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Friday, September 24, 2010

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... Or Something Else

ChuyThere's a nice little saying that Christians sometimes use to defend the divinity of Jesus, 'liar, lunatic, or lord'. It's often attributed to C.S. Lewis, though the argument goes back further than him. The reasoning goes that anyone who spoke the way Jesus did has to fit one of those three choices. However, I think they leave off a fourth choice, (in keeping with the alliteration) 'legend'.*

The triple L argument (more commonly known as Lewis's Trilemma), implicitly assumes that the gospel accounts are accurate. This is its biggest weakness. Obviously, if you accept the gospels as true, you'll also accept the miracles, such as raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus's resurrection and ascension to heaven, and the voice of Yahweh declaring Jesus to be his son. If you already accept all those claims, then the triple L trillemma is superfluous. But, if you question those miraculous aspects of the gospels, chances are you'll question the quotes from Jesus, as well.

So, what reason would someone have to question the gospels?

One question I've heard is, if the gospels aren't true, why would people have invented such fantastic stories, and why would others have believed them? First, I think this falls into a common mistake people make, assuming conscious intent where there is none (I discussed something similar in an entry on the origin of Arabic numerals). Just because the gospels may not be accurate, doesn't mean that the gospel writers were intentionally inventing the story. They were merely writing the story that had been passed down to them. Remember that the 4 canonical gospels weren't written until decades after Jesus's death, so there was plenty of time for his legend to grow.

I think there are three good classes of examples to illustrate that it's entirely possible that a story such as the life of Jesus could be fictional. First, just look at modern day urban legends. A browse through Snopes, UrbanLegends.about.com, or Straight Dope, shows just how many untrue things people believe. Most of the urban legends on those sites originated within the past few decades (and many within the past few years), so they show just how quickly an untruth can come to be widely believed.

You could also look to known legendary figures, such as Robin Hood, King Arthur, or Paul Bunyan. There may be people that these stories were originally based on, but they have certainly moved into the realm of legend, and at this point, it would be nearly impossible to discern whatever kernels of truth still remain.

The final good class of examples is to look around at the world's other religions. Now, one possibility is that they're all mostly right - that there are many, many gods, and they all intervene here on Earth (think of the story of the blind men and the elephant). I don't think most people actually believe that, though (I certainly don't). I think most people look around at the religions other than their own, and assume them to be false. Still, the religions had to come from somewhere. They can mostly be explained by perhaps a few grains of truth, with a lot of exaggeration and embellishment as the stories got passed down - a divine telephone game.

This last class of examples leads into another important point. You have to consider the mindset of the early Christians, and the early converts to Christianity. The early church was not trying to win over atheists. It's not as if there were a bunch of skeptics who doubted the existence of gods. The very first Christians were Jews, so they already accepted Yahweh as their god, and it was only a small step to accept that Jesus was his son, the messiah. The gentiles were mostly Romans, who accepted the Roman pantheon. They already believed in many gods, so the hard part of Christianity was limiting their belief to just one. But both of those groups, Jews and gentiles, would have been ready to accept claims of miracles. It fit with their existing worldview. To someone who grew up believing in the labors of Hercules, it wouldn't have been hard to believe that a man turned water into wine or walked on water.

The final point I'm going to discuss, is that outside of the gospels, there is very little independent evidence for Jesus's actual existence, let alone his miraculous acts. In fact, some people doubt whether a Yeshua of Nazareth who became a preacher even existed at all, and think he's entirely mythical. In addition to the lack of evidence, they point to the many commonalities Jesus shared with figures from other religions, particularly Mithraism. Others have conjectured that Jesus may be an amalgamation of several historical figures, with a bit of embellishment, and a bit of borrowing from other religions. (more info).

Even if there was a historical Yeshua of Nazareth who served as the original basis for Christianity, I think it's clear that it would have been very easy for his story to be embellished to become the gospels that we're familiar with. So, in addition to the triple L trilemma options of liar, lunatic, or lord, I think we must add at least a fourth option of legend or myth.

* I came up with the 'Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... or Legend' alliteration on my own, but clearly, it's a fairly obvious play on words. A little googling found that many others, such as Bart Ehrman, have used this one before me. Oh well. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Website Update - New Beer Margarita Recipe

MargaritaI've added a new recipe to my How To page - Beer Margaritas. They really do taste better than they sound. If you've already seen the Irmarita recipe - that's still my favorite margarita for taste, but it takes a bit of time to mix up and blend. The beer margaritas are very quick and easy to make, and still tastes better than using a margarita mix.

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for August 2010

Top 10 ListI've gone through the server logs and found the top ten most visited pages on this site for last month. Most pages had been on the top 10 list at least once before. The exception, which was a nice little surprise, was my wife's Recipe for 3 Cheese Chicken Enchiladas with Cream Cheese Sauce. Actually, the enchilada recipe came from one of her friends, while the sauce recipe came from another of her friends, but my wife was the one who merged them into the best enchiladas ever. If you give it a try making them, don't forget to check the other recipes on my How-To page, for Mexican rice, pico de gallo, and, even better than a Margarita, an Irmarita.

August 2010

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  5. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  6. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  7. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  8. Blog - Response to Anti-Liberal Article by Gary Hubbell
  9. Recipe for 3 Cheese Chicken Enchiladas with Cream Cheese Sauce
  10. Programming

Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

On a recent trip to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I bought a ticket to see the the exhibit, Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution (related link). The exhibit was a fascinating collection of fossils from the Solnhofen region of Germany, with an archaeopteryx known as the Thermopolis specimen as the centerpiece. The archaeopteryx fossil was very interesting, but there were two things about it, in particular, that I was struck by. First was the size. For some reason, in my mind's eye, archaeopteryx had always been a big bird, something along the lines of an eagle. The archaeopteryx fossil at the museum was about the size of a crow (more on this below). Second was the level of detail in the feather imprints, which photos just don't do justice to. It's not that the feathers were imprinted perfectly in their entirety, but in the regions where the preservation was best, it was very obvious that you were looking at an actual feather.

Thermopolis Specimen
The Thermopolis Archaeopteryx, With a Hand for Comparison to Show Size

So, after I left the exhibit, I went to the museum gift shop to find a souvenir. About the only thing they had that was appropriate for an adult was the book, Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution, by Peter Wellnhofer*.

Before I get started with my own review, let me note that the publisher has a great section for the book. Perhaps best for someone considering buying the book is the section of sample pages. The pages shown are not anomalous - nearly every page had many illustrations, which was great. Also note the small text size and amount of text per page. Even though the book was only 208 pages, it was an information packed 208 pages.

The book was divided into several sections. The first was a short description of the locale where the fossils were found, the Solnhofen region of Bavaria, in Germany. It was the sort of description you'd expect from a chamber of commerce.

Next came a brief description of the geology of the Solnhofen region, and what this tells us about the ancient environment of the area. All of the archaeopteryx specimens found so far have come from Solnhofen Jurassic limestone deposits. It turns out that these deposits were from lagoons in shallow seas. The water was apparently fairly calm, and formed stratified regions with very low oxygen levels at the sea floor - no multicellular life could survive in those anoxic conditions. The mainland was not very close, but it's possible there were islands nearby. So, the limestone deposits were necessarily not the native habitats of any of the terrestrial animals found there. It's possible that the archaeopteryx were blown out to sea during storms, and didn't have the strength to fly back to land (the fact that all archaeopteryx found thus far are juveniles supports this idea).

Horseshoe Crab Death March
Death March of a Horseshoe Crab, Which Died after Wandering into an Anoxic Lagoon

After that came a discussion of the history of fossil discovery in the Solnhofen. Obviously, being a marine environment, most of the fossils from the region are from sea creatures, with the fossils of terrestrial animals being very rare. Because of the way the fossils were formed, the preservation is excellent, and Solnhofen fossils have been prized for centuries. They were regular inclusions in the curiosity cabinets of medieval Europe, which emerged in the 16th century (some of the best collections served as the start of modern museums).

Next came the heart of the book - 83 pages discussing the known archaeopteryx specimens in detail. If you think 83 pages of discussion sounds like a lot - it was, and it was a bit dry. I think of myself as a fairly knowledgeable layperson when it comes to evolution and biology, but much this section was a bit advanced for me. The fossils were described in technical terms (radius, ulna, meta carpal, flexor tubercle, pneumatic foramina), which would have made a firm grounding in anatomy useful in understanding this chapter.

This section started with a discussion of how the urvogels (a common name for archaeopteryx from German, meaning proto bird) likely became fossils - they floated in the sea for a few days before sinking to the sea floor, where they were covered with a microbial film before being covered by sediment. One fact I found interesting is that the feathers formed an imprint in the sediment before decomposing, and then this imprint was transferred to the adjacent layer of sediment after the feather decomposed. So, when a slab containing an archaeopteryx is split, both new slabs show only one side of the feathers.

After discussing fossilization, this section moved on to the controversy in the nomenclature and taxonomy of archaeopteryx. The rules of taxonomy state if a species is named twice, the first description has precedence, even if it was obscure and few people heard of it, or if the type specimen wasn't as complete as the later one. (This, for example, is why brontosaurus is now referred to as apatosaurus, since apatosaurus was the first name used, even if it wasn't as widely known). An early archaeopteryx specimen, not being recognized as a bird, was named Pterodactylus crassipes, so crassipes should be the species name. But before that specimen was recognized as a bird, a fossil feather was discovered and used as the original type specimen for Archaeopteryx lithographica. Once subsequent archaeopteryx were discovered, they were named after the feather, even though it's not certain if the feather is actually from the same animal. Another ealy genus name was Griphosaurus. In the end, most people referred to the animals as archaeopteryx, so a special petition was made to the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in 1977 to make the London specimen the type specimen, and to make Archaeopteryx lithographica the official genus and species names.

There is, however, some controversy as to whether the archaeopteryx specimens found so far are actually all from the same species. Most notable is the size difference between the specimens, but there are also differences among the details of the anatomy. The size and some of these differences could be explained by the urvogels being different ages at their times of death, along with individual variability, or even sex differences. But, it's possible that the fossils represent more than one species.

Comparison of the Size of Various Archaeopteryx Specimens
Size Comparison of Archaeopteryx Specimens

Next came the discussion of each fossil. For each fossil, Wellnhofer gave a brief overview of how the fossil was discovered and brought into public light, followed by a detailed physical description, which as I already mentioned, was rather technical when it came to anatomy. Besides the feather (which may or may not be from an archaeopteryx), there have been 10 archaeopteryx specimens discovered so far, of differing levels of completeness and preservation. Most are now housed in museums, and are known by the city in which they're permanently located. In order of discovery (though not necessarily public knowledge), the specimens are the feather, London, Berlin, Maxberg, Haarlem, Eichstatt, Solnhofen, Munich, Burgermeister-Muller, the 9th, and Thermopolis specimens.

The first, and one of the most complete, was what is now known as the London specimen. It was discovered in 1861, just two years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and made quite a stir being such an obvious transitional form. Also notable is the Maxberg Specimen, which has gone missing since its owner's death. Luckily, casts were made of the fossil before it was lost, but casts are not as useful as the real thing.

Once all the fossils had been described, the next section was a sort of synthesis, describing as much as we can know about archaeopteryx from the fossils we've found. Wellnhofer started with the subject with the most certainty, the skeleton, and moved on from there through less certainty and more conjecture - plumage, physiology, then lifestyle.

The remaining four chapters were all related - discussing early bird evolution, and the role of archaeopteryx in understanding that story. Archaeopteryx is, after all, the oldest bird yet known (though not the first bird, as is too often mistakenly said). Wellnhofer discussed some of the leading hypotheses on the ancestor of birds, including the thecodont hypothesis and the crocodile hypothesis, along with a few more 'imaginative' theories. But the leading hypothesis, which is pretty much certain, is that birds are a lineage of dinosaurs, closely related to the maniraptoran theropods. They're so similar, actually, that there's some discussion as to whether some animals traditionally classified as non-avian dinosaurs are in fact birds that have secondarily lost the ability to fly (in the same manner as ostriches, but back when birds still had teeth and clawed hands).

One of the things that struck me is just how much more dinosaur-like than bird-like archaeopteryx was (yeah, yeah, I know - birds are dinosaurs, but I think my meaning is clear enough). In fact, the Solnhofen Specimen was originally mistaken for a Compsognathus theropod by an amateur collector. I've included two pictures from the book below to dramatically illustrate this (I apologize for the quality of the scans, but like I said in another review, I wasn't about to ruin the binding on my book just to make it lay flat in the scanner).

Comparison of Bambiraptor, Archaeopteryx, and a Modern Chicken
Comparison of Bambiraptor, Archaeopteryx, and a Modern Chicken - not to scale

Comparison of Archaeopteryx to a Modern Eagle
Comparison of Archaeopteryx to a Modern Eagle - not to scale

Take a close look at those skeletons. If you had to pick which other animal archaeopteryx was most closely related to, it seems pretty obvious that it would be the bambiraptor. Archaeopteryx still had clawed hands, a hyperextensible 'killer' claw on its foot (though not shown in the above reconstruction), a long bondy tail, gastralia (the bones under the stomach), a more theropod pubis, and teeth in its mouth. Just as important is what archaeopteryx didn't have - a pygostyle, a keratinous beak, a large keeled sternum, fused hand bones, a fused tibiotarsus, or a fused tarsometatarsus. It also seems pretty likely that archaeopteryx lacked a bastard wing. And those are just some of the differences between archaeopteryx and modern birds.

I hadn't realized just how many ancient birds have been discovered that are younger than archaeopteryx. There are quite a few. In fact, the evolutionary story of birds following archaeopteryx is pretty well understood. The family tree below illustrates this. Note that archaeopteryx is most likely not actually the ancestor of today's birds. Like most animals, it was in a lineage that went extinct, which means it had a few traits it had evolved that set it apart from the surviving avian lineage. However, it's still a very valuable specimen for understanding what early birds were like.

Avian Family Tree
Avian Family Tree

This discussion also helped to put into perspective the K-T mass extinction. You often hear that birds were the only lineage of dinosaurs to survive that event, which makes it seem like there must have been something extra special about birds. But look at that phylogenetic tree. Most birds died at the end of the Cretaceous along with their non-flying relatives. There may have been some advantage that the surviving lineage of birds possessed, or they may have just gotten lucky (similarly, most mammals also died out at the end of the Cretaceous).

Despite there not being any known birds older than archaeopteryx, in recent years, paleontologists have discovered quite a few feathered dinosaurs. The book discussed a few of those dinosaurs, and compared the structure of their feathers to those of archaeopteryx and birds. The dinosaur feathers are more primitive. Some are just a downy covering, but some more advanced feathers do resemble the flight feathers of birds, only lacking the asymmetry. While the downy feathers were likely used for insulation, the function of those flight-like feathers is still uncertain.

Wellnhofer also covered the ground up versus trees down debate on the origin of flight. Up until I heard of this debate a few years ago, I'd always assumed that avian flight must have evolved from the trees down. It didn't seem plausible that it would have developed any other way. But many people have made compelling arguments for how it could have evolved from the ground up, where the wings would initially have been used for balance, and then maybe flapped for extra thrust to increase running speed, before fully developing flight. It's interesting that the flapping motion of a bird wing is very similar to the motion possible in a maniraptoran arm (most likely used to capture prey).

Perhaps the best evidence for the ground up hypothesis is that archaeopteryx very strongly appears to be a fully terrestrial animal, with no special adaptations for an arboreal lifestyle. Since archaeopteryx wasn't the first bird, it's possible that archaeopteryx secondarily evolved a terrestrial lifestyle, but given its similarities to the theropods, this seems unlikely. One proposed evolutionary stage in the ground up scenario, wing-assisted incline running, is supported by observation of living birds. The idea has also been proposed that flight may have evolved from jumping and parachuting from cliffs or other elevated points, followed later by gliding, as a sort of reconciliation between the trees down and ground up hypotheses, but eliminating the trees.

The ground up hypothesis certainly seems to be the more likely at this point, but as Wellnhofer pointed out, all ideas on this are speculative for the time being, since we haven't found the fossils of earlier birds.

Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution was a very interesting book. It's very informative and detailed, and I learned quite a bit from it. I wouldn't recommend it for everybody, though. The target audience is quite a bit higher than the general layperson. Although some sections would probably be interesting to many people, if you only have a passing interest in archaeopteryx, maybe Wikipedia is a better choice. But if you happen to have a really strong interest in avian evolution, and don't mind reading technical jargon, then this is the book for you.

Update 2011-08-02 - A new fossil, xiaotingia zhengi, has been found that sheds further light on the evolution of archaeopteryx like animals. A cladistics analysis using this fossil suggests that archaeopteryx might not be quite as closely related to birds as previously thought. You can read more about it in a new entry, Is Archaeopteryx Still a Bird?

Update 2010-09-28 - I reworded several sections to make them more clear, particularly the section on the origin of flight. I also added a bit of information to the section on the origin of feathers.

* Although I commonly buy books as souvenirs from museums, this one was a little more expensive that I was willing to pay, so I walked out of the museum without it. However, my wife and daughter, seeing how interested I was in it, bought it without me noticing, and gave it to me later as a Father's Day present. Actually, it was my daughter's girl scout troop leader who bought the book, who then gave it to my wife when I wasn't looking. The full story is that we were at the museum as part of a girl scout trip. My wife was an official full time chaperon for the trip, and although I helped with chaperoning duties for most of the time, since I wasn't officially one, I was free to go off and do my own thing if I wanted to. Since the tickets to the archaeopteryx exhibit cost extra, it was out of the budget for the girls, so I went through the exhibit by myself. I would have liked to have taken the girls, but to be honest, I think they were all fossiled out after the museum's main exhibits. At the least, they definitely wouldn't have taken as much time as I had.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Kid's Books and Aliens

UFOThere was a certain book I vaguely recalled from my childhood, that I've been trying to find off and on for the past few months. My memory of the book was that it was these blob-like aliens, who built a rocket ship to save all the animals from Earth. So, I did a Google search for 'kid's book aliens take animals on rocket ship'. On the second page of results, I found a real winner.

The link was to this page from AliensAndChildren.org, an interview with some guy named David M. Jacobs, who happens to be a Ph.D. at Temple. Not only does this guy buy into alien abduction stories hook, line, and sinker, but, well, just read for yourself.

Well, you know, the ultimate question I think to ask for the UFO phenomenon is "Just what the hell do you think they're here for?" That's the question that I've tried to address in this book--what is this all about? What is happening here? Why is this happening? Why are people saying that these events are happening? So what I've done then is try to answer those questions as best I can by using as much information as I can from eleven years of fairly intensive research into abductions.

And what I've been able to find is that this is a program. They're not here just because they're examining people, or studying people, or experimenting on people. I don't know, Sean, if you remember I gave a talk about that in Los Angeles when I saw you. So they're not here to sort of "examine" us in some way. They're here on a mission. They're here with a goal in mind. They've got a program, and it's a program with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's a program that is goal-directed and I think we're entering into sort of the end-phase of this program. I think that we're moving towards the end of this.

And the program ultimately is not abducting people. Abductions, you have to remember, are a means to an end. They're abducting people for a purpose, for a reason. The physical act of abducting people, which is the abduction phenomenon, really is only part of the program. So what I've done is kind of divided it into component parts and fleshed it out a lot more. So what we have here is an abduction program, a breeding program, which accounts for all the reproductive activity that we see, and a hybridization program, which is why people see hybrids all the time--as babies, as toddlers, as adolescents, and then as adults.

And then, finally, I think all this is leading to an integration program in which ultimately these hybrids, who look very human, will be integrating into this society. And who will eventually, I assume, be in control here because they do have superior technology and superior physiological abilities that we do not have. We would therefore be sort of second-class citizens, I think.

It goes on for quite a bit more, but that was enough for me.

BTW, I did manage to find that book. It was called Barbapapa's Ark. It's every bit as strange as I remember it, but still not quite as strange as that interview.

Added 2010-09-09 I suppose that instead of just pointing and laughing, I ought to provide a little explanation. I very much doubt that Earth has ever been visited by aliens in flying saucers. There's just no good evidence to back it up. Sure, there are plenty of eye-witness accounts and even videos of strange lights in the skies, but nearly every story I've seen so far has a much more mundane explanation. I'll give two examples.

The first is a story of an amateur astronomer who witnessed a UFO, but took the time to figure out what it was he was really seeing. Later, when he saw the UFO with someone else there with him, and explained to the other person what was really going on, the other person flat out rejected his explanation. This is an example of how biased we can be in our perceptions, and why eye witness accounts are not always credible.

Amateur Astronomer Reporting a UFO Sighting

The second is a story that involved many more people. A few skeptics, in an effort to show just how irrational people are when it comes to UFO sightings, staged a hoax. They attached flares to 3-foot helium balloons, and then released them near a populated area. People were convinced they were UFOs (in the common sense, not the technical sense). The story was covered by the local news, and even made it onto an episode of the History Channel's UFO Hunters. To quote the concluding lines of the story linked to below:

In fact, we delivered what every perfect UFO case has: great video and pictures, “credible” eyewitnesses (doctors and pilots), and professional investigators convinced that something amazing was witnessed. Does this bring into question the validity of every other UFO case? We believe it does.

How We Staged the Morristown UFO Hoax

Friday, September 3, 2010

The 2010 Texas Republican Platform

Republican ElephantI just posted a rather lengthy review of the 2008 Texas Republican Platform. As I noted at the end of that entry, my procrastination in completing the review resulted in a newer platform being released before I posted that entry. Now that I've looked over the new 2010 Platform, I have a few comments on it.

For the most part, the new platform was very similar to the old platform, with some sections actually being verbatim matches. So, there's no need for me to repeat everything here that I wrote in the previous review. My comments in this review will be directed at new additions to the platform, or sections that I might have missed from the previous platform (it was 25 pages, and I only skimmed through the thing).

I think the thing that struck me the most this time was just how much the platform was influenced by nonsense. I mean, there are legitimate political debates - the balance of power between federal and state governments, the rights that should be granted to a developing fetus at different stages of development, the balance of personal freedom & privacy versus public safety, parental authority versus welfare of the children, etc. But many of the planks in this platform are the types of baseless arguments you'd normally expect to come in an e-mail forward or to hear from the lunatic fringe, such as the 'birther' nonsense, the support for alternative medicine, the paranoia of a one world government, and the questioning of evolution and global warming.

Before getting started with my own review, I'll note that there's a decent review at Capitol Annex, which gets a bit more into the motivation behind some of these planks, and points out some of the hypocrisy.

If It’s Good Enough For Us, It’s Good Enough for Them – The Government shall not, by rule or law, exempt any of its members from the provisions of such rule or law.

This sounds reasonable, but I've included it here because I recognize the source. I've received a few e-mail forwards recently with similar wording, and after a conversation with a co-worker, I learned that it's a relatively common belief that Congressmen and women don't have to pay into Social Security like the rest of the nation. While that may have been true decades ago, it hasn't been true since 1984 - 26 years ago. And even when members of Congress weren't paying into Social Security, it meant that they received no Social Security retirement credit for their time in office. Additionally, there aren't any laws the government members are exempt from following.

In other words, the Republicans of Texas have promoted a non-issue to the prominence of a plank in their platform.

more info: http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/do_members_of_congress_pay_social_security.html
more info: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,308378,00.html

Washington D.C. – We strongly oppose making the District of Columbia a state and adding unconstitutional voting Congressional members.

This is an interesting debate. There's currently proposed legislation in the form of House Resolution 5388, the D.C. Fair and Equal House Voting Rights Act, that would give D.C. a voting representative in the House. Opponents cite Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, which uses the wording of 'states', and that since D.C. isn't a state, then this legislation would be unconstitutional. Others cite Article I, Section 8, and claim that gives Congress the right to grant D.C. a voting representative.

Legality of that particular bill aside, there's the question of whether D.C. should get a representative. Currently, residents of D.C. have no representation in the federal government, even though they're bound by federal laws. It's a situation very similar to the 'taxation without representation' that led to the Revolutionary War. A single House representative certainly wouldn't give D.C. undue weight. The average constituency for members of the house is currently around 650,000 people, while D.C. has a population of 600,000 - just about a perfect match. However, giving D.C. two senators would give D.C. a lot of power in the Senate. Some have proposed compromises, such as an amendment to the Constitution to give them a House representative but no senators.

Still, the Republicans managed to mangle the wording of this plank in their platform. If D.C. were to be made a state, then it wouldn't be unconstitutional for it to have voting members in Congress. I also find it odd that they would 'strongly' oppose giving representation to U.S. citizens.

more info: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/93590/taxation_without_representation_should.html?cat=37

Remedies to Activist Judiciary – We call Congress and the President to use their constitutional powers to restrain activist judges. We urge Congress to adopt the Judicial Conduct Act of 2005 and remove judges who abuse their authority. Further, we urge Congress to withhold Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving abortion, religious freedom, and the Bill of Rights.

I discussed this quite a bit in my review of the previous platform, but in the new platform, the Republicans have summarized it quite nicely. They are pushing for Congress to restrict the Supreme Court from hearing cases that would test the constitutionality of laws! Not only is that unconstitutional itself, it's such a clear break from the original intentions of the Founding Fathers, who set up a system of checks and balances to make sure that no branch could abuse its power. This is un-American.

Candidate Eligibility – A candidate running for office should be required to reside within the geographical boundaries of the office sought. A candidate must submit proof of qualifications for the office being sought, including proof of citizenship and in the case of a presidential candidate, an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, bearing names and signatures of parents, attendant(s), as well as date, time and location of birth for the purpose of satisfying the requirement of being a "natural born citizen".

This is another one I included not because it's too unreasonable on the face of it, but because of the source. I think it's pretty obvious that the source of this plank is the whole 'Birther' nonsense regarding President Obama's citizenship. That this nonsense would be promoted to a plank on the platform is a sign of either stupidity in the Texas Republican Party leadership, or shameless pandering to stupidity among their base.

more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_citizenship_conspiracy_theories

Companion Animal Welfare – We support legislation to license and regulate large-scale commercial dog and cat breeding facilities to ensure the humane handling and care of dogs and cats in those facilities.

It's actually a bit of a nice surprise to see this plank.

ObamaCare – We urge the Congress to defund, repeal, and reject the national healthcare takeover, also known as “ObamaCare” or any similar legislation.

Calling health care reform 'ObamaCare' is nothing but political rhetoric. I wouldn't be too surprised to hear Republicans use the term in everyday conversation, but not the official party platform. It's also a stretch to call it "the national healthcare takeover".

Health Care and Nutritional Supplements – We deplore any efforts to mandate that vitamins and other natural supplements be on a prescription–only basis, and we oppose any efforts to remove vitamins and other nutritional supplements from public sale. We support the rights of all adults to their choice of nutritional products. We strongly favor legislation recognizing legitimate alternative health care choices.

I'd always thought of alternative medicine as being more in the realm of liberal new age types than right wing conservatives, but I guess I was wrong.

As Tim Minchin says, "Do you know what they call 'alternative medicine' that's been proved to work? Medicine." That's the problem with talking about "legitimate alternative health care choices". Once a treatment has gone through all the necessary clinical trials, compared to controls, checked for side effects, and still been demonstrated to be effective, it moves into the realm where all doctors will use it, and everybody quits referring to it as an 'alternative' treatment. For example, just look at willow bark. At one point in time, that was an herbal treatment used as a painkiller. Then some scientists decided to look into just how the willow bark was helping, and discovered that it was the salicylic acid that was the active ingredient. So, they isolated that chemical to better control the doses that people received. Not too long after, when acetylsalicylic acid was discovered, it was recognized to be very similar to salicylic acid, so researchers tried using it as a painkiller. Not only did it work, but it had less side effects than salicylic acid. So, from a precursor as an herbal remedy prepared from willow bark, researchers developed aspirin. But despite its herbal roots, I doubt anybody would call aspirin an alternative medicine.

There's also this weird mindset that 'natural' means healthy. Don't forget that cyanide is natural, and you wouldn't want to take that.

I do have some sympathy with this position, though, for the same reason that I think all drugs should be legalized. Adults should have the freedom to do whatever they want to their own bodies, without government interference, so long as they recognize the risks. If adults want to take herbal supplements instead of getting effective treatment, they should be allowed to. But, the companies selling those supplements should have to follow the same laws as all other companies, and not engage in false advertising. Specifically, they need to disclose the real, demonstrated efficacies and risks. It's just that I think that by the time they've gone through enough tests to determine the efficacy and risks, they'll either have a real medicine on their hands, or nothing but snake oil.

The sticky point in this whole issue comes in if parents decide to use these 'alternative' treatments on their children. As I've said before, children shouldn't have to suffer for the stupidity of their parents, and I think parents should be punished for using alternative treatments on their children in place of effective methods.

more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salicylic_acid
more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aspirin#History

Unprocessed foods – We support the availability of natural, unprocessed foods, which should be encouraged, and that the right to access raw milk directly from the farmer be protected.

Wow, who'd have thought that the hippies would become Republicans? Do they want legislative support for granola, too?

Seriously, this is another one of those areas where I think people should be able to take whatever risks they want to. We let people rock climb, sky dive, bungee jump, base jump, drive race cars, and participate in other risky behaviors. Risky eating should be no different. If they want to drink milk potentially infected with pathogens, it's not up to the government to protect them from themselves. The government's main role should be to make sure that the risks are known, and not allow vendors to use false advertising (i.e. lying about risks) when selling the products. The only other place where the government should step in in cases like this is preventing parents from putting their children at risk. Pregnant women, especially, need to be careful, lest they end up with a Listeria infection which would have serious consequences for their baby.

But again, there's this Luddite attitude that 'natural' and 'unprocessed' are better. Look at it this way. If we only ate natural foods that haven't been modified by humans, we'd be stuck with teosinte instead of corn. And if we didn't process food, we'd be stuck eating whole corn kernels (and you know what happens to them), instead of much more nutritious corn products like corn flakes, corn bread or corn tortillas.

more info: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm079516.htm

Americans with Disabilities Act – We support amendment of the Americans with Disabilities Act to exclude from its definition those persons with infectious diseases, substance addiction, learning disabilities, behavior disorders, homosexual practices and mental stress, thereby reducing abuse of the Act.

It seems odd to list actual disabilities, and then suggest that an act intended to protect opportunities for people with disabilities shouldn't include those particular disabilities.

And since when has homosexuality been considered a disability? In fact, TITLE 42, CHAPTER 126, SUBCHAPTER IV, § 12211 specifically states, "For purposes of the definition of “disability” in section 12102 (2) [1] of this title, homosexuality and bisexuality are not impairments and as such are not disabilities under this chapter." So, this Republican platform is calling for an amendment to exclude people who are already excluded. Perhaps a little more knowledge of the laws they want to criticize is in order?

more info: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/search/display.html?terms=12211&url=/uscode/html/uscode42/usc_sec_42_00012211----000-.html

Classroom Discipline –We recommend that local school boards and classroom teachers be given more authority to deal with disciplinary problems. We urge the Legislature, Governor, Commissioner of Education and State Board of Education to remind administrators and school boards that corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas.

Wow. I've heard stories from my dad of what the nuns used to do to him. I would be pissed off, to say the least, if any teacher used corporal punishment on my daughter. It's a bit hard to imagine that a main stream group would be promoting corporal punishment in schools in this day and age, but there it is.

Controversial Theories – Realizing that conflict and debate is a proven learning tool in classrooms, we support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories, including evolution, Intelligent Design, global warming, political philosophies, and others. We believe theories of life origins and environmental theories should be taught as challengeable scientific theory subject to change as new data is produced, not scientific law. Teachers and students should be able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of these theories openly and without fear of retribution or discrimination of any kind.

I discussed this in my review of the previous platform, but since it's an issue I'm so interested in, I'm bringing it up again. Obviously, teachers should be able to openly discuss any subject. Evolution and global warming shouldn't be exempt. However, the Republicans have betrayed their motivations by mentioning Intelligent Design specifically by name (and by their mangled use of the terms theory and law). I'm going to be a bit rude here, but Intelligent Design is garbage. As I've said before, it's nothing more than creationism that refuses to unambiguously name God as the creator, and everybody who isn't lying knows that Intelligent Design really is religiously motivated. But even if you ignore the motivation, it's still garbage. We can say that evolution happened with about as much certainty as we can say anything. It's right up there with the heliocentric theory of the solar system, which I hope most people would consider a fact.

If a teacher was going to honestly discuss weaknesses in evolutionary theory (and some people would argue that these are just research opportunities, not weaknesses), they could discuss, to quote myself from a previous essay, things such as "which is more accurate - gradualism or punctuated equilibrium; what is the relative importance of natural selection versus genetic drift versus sexual selection versus other forms of genetic change; what are the relative importances of allopatric, peripatric, parapatric, and sympatric speciation; how do epigenetics contribute to evolution; etc." They would not bring up silly arguments like the second law of thermodynamics, the bacterial flagellum, or any other of the number of creationist arguments that have been refuted many times over (see the Index to Creationist Claims).

Early Childhood Development – We believe that parents are best suited to train their children in their early development and oppose mandatory pre-school and Kindergarten. We urge Congress to repeal government sponsored programs that deal with early childhood development.

It's one thing to say that preschool and kindergarten shouldn't be mandatory. It's quite another to urge Congress to take away funding for those programs.

Gambling and Education – We strongly oppose gambling or any other vice that tears at the fabric of society to fund public education.

I mentioned their opposition to the state lottery in my review of the last platform, but the wording hear was too good to pass up. They're calling the state lottery a "vice that tears at the fabric of society". So, when I buy a lottery ticket every other week, I'm tearing at the fabric of society.

This is just one more example of the Republicans trying to impose their brand of morality on everybody else.

Knowledge-Based Education – The primary purpose of public schools is to teach critical thinking skills, reading, writing, arithmetic, phonics, history, science, and character as well as knowledge-based education, not job training. We support knowledge-based curriculum standards and tests. We support successful career and technology programs, but oppose mandatory career training. We oppose Outcome-Based Education (OBE) and similar programs. Further, because of an aging U.S. population and global competition, and because much of today’s education teaches children to be employees or perhaps at best managers for employers, we encourage the teaching of entrepreneurial skills and investment skills.

I quoted this here because I ragged on the Republicans so much in my review of their last platform on this issue. In the previous platform, they specifically called for a return to the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and I criticized them for not including more advanced subjects and skills. They've remedied that in this platform, and made, for the most part, a statement that I can agree with.

Pledge of Allegiance in Public Schools – Students should be led daily in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Texas Pledge, the National Anthem, and be taught flag etiquette and patriotic songs to ensure that the loyal and patriotic spirit of Texan and American heritage is preserved.

This is similar to the wording from their previous platform, but now they've added "patriotic songs" into the mix.

Listen, if you want people to have a "loyal and patriotic spirit", the best way to do that is by building a country that people can be proud of (which, for the most part, America is). Indoctrination, brain-washing, and propaganda are what totalitarian and fascist governments use, and we don't need them here.

Private Education – Parents and legal guardians may choose to educate their children in private schools to include but not limited to, home school, parochial schools, without government interference, be it through definition, regulation, accreditation, licensing, or testing. We encourage competition and cooperation between public and private schools in academic and athletic extracurricular activities.

They've changed this plank from the previous platform in a very bad way. I don't have a problem with parents having options for their children's education. What's ludicrous, however, is to suggest that any of those options should be "without government interference, be it through definition, regulation, accreditation, licensing, or testing." That would open the door to all types of abuse. To be frank, most people in this country are pretty ignorant. The Newsweek article linked to below discusses just some of the stupid ideas that many Americans believe (for example, as I like to point out, around 1 in 4 Americans believes the Sun goes around the Earth). Imagine giving those ignoramuses free reign over their children's education. We'd be doing those children a deep disservice, and we'd end up with an entire generation of voters even more ignorant than this generation.

I wonder if this has anything to do with the Institute for Creation Research being denied accreditation?

more info: http://www.newsweek.com/photo/2010/08/24/dumb-things-americans-believe.html
more info: http://www.texscience.org/reviews/icr-thecb-certification.htm

Traditional Principles in Education – We support school subjects with emphasis on Judeo-Christian principles (including the Ten Commandments) upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems. We support curricula that are heavily weighted on original founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and Founders’ writings.

First of all, let me once again dispel all that nonsense about America being founded on Judeo Christian principles and those being the basis of our legal, political and economic systems. As I've pointed out before, just the First Amendment is counter to several of the Commandments. A representative democracy is more of a Greco-Roman principle. And the Treaty of Tripoli and the actions around it make it quite clear that our country was not founded as a Christian nation.

more info: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/treaty_tripoli.html

The rewording of this plank does clarify a point I criticized from the last platform. It sounds like they want additional subjects to be taught in school that cover Judeo-Christian principles. In a perfect world, where we didn't have to worry about religiously biased teachers using such classes as a pulpit, I would be in favor of a class like this, as long as it was an elective, it was taught in an objective manner, and as long as similar classes were offered for other religions. Actually, a comparative religions class for high school students would be very informative.

Though I'm not sure in-depth study of the Bible would have the effect evangelicals wanted. I'm reminded of this story of Randolph Churchill (son of Winston) reading the Bible for the first time, as related by Evelyn Waugh, "In the hope of keeping him quiet for a few hours Freddy & I have bet Randolph 20 [pounds sterling] that he cannot read the whole Bible in a fortnight. It would have been worth it at the price. Unhappily it has not had the result we hoped. He has never read any of it before and is hideously excited; keeps reading quotations aloud `I say I bet you didn't know this came in the Bible "bring down my grey hairs in sorrow to the grave'" or merely slapping his side & chortling `God, isn't God a shit!' "

more info: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/m/mosley-letters.html

Tenure – We support the removal of the system of tenure in Texas state colleges and universities.

Wow. That's pretty anti-intellectual. The purpose of tenure is to ensure academic freedom. It allows professors to pursue unpopular ideas without fear of losing their jobs. A good example is Michael Behe. He's spent the past few years promoting Intelligent Design, which hasn't earned him any favor from his biologist colleagues, to say the least, but thanks to his tenure, he is free to do so. It's also one of the reasons why Richard Lindzen can be vocal about his skepticism of global climate change without fear of repercussion. Doing away with tenure would create an environment much more conducive to group think, where people were less likely to challenge the status quo.

more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Behe
more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Lindzen

State Militia – We support the establishment and maintenance of a volunteer Constitutional State Militia, with assistance from County Sheriffs.

Holy crap. We already have the Texas National Guard, which anybody who legitimately wanted to serve the state could join. What possible role could there be for a volunteer militia? We don't need a bunch of vigilantes running around pretending that they're John Wayne.

more info: http://www.agd.state.tx.us/

Capital Punishment – Properly applied capital punishment is legitimate, is an effective deterrent, and should be swift and unencumbered.

That "properly applied" makes all the difference, and really, is one of the main reasons I'm opposed to the death penalty. Just consider Cameron Willingham, a man who was executed for arson on very shaky evidence, and was most probably innocent, or the many people who have had their sentences overturned based on new DNA evidence. Our law system is pretty good, but mistakes are made, and there's no way to rectify those mistakes if the accused is dead. If the punishment were "swift and unencumbered", even more innocent people would be dead.

more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameron_Todd_Willingham
more info: http://www.innocenceproject.org/

There's also the question of just how much of a deterrent capital punishment really is. The studies that support it are pretty weak, and in fact, around 90% of criminologists don't think it is a deterrent.

more info: http://www.law.columbia.edu/law_school/communications/reports/summer06/capitalpunish
more info: http://deathpenaltyinfo.org/study-88-criminologists-do-not-believe-death-penalty-effective-deterrent

Funding Special Interest Organizations – We oppose any government support of special interest organizations, such as ACORN and the ACLU.

Given the smear campaign against ACORN, I guess this platform just wouldn't be complete without calling them out. And while they were at it, the Republicans threw in an organization that defends our freedoms guaranteed under the Bill of Rights.

Birthright Citizenship – We call on the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of these United States to clarify Section 1 of the 14th amendment to limit citizenship by birth to those born to a citizen of the United States: with no exceptions.

The biggest problem is that once you have permanent residents, legal or not, who give birth to children in this country, those children grow up in America and know of no other home. Just imagine that birth right citizenship were revoked. What are you going to do to the people who grow up here once they're 'caught'. Are you going to send them back to their parents' country, where they don't speak the language and don't know the laws or even the culture?

Then there's the problem of enforcement. In Germany, where there is no birth right citizenship, there's a black market for imbissvaeter, or fast-food fathers, citizens who claim to be children's fathers in exchange for a fee. The only way around that type of fraud would be mandatory paternity tests, but I don't think anyone is ready for that type of invasion of privacy.

Nobody particularly likes that illegal immigration takes place, and something needs to be done about border security, but do they really want to go down this road?

more info: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-weise-birthright-20100902-20,0,7972332.story

Israel – We believe that the United States and Israel share a special long-standing relationship based on shared values, a mutual commitment to a republican form of government, and a strategic alliance that benefits both nations. Our foreign policy with Israel should reflect the special nature of this relationship through continued military and economic assistance and recognition that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths. We believe that the US Embassy should be located in Jerusalem. In our diplomatic dealings with Israel, we encourage the continuation of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but oppose pressuring Israel to make concessions it believes would jeopardize its security, including the trading of land for the recognition of its right to exist. We call on the U.S. to cease strong arming Israel through prior agreements with the understanding of delivering equipment to them to defend themselves in exchange for future diplomatic concessions, such as giving up land to the Palestinians on the West Bank. We support the continuation of non-recognition of terrorist nations and organizations. Our policy is based on God’s biblical promise to bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel and we further invite other nations and organizations to enjoy the benefits of that promise. [emphasis mine]

I'll be honest. I haven't studied international politics enough to have an educated opinion on Israel. However, the Republican reasoning in this platform (which I've bolded) is breath taking. They're basing foreign policy on Bible verses!

One World Government Organizations – We oppose a one-world government in direct opposition to our basic principles and eroding our sovereignty. We oppose the implementation of one world currency.

I can't say that I've heard any mainstream politicians propose a one-world government, so I wondered if this was simply a non-issue being promoted to a plank on their platform. To find out, I googled 'one-world government'. As it turns out, this is a common worry among conspiracy theorists, with roots in, to quote from Wikipedia, "the militantly anti-government right, and secondarily fundamentalist Christians concerned with end-time emergence of the Antichrist." To quote from Wikipedia again, "The common theme in conspiracy theories about a New World Order is that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, which replaces sovereign nation-states, and an all-embracing ideology, which indoctrinates cosmopolitanism. Significant occurrences in politics and finance are speculated to be orchestrated by an extremely influential cabal operating through many front organizations. Numerous historical and current events are seen as steps in an on-going plot to achieve world domination through secret political gatherings and decision-making processes."

Wow. Conspiracy nuts are influencing the writing of the Texas Republican Party Platform.

United Nations – We believe it is in the best interest of the citizens of the United States that we immediately rescind our membership in, as well as all financial and military contributions to, the United Nations.

We will:
1. support legislation similar to “The American Sovereignty Preservation Act”, which would remove the United States entirely from the control of the UN;
2. demand that Congress ratify no more, and rescind any existing treaties that compromise the United States Constitution;
3. support immediate recall of our military forces from UN initiated engagements, and restore them to their traditional mission of defending the liberty and freedom of the people of the United States of America;
4. support an amendment to the United States Constitution stating, “a treaty that conflicts with any provisions of the Constitution shall not be of any force or effect”;
5. urge our Texas Senators to unalterably oppose any agreement or treaty that seeks to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC), make the United States a participatory party to such a court; recognize the jurisdiction of such a court within the United States or upon any native-born or naturalized citizen of the United States;

and We oppose:

1. UN control of any United States land or natural resources;
2. the use of Presidential Executive Orders to implement UN treaties, thereby circumventing our elected Congress;
3. any attempt by the federal government, or the UN, to directly or indirectly tax United States citizens for UN support;
4. a UN resolution that would force the United States to adopt gun control measures by treaty;
5. the placement of the UN flag and emblem on public property or in government facilities;
6. payment of any debt allegedly owed to the UN;
7. Any attempt to grant veto power over the sovereignty of the United States to set national defense priorities, wage effective war, and negotiate peace in terms favorable to our vital interests; and
8. Ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).

We urge Congress to evict the United Nations from the United States and eliminate any further participation.

I discussed this a bit in my previous review, but they've expanded this a bit in their new platform, so I included it just to show what they think. It's hard to believe that in a world of increasing globalization, the Republicans want the U.S. to leave the one organization that tries to make everybody work together.

My overall impression after reading the 2010 platform, to quote from my review of the 2008 platform, "simply reinforced what I already knew about the Republican Party - their mangling of history, the injection of religion into politics, their opposition to science, the suppression of free speech, their bigotry towards homosexuals, their isolationist views on international issues, their desire to impose their morality on everybody." There's also their disregard for the checks and balances in the federal government, with their desire to limit the judiciary's power. And, what really struck me after reading the 2010 platform, is that it wasn't simply that they had political views that I disagreed with, but that so much of the platform was based on utter nonsense.

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