualify as living at their college address by the time the primary rolls around. Failing to register then, they will be less likely to vote in the general election in November as well.

The 28-day lead time is squarely on Wisconsin Republicans, but moving the date of the primary back to August is not. I'm informed (but have not verified) that this was done as a federal requirement, so that the results of the primary election could be ginned up into absentee ballots in time to send them abroad (specifically to military personnel) and get them back in time for the general election. If this is true, I find it astonishing. The US government knows exactly where each and every one of our men and women under arms is physically located, because it’s the Pentagon that tells them exactly where they must be. And it's an agency of the federal government that's responsible for getting their mail to them in a timely fashion. If our service people can't expect anything better than 45-DAY TURNAROUND for something as big and obvious as an absentee-ballot envelope, what kind of crappy service are we inflicting on them for their regular mail delivery?

Compounding this utter failure of the federal government to do right by our troops is the shameful shuffling off onto the states of the responsibility for dealing with the consequences. So, in exchange for doing a half-assed job of trying to let about a million troops participate in the democratic process, Congress has effectively disenfranchised tens of millions of college students and recent high-school graduates just entering the workforce.

I'd like you to initiate action to get the federal government to provide a condign level of mail service to our military, so we can return this chunk of democracy to the citizenry with a sensible election schedule.

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It was the first election of the post-apartheid era in South Africa, and the TV news crew was out in the boonies looking for good human-interest stories. The government hadn’t been able to set up sufficient polling locations or staff them fully, so there was a long line stretching out of one rural poll into the dusty prairie beyond. The crew set out, walking toward the end of the line, looking for likely interviewees.

They spotted one old gent, dressed colorfully but leaning heavily on his cane, and asked him where he was from. It turned out that he lived about 20 klicks away and had left the previous night, walking and resting as he went, to get here. He was nowhere near the front of the line, and they said it looked like things were moving slowly.

“That’s all right”, he said. “I can wait.”

“How long have you been waiting already?”, they asked.

“About 60 years.”

I always vote.

Dec. 3rd, 2014

03:47 pm - Badge Numbers

Following the precedent of Ian Fleming’s master spy James Bond, all police badge numbers should now come with a double-0 prefix, signifying the license to kill.

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I saw a German government with a policy of killing defenceless civilians of a certain ethnicity, and I was appalled. I opposed them, as did the rest of the world. And we defeated them.

I saw a Serbian government with a policy of killing defenceless civilians of a certain ethnicity, and I was appalled. I opposed them, as did the rest of the world. And we defeated them.

I saw an Israeli government with a policy of killing defenceless civilians of a certain ethnicity, and I was appalled. I opposed them, as did the rest of the world. And we were called anti-Semitic.

I saw an American government with a policy of killing defenceless civilians of a certain ethnicity, and I was appalled. I opposed them, as did the rest of the world. And we were called unpatriotic.

— John Highland, atheist-talk forum, 2009 Feb. 21

Oct. 1st, 2014

04:57 pm - The Wonders of Cataract Surgery

I had to get new glasses in the summers of 2011, 2012, and 2013, because my eyes kept getting worse. When we hit 2014, it was apparent as early as January and February that my barely-6-month-old prescription was already inadequate. My eyes were going to hell, and doing it faster all the time.

So I signed up for cataract surgery. The plan is to do the right eye first, then the left eye 2 weeks later. This was the week for the right eye.

Monday. Into the clinic at 8:30, check in at pre-op, minor wait, series of eyedrops (4 times, 5 minutes apart, 4 drops at a time, fortunately administered by somebody who knows what she's doing, because I hate eyedrops and I'm bad at them). The first round of drops stings just a tiny bit, but after that, nothing; the drops provide all the anesthesia needed; no shots.

With pupil dilated, eye numb, and a soothing sedative dripping slowly into my vein, I'm wheeled down the hall into the ER, where everybody is bustling briskly, and they're working on my right eye within 10 minutes. I'm completely relaxed. It's completely dark. I don't see anything coming. I don't feel a thing.

About 15 minutes later it's all done and I'm wheeled back to my waiting area. A few post-op instructions, and I'm out the door with a perforated plastic shield taped over the gauze patch on my right eye. My friend Diane, who has driven me to the clinic, is right there to drive me back home again. I think it's about noonish.

I start in on the post-op eyedrops (which I hate, but it's doctor's orders) shortly after returning home. 1 drop of antibiotic + 1 drop of some soothing anti-swelling agent, at 8 AM, noon, 6 PM, and bedtime. I can go off the antibiotic entirely after a week, and dial down the anti-inflammatory to 3, 2, and 1 times per day over the next 3 weeks.

At night I sleep on my back on the couch, where I know from experience that I never roll over and thus won't land face down and push something at my tender eye, even tho I'm still wearing the plastic shield, which I've been finding irritating, because it bulges out from my face and keeps my glasses from settling properly on my nose.

Tuesday. Bright and early, post-op followup with the eye surgeon and small gaggle of helpers, 1 at a time. Eyepatch comes off. Everybody who looks into my right eye says everything is copacetic. The incision is healing all on its own; no stitches had been needed.

I had selected 40 cm as my preferred focal length — the normal distance to the nearest computer monitor — and they were happy to accommodate that preference. Consequently, near vision in the right eye is damn near perfect. I can sit in front of my computer screen with no glasses (but an eyepatch over the left, unoperated-on eye) and — on the day after the operation, still with a little bit of swelling and unaccustomed focal length — everything is crystal clear, certainly better than using only the left eye with the glasses that I last had upgraded only 13 months ago.

I am a happy camper.

The only downside is that the 2 eyes are currently a little confused when they have to work together. I expect that they’ll get used to it after awhile, and it’ll only be for 2 weeks anyhow (what the nurse called the “limbo period”). However, since I sit in front of a computer screen 8-12 hours a day, I just use the right eye for that kind of work and don’t have to worry much about the absence of stereoscopic vision for it.

Wednesday. Out on the road, trying to see with both eyes thru my glasses. Things are fuzzy. My eyes are confused. I close the right eye (the one with the new lens) and it gets clearer. Out of curiosity, I take my glasses off and close my left eye, and things get much clearer. Bear in mind that this is looking at the road thru an eye that's been optimized for a computer screen.

I run into my friend Jim (Diane's husband) at the grocery store. He's only a couple of feet away before I recognize him (still using both eyes thru the glasses, so I don't freak people out with my pirate eyepatch). I am practically giddy with delight. He points out that Diane will be going in for her own cataract operation in a week, and sometime after that we'll need to have a potluck get-together so our friends can see us for the first time in decades without our glasses. It's a deal!

The Future. Left eye gets done on Mon. Oct. 13. They’ll have me go in for new distance-vision glasses in 4 weeks, after both new artificial lenses have had a chance to settle in and get comfy, but I appear to be done for good with glasses for near work.

Yay for modern medical science!

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