Archive for January, 2008

God dammit, Christopher Hitchens

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

Christopher Hitchens is a puzzle to me. On the one hand, I really like and appreciate his outspoken activism on atheist causes. He’s even written a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which along with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, is one of the great atheist advocacy books of the past few years. But he can be such a crank on other issues, like his steadfast support of the Iraq War (although to be fair, he is British, so most of the troops dying in Iraq aren’t his country’s).

But in a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal he said something even more inexcusable. How am I to reconcile this stupidity with some of his other views which I do support? From the column:

What are we trying to “get over” here? We are trying to get over the hideous legacy of slavery and segregation. But Mr. Obama is not a part of this legacy. His father was a citizen of Kenya, an independent African country, and his mother was a “white” American. He is as distant from the real “plantation” as I am. How — unless one thinks obsessively about color while affecting not to do so — does this make him “black”?

Yes, he actually said that. Apparently being “black” is nothing more than being descended from slaves on the American plantations; if you are merely from, say, Africa, you don’t count as black. And the Wall Street Journal published it. I’m kind of in disbelief here. So are the folks over at Daily Kos. Later in the column he goes on to say that he’s just as black as Barack Obama is, because both of their ancestors ultimately trace back from Africa. That’s a really stupid claim, because he’s glossing over a huge difference in degree. For someone who’s purportedly scientific-minded, he should know better. By his logic, we’re equally as much a bacteria as E. coli is, because after all, we are both ultimately descended from a common ancestor bacteria many hundreds of millions of years ago, right? So why doesn’t he admit that whether your ancestors emigrated from Africa tens of thousands of years ago or within the past few decades makes a huge difference, not only in how you look but how you are treated by a frequently racist society?

So I think I’ll stick with idolizing (heh) Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers as my exemplary atheists. I’m in much more agreement with their general views on a wide variety of topics. I really have to pick nits to find a point that I philosophically disagree with them on. They are progressive in all areas, not just religion. But with Christopher Hitchens it sometimes seems like the only view we have in common is atheism, and that is not nearly enough to make me like him.

Voting sure doesn’t matter

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is the third of my opinion columns, Voting sure doesn’t matter, originally published April 11, 2006.

I should point out that this opinion column was quite controversial, with many readers unable to tell that I was being sarcastic. Many students (and some professors) angrily wrote to and called The Diamondback’s offices. I was even contacted by Emma Simson, the candidate for SGA President who went on to win the election and who I knew from high school, asking if I was seriously discouraging people from voting. In hindsight, though, my sarcasm still looks incredibly obvious (the argumentum ad hitlerum really gives it away). I cannot believe anyone took me at face value. Still, my editor prohibited me from using sarcasm throughout an entire column ever again, even if it was an effective rhetorical device.


There’s an election today, but like the national elections in 2000 and 2004, it doesn’t matter one whit. It’s just an SGA election, and we all know that the Student Government Association does absolutely nothing. So don’t bother wasting five minutes of your precious time logging into the site and voting, because voting is worthless and one vote really can’t make a difference anyway.

The SGA has several trivial issues ahead of it this year that anyone with half a brain can figure out to everyone’s satisfaction (just like this past year’s SGA President Andrew Rose). Yeah, crime may be increasing in frequency and severity, but that doesn’t mean you should vote, because, hey, you haven’t been the victim of a crime yet. And for the few hundreds of who have, I’m sorry, but lots of people voted for previous candidates and that never helped solve crime. How about we try a new tactic: Don’t vote and hope that decreases crime rates. That’ll show those criminals.

The SGA is in charge of distributing over $1 million in student activity fees every year. But that’s really a trivial amount of money compared to, say, the U.S. National Debt. And keep in mind how many thousands of students go to the University of Maryland. On average, you spend more money each day for clothing than you do on student activity fees … on the days you do buy clothing, anyway. One million is just a one with six zeros after it. And six is just a number with zero zeros after it. By this brilliant mathematical logic, anyone can see that a million dollars really isn’t a big amount at all.

Rioting also seems to be a big issue this election cycle (thank you, women’s basketball team; men’s basketball team, not so much). The University Senate recently enacted legislation allowing the expulsion of students who haven’t actually been convicted of doing anything illegal. But this certainly shouldn’t make you want to vote. It’s the Senate, not the SGA, that deals with these issues, and in this new era of Orwellian university management, just voting for an anti-expulsion SGA candidate might leave you up against the wall when the expulsions start getting handed out. Better not risk it.

It look like we’re going to have an artist whose name you’ve never heard of playing Art Attack, but that really doesn’t have anything to do with the SGA. Sure, Student Entertainment Events, the group responsible for putting on Art Attack, may be composed of students in elected positions, and technically it is an “arm of the Student Government Association” – but let’s be real here. SEE is just like Dubai Ports World and United Arab Emirates; they’re totally separate. Who cares if we get to hear Common play this year instead of, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Since neither is your absolute favorite band you’re not going to be satisfied either way. And if you are a huge Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, I’m sorry, but you’re outnumbered.

Voting has a long and sordid history. Some of history’s greatest dictators (including a certain leader of the National Socialist Worker’s Party) were voted into power. You really don’t want to associate yourself with a crazed institution like that. If you do vote for a candidate you always run the risk of making a bad choice you may regret.

But if you don’t vote for anyone, no matter how things turn out, you can always be smug and self-satisfied and tell people, “See, this is why I didn’t vote for him.”

And for all of the potheads out there, there’s no reason whatsoever you should get up off your lazy, pot-addled asses today and shuffle over to your computer to vote, because there’s absolutely nothing of interest for you in this election. At all.


Note: There was, in fact, a student referendum on lessening university penalties for marijuana on the ballot. Its effect would have been to decrease penalties for marijuana usage in dorms from expulsion from on-campus housing to something more on par with how alcohol citations were handled. It ended up passing with two-thirds of the vote, but the University Senate never acted on it. Still, it did cause University of Maryland, College Park to be ranked the #1 Counterculture College in America by High Times magazine.

Cyde Weys Musings – Inscruting the inscrutable

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

Sometime last week I adjusted the HTML title of this blog to be “Cyde Weys Musings – Inscruting the inscrutable” (the subtitle is the new part). Yes, I’m well aware that “inscruting” isn’t a real word, but I do love fake words. This one in particular ironically invokes the bubbly technobabble that embodies much of what is wrong with Web 2.0. I first came up with “Scrutinizing the inscrutable” but that just didn’t feel right going with “Cyde Weys Musings” (which is, of course, a silly pun). It needed to be more cheesy, more tacky, more nonsensical (shouldn’t it be scruting?). I think the use of the word inscruting, which hardly rolls off the tongue, fits that bill perfectly. And logically it’s a contradiction, which goes well with the pun.

As for the meaning of the subtitle, inscruting the inscrutable is one of my favorite pastimes. I’m not particularly orthodox or conservative when it comes to anything, and I love speaking up on subjects that cause so many other people to waver. I’m talking about the tough issues: politics, religion, abortion, Intelligent Design creationism, Big Endian versus Little Endian, etc. Many beliefs that so many of us take for granted aren’t actually inscrutable; we just think they are; for instance, the widely held belief that old age is inevitable.

What do you, fair reader, want to read about?

Monday, January 21st, 2008

As you can tell if you’ve spent any amount of time reading this blog, I’m a very opinionated guy. That’s probably why I started Cyde Weys Musings in the first place. Here I was, with all of these ingenious opinions that were going to waste by keeping them with myself! Obviously, I had to share.

But there’s a problem. Blog ideation (i.e. coming up with things to write about) can be tricky. I’m trying to maintain a one post a day schedule, which requires me to have a helluva lotta opinions. Fortunately I do, but I can’t always figure out which opinions to write about. That’s when you, fair readers, come into play. In the comments below, give me any subject you’d like to hear my opinion on. If I’ve written about it before, I’ll simply link to the post in the archives here. But if I haven’t covered the topic yet, I just might write up a whole post on your subject. At the very least, it’ll be a springing-off board for future posts.

Education under fire

Monday, January 21st, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have a good idea of the kind of stuff I was writing about in college. Here is the second of my opinion columns, Education under fire, originally published March 28, 2006.


Science education is under attack again. And this time, it’s not in Kansas, Utah or other distant, faraway lands; it’s right at home. Last month, two bills were introduced in the Maryland General Assembly attacking the teaching of evolution and other scientific theories in public schools and universities, including this university, and permitting the teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism.

House Bill 1228, introduced by Emmett C. Burns, Jr. (D-District 10), ostensibly outlaws the teaching of IDC in science classes, but at the same time, requires the State Board of Education to “permit the teaching or discussion of the theory of intelligent design in humanities or philosophy classes.” In addition, it requires funding be provided to develop an IDC curriculum and instructional materials.

House Bill 1531, introduced by the same delegate, states that public school teachers and college professors “shall have the affirmative right and freedom to present scientific information to the full range of scientific views in any curricula or course of learning.” This bill adapts language from a proposed addition to the No Child Left Behind Act by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) that was struck down before the act was passed.

If these bills seem very confusing and possibly contradictory, it’s because they are. After the defeat in Dover, Penn., elected officials wishing to see their religious views taught in public schools are forced to be very sneaky in trying to get their attacks on science to pass constitutional rules. But don’t let the wording fool you; as Judge Jones ruled in Dover, it’s the intent behind these bills that really matters, and the real intent is anything but secular.

The First Amendment to the Constitution was enacted to ensure the separation of church and state and protect religious freedom. Because HB1228 requires the state to spend money on religious instructional materials, it is crossing the barrier between church and state.

The wording of the phrase “full range of scientific views” is specially concerning because IDC does not actually fall within the realm of science. Despite the public controversy manufactured by right-wing think tanks such as the Discovery Institute, there is no real scientific controversy over the basic validity of the theory of evolution. The word theory means something entirely different in the scientific realm than it does in colloquial usage. Gravity is also “just a theory,” but you wouldn’t walk out of a skyscraper window, now would you?

These latest bills introduced into the Maryland legislature are nothing more than the latest in a series of attempts to attack science education and illegally insert religious teachings into the curriculum. It was shot down in the late 1980s with “creation science,” and we’re now seeing it again with “intelligent design,” which merely replaces the word “God” with “intelligent designer.” It’s still no more scientific. At best, it’s a weak philosophical conjecture, though some philosophy professors might resent the association.

There are movements against this latest round of anti-science legislation. A petition is being circulated by the Alliance for Science (allianceforscience.org). The National Center for Science Education (ncseweb.org) provides in-depth information about the defense of teaching evolution in public schools.

Fundamentalist Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible have every right to their beliefs – but they do not have the right to force their views into public schools, where they will be foisted upon kids who don’t hold the same religious views. Religious instruction should remain in churches and secular private schools and should not interfere with the teaching of real science in public schools and universities. When we allow religion to pre-empt science we all lose.

Homeopathic laundry detergent?!

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Are there no depths to which snake oil salesmen won’t sink to in marketing useless, fraudulent products to the American public?

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Shattering the inevitability myth of senescence

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Ask yourself this: why do you think of senescence (the process of deterioration resulting in becoming elderly, and eventually, dying of it) as inevitable? I ask why, not if, because universally nearly everyone seems to have simply accepted it without question. Yes, it may be true that death due to old age has been inevitable for all of human history, but then again, until very recently, so was the possibility of death due to other sorts of diseases (polio, the bubonic plague, etc.). Yet science has continued marching on at an exponential pace, achieving breakthroughs so groundbreaking and revolutionary that we couldn’t even dream of them just decades prior. Thus, it is inevitable that the inevitability of old age itself will be overridden.

Old age is the number one cause of human death in western societies. It manifests itself in all sorts of different forms — heart disease, organ failure, weakening bones and muscles leading to increasingly prevalent and dangerous accidents, etc. We have been doing some research on the problem, and we have some intriguing leads on one of the possible causes of senescence (shortening telomeres after each cellular division) and some possible ideas on how to delay it (reduced calorie diets, probably mimmickable using drugs without the constant hunger). Yet we aren’t putting nearly the same effort into curing old age as we are into all sorts of lesser diseases that don’t kill anywhere near the same number of people. This point is made very elegantly in the form of a parable called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant; I highly recommend that you read it.

The only reason that we aren’t putting more effort towards curing old age is because all too many people think it is inevitable. They see it as part of being human, something to be accepted rather than overcome. Religion arguably exists to get people to accept that their time on Earth will come to an end, spinning all sorts of fairy tales in the process about infinite, perfect afterlives in heaven or reincarnation. But why look for consolation in myths when we can get rid of the reason for the creation of those myths in the first place? Death is bad; it kills people, and those who depart are sorely missed by the many who are still living. Don’t over think it; death is bad, thus solving the number one cause of death is good.

Imagine how much better the world would be if people didn’t suffer from old age. Instead of growing old and eventually becoming useless, you would simply continue being yourself, extending your productive life for decades, if not centuries. You could forget those ever-present fears in modern society of becoming unable to do things you once enjoyed, and becoming a drag on your loved ones. Is this not a worthwhile goal?

The only possible objection anyone could have to this plan is a concern over overpopulation. But consider that many western societies are already below replacement rates; having people live longer might actually be the only thing that would keep them from collapsing. And once lifespans are measured in centuries rather than decades, birth rates will go down. If you have centuries of fertile adulthood ahead of you, what’s the rush in having kids now? And don’t go assuming that all the humans that there ever will be will all have to be crammed onto just this one planet. We are eventually going to spread to the stars and beyond, so being able to live productive lives stretching across many centuries will be exactly what we need.

The next time that someone tries to claim that senescence is inevitable, that it is part of the human condition and not something to be overcome, gently tell them that they are wrong. The more minds that we educate, the more consciousnesses that we raise, the closer we will become to curing the worst plague ever to afflict humanity. And the stakes are depressingly urgent: for each further year that we dally and do not focus our full attention on the problem, millions more people will unnecessarily die.

All eyes on evolution

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I can’t trust them to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, so that you readers here can have a good idea of the kind of stuff I was writing about in college, and also so I will no longer be dependent on The Diamondback’s web archive for access to my work in perpetuity. Here is the first of my opinion columns, All eyes on evolution, originally published March 7, 2006.


A month ago, I attended the panel discussion “Beyond the Monkey Trial: Scientific Progress and Societal Debate” in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the topic of evolution. It was held before a partial re-enactment of the Scopes monkey trial put on by the theatre department. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t feel bad, because I was one of the youngest people there. The majority of the audience looked like they might have attended the original Scopes trial. But I digress.

To my great astonishment, especially given the name of the discussion, the panel, composed of four university biology professors, was completely ignorant of the evolution-creationism controversy. They had no concept of how widespread the debate is and weren’t prepared at all to respond to any challenges. After they gave their brief presentations, a creationist in the audience asked a few questions and actually held his own. This is not to say creationism is somehow on par with evolution; in fact, it’s far from it. It’s just that these biologists are so engrossed in their one small area of research that they can’t stand up for science in general.

The creationist made one of those standard, thoroughly refuted arguments creationists nevertheless still want to use: How did the eye evolve? What use is half an eye?

The answer, of course, is that nature has a wide range of eye functionalities, from light-sensitive cell patches on nematodes to the exquisite eyes of a squid. The evolution of the eye has been thoroughly documented both through fossil evidence and by observing living creatures. The human eye is far from perfect, by the way. Light-sensitive cells are located behind blood vessels and other obscuring cells. The optic nerve plunges through the retina, creating a blind spot in the process. Both of these are problems squid don’t have. Yet the best response the biologist was able to come up with was something about eyeglasses.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the scientific community and the community at large. In science, there is no controversy over evolution; it’s simply a fact, backed up by millions upon millions of evidences from experiments and fossils. But scientists would be wise to pay attention to the rising trend of anti-science among the public and stop living in a naive world so they can focus all of their efforts on research. Pennsylvania and Kansas, among others, have recently made the news for their legislative attacks on science. If nothing else, scientists should pay more attention to the public discourse because they risk losing their funding if they don’t. Just ask stem cell researchers and climatologists.

Everyone who considers himself a rationalist should take just a few hours out of his life to learn the responses to the most common attacks on science. Scientists would also do well to hone their rhetoric; although they may be geniuses in their field of study, they will regularly be beaten in verbal debates by the likes of Kent Hovind, a man with a phony doctorate who goes from church to church lecturing how the Earth is only 6,000 years old and evolution is responsible for every societal ill. And the American public needs to realize scientific truth is established not in verbal debates but through experimentation and the scientific method. Hovind, for instance, couldn’t experiment his way out of a wet paper bag. It’s a shame science must be politicized, but if that’s the only defense left against the increasing wave of fundamentalist attacks on science, then so be it.

One of the best places for people interested in the defense of science is www.talkorigins.org. It’s a great resource of scientific responses to common anti-science arguments and it includes many references to scientific literature. I urge anyone who’s interested in this issue to at least take a look. And for the rest of you, please keep what I’ve said in mind. Creationism pushers may outnumber real scientists in the popular media, such as Fox News, but that’s only because the scientists are too busy toiling away in their laboratories toward the next big breakthrough that will improve humanity forever.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane! … wait, it’s just the President

Friday, January 18th, 2008

One of the unique things about living in the area where I do is that President (of the United States, in case that wasn’t clear) frequently flies overhead. I live in Potomac, Maryland, which, along with many other parts of Montgomery County, lies pretty much directly between the White House and Camp David. There are probably some other locations around here that the President flies to, but Camp David is the main one I’m aware of.

Earlier today I was walking back from Montgomery Mall to retrieve my car after an oil change and I heard helicopter noises, so I happened to look up. Helicopters aren’t rare at all in the DC metropolitan area, and most people wouldn’t think twice, let alone look to see what it was. But I am something of a closet aviation enthusiast, so I always like to check out the airplanes and helicopters flying above me. Thus, I glanced up, expecting to see a traffic helicopter (very common around the Beltway), but I immediately realized I’m looking at President Bush.

There, flying in formation almost directly above me, were two Marine Ones, and a little ways behind them, two black Armed Forces helicopters, all flying in a straight line. The Marine Ones were painted in the familiar gray and blue paint scheme. There are two of them, of course, because one serves as a decoy (Is the president in the lead one or the tail one? There’s no way to know. It’s a guessing game). And all four of the helicopters are no doubt loaded with all sorts of anti-missile systems, and you can be sure that the black helicopters have some pretty substantial weaponry in them too.

I’ve had the President flying over me for as long as I can remember, as we’ve always lived in this area. I take it for granted; it’s something to be noticed for a few seconds and then forgotten about. I see it at least once each year. But I’m one of something less than 0.1% of Americans who happen to live in this flightpath and see this frequently — and of that 0.1%, I bet it’s less than 1% who actually notice the helicopters and know who’s in them. But once you’re aware of what you’re looking for, it’s very easy to spot the President flying overhead.

It didn’t use to be this easy to spot the President. Bill Clinton flew in a convoy of just two Marine Ones, and if you weren’t close enough to see the markings on them, you couldn’t be sure you weren’t just looking at some unrelated flight composed of two helicopters. But I’ve always seen Bush flying in a convoy of four (most likely a security upgrade following Rudy Giuliani’s favorite day ever), so there’s now no mistaking him. If you happen to be a tourist in the Washington D.C. area, know what to look out for — four helicopters flying in formation — and the chances aren’t bad that you’ll be able to spot the President in Marine One flying high above your head.

What rights does a corpse have?

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

Lee Kinkade’s comment in another post here on Cyde Weys Musings led me to thinking: what rights does a corpse have? Or, perhaps more accurately, what rights do the relatives of a dead person have regarding the body? Why do they have any at all?

Let me start off by agreeing wholeheartedly with the moral principle that says that no innocent person can be forced to give their life against their will to save others, even if, numerically, more lives are saved overall. There’s a question that ethicists have devised to test this moral principle. It goes like this: “Seven people are admitted to the hospital. They are all perfectly healthy except each one needs a different organ transplant or they will die (heart, liver, kidney, whatever), and one of the seven happens to be a match for all of the organs that the other six need. Do you sacrifice the one person and distribute his organs such that six more may live?” The answer was pretty much the same across all cultures the question was asked of: nearly everyone says no (and if you feel up to it, ask yourself the question and respond in the comments).

However, there’s a different question that elicits many more positive responses. Six people are trapped in a vehicle that is stuck on train tracks, with a train barreling towards them. You have access to a switch that will divert the train, but unfortunately, there is someone else on the detour track who will inadvertently die if the train is diverted. Do you do it? Many people (me included) would say yes. It’s very tragic, and I wouldn’t make the decision lightly, but numerically, one death is better than six deaths. Contrast this with the previous dilemma; the ethical difference is that it is okay if someone dies accidentally in saving more lives, but it isn’t okay to purposefully sacrifice someone against their will to save others. In the train analogy, that would be akin to throwing a person onto the tracks to derail the train before it hits the carload of six people. Again, most people would say that that is unacceptable.

What I’m getting at with all of this, of course, is that isn’t it always better to sacrifice zero lives versus allowing the death of any positive number of people? I am, of course, talking about corpses. In this modern age, we can use many of the organs in corpses to save others’ lives. And we often do. But what about when the person isn’t an organ donor? Do we respect their wishes, or their family’s wishes, to not have their corpse used to save other lives? My answer, and this is where I disagree with Lee Kinkade, is no. Saving lives is more important than respecting wishes.

Corpses have no real value other than as their use as fodder for organs for saving other lives (though somehow people manage to give them all sorts of sentimental value). The person who died should have absolutely no say over what becomes of their corpse, because after all, how does anything that happens to your corpse affect you after your death? You’re dead. You aren’t thinking about anything, let alone worrying about what happens to the shell of what was once you. What right do you have to be selfish and allow your corpse to rot away in the ground (or be incinerated or whatever) when it could have a beneficial use for other people who are still living? What difference does it really make if your corpse is buried completely intact, or missing a few organs? You’ll be worm food either way, and in the long run, nothing will be left of your corpse anyway.

I’m even entertaining the thought that bodies should become property of the government after death, to be used in whatever way is best. To me, that makes more sense than assuming that the corpse automatically becomes property of the closest surviving relative. I value human life and human intelligence greatly, but once that human is dead, they are no longer a human; they are simply meat. And I don’t attach any special significance to meat, even though I know many people’s religions tell them otherwise. But people have all sorts of irrational, contradictory beliefs; we shouldn’t just go around catering to every one of them merely because the person sincerely believes in them, especially when those beliefs interfere with saving other human lives.

I know there are some other issues at stake here, like the possibility that hospitals will carve up living but weakened people to harvest the organs, or perhaps let some poor person die rather than curing them if they happened to be a match for a rich person who needed a transplant. These issues are important, but they are separate, and could be addressed with very rigorous ethical rules regarding when bodies can be carved up. I don’t think these issues are a deal breaker for enforced organ donation; on the balance, I’d rather have enforced donation coupled with strict ethical rules rather than prohibiting the donations in fear of these concerns.

The short and sweet version of all of this is, I do not believe it is acceptable to sacrifice someone against their will so that others may live. But I do believe that not only is it acceptable to use someone’s corpse so that others may live, it is a moral imperative to do so, regardless of any objections by them or their family. Let the discussion begin in the comments below; there many be some issues I haven’t thought of yet, and this topic seems like it’ll be a lively one. Tell your friends about this too.