Archive for September, 2011

Red Sox logo (upside-down to show their 2011 season performance)Forgive me for going off-topic again and blathering once more about the Red Sox. A lot needs to be said about them, which unfortunately is not being said — and likely won’t be said — so I have to say it.

Much of my commentary about the Sox back in the first week of May, applies to their September play. Actually, their last month was even worse than their first. The Sox were 7-20 in their last month of 2011, while they were a comparatively-much-better 12-15 for the same number of games at the start of the season.

At the moment, New England sportswriters are hanging their late-season collapse on injuries, the loss of Clay Buchholz at mid-season being cited as a particular culprit. I’ll admit that injuries hindered them, there’s no doubt about that. But by September, all MLB teams — good, bad, and in-between — were dealing with injuries. Even the Yankees, who ended with the best record in the American League, had their share of injuries this year. Basically, the injuries amount to a “wash” across the board of the MLB. Not to mention, they had a chance in April — while the whole team was in prime condition and uninjured — to build up victories. But they didn’t. (More on their pitiful April later.)

What’s more, the quality of play slipped, across the board. Red Sox pitching, hitting, fielding, and even base-running were all hideous in September. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, who’d been phenomenal at mid-season, couldn’t win any games in September. Adrian Gonzales, who led the league in batting average most of the season, couldn’t get much done, either. The entire team was just fucking hideous. And even their best uninjured players showed performance problems. That’s another reason not to chalk this implosion up to injuries … even healthy players weren’t up to standard.

As with their April, the Sox’ September implosion was systemic and pervasive throughout the team.

The wide scale of the poor play suggests that coaching is to blame. While there’s a widespread assumption that manager Terry Francona will be let go after this embarrassing debacle of a season, most of the New England sportswriters are saying he’s being unfairly blamed. Even so, it’s clear that he was at least partially responsible. He’s the head of the team’s coaching staff and is responsible for that aspect of the team. If the coaching played a role in the horrific first and last months of the season, then Francona has to take some responsibility for that. He can’t not be at least partially at fault.

Then, too, there’s the matter of poor acquisitions, which is the the responsibility of general manager Theo Epstein. Here, we have not just one or two seasons of spectacular failures, but several. The list of high-priced flame-outs that Epstein paid for is legion. Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, and most recently Carl Crawford are merely a few of the many names that leap to mind as examples of this phenomenon. While every team has to deal with an occasional overpaid underperformer, Epstein’s record in this regard is worse than most.

At the risk, then, of sounding like one of those raging sports-talk callers who’ve been screaming for Francona and Epstein to be fired, I can’t help but agree with them, that at least one of them needs to go. After two seasons of falling short of playoff appearances … and a season before that of flaming out shamefully in the ALDS … it’s clear that whatever they’re doing simply is no longer working. Continuing the same strategies, cooked up by the same people, but with the expectation of different results, is almost the definition of insanity. The Red Sox need to change as a team, fundamentally, and that can only begin at or near the top of the organization.

The really sad part about all of this is that John Henry & the rest of the Red Sox ownership really have no economic incentive to change the team that much. Fenway Park is sold out, every single game, and the team is consistently and highly profitable, even without having made the playoffs for two years. I doubt the passionate Red Sox fanbase is going to pull its support for the team sufficiently to dent those massive profits. So I don’t expect that there will be much change in the organization. Just a lot of excuse-making and claims that they will do better next year — which they’ve done previously, obviously to no effect.

The only bright light of the Red Sox 2011 season, is the one team member who was still actually playing the game at the end … and that’s Jacoby Ellsbury. After his “lost season” in 2010 (after having been demolished by the human tank known as Adrian Beltre and then poorly treated by the Red Sox medical staff), he came back — and gloriously! He’d long been my favorite player, and all through 2010 I kept insisting he’d eventually overcome his injuries. He proved me right, and then some! His play this year was nothing short of MVP caliber, and I certainly hope the sportswriters will consider him in their voting (although I’m pretty sure he’ll be overlooked). It will be a crime if he’s not made the AL MVP for 2011.

An honorable mention goes to Alfredo Aceves, a young pitcher who gave his all, and remained more or less steady on the mound while the rest of the pitching staff took a nosedive.

One last thing that’s not being addressed by the sports media, is the role that the team’s dismal April played in this horrible season. Had the Sox started 15-12 in their first 27 games instead of 12-15, they would not have been in this position; they could have absorbed their September collapse safely and still made the playoffs. I said before that their early-season mediocrity would cost them dearly … and unfortunately I was right; it did! But New England sportswriters refuse to discuss this. I can’t imagine why they don’t … but they that’s just how it is. (Enablers to the end, they all are.)

I’d like to point out, too, that the Red Sox advertising campaign all season long has used the mottoes, “We’re all in” and “We won’t rest.” As in, “we’re committed to winning.” Clearly, however, they were not, in fact, “all in,” and in April and September, they did more “resting” than “playing.” They ought to be ashamed of themselves for trumpeting their commitment to winning, when they were not actually committed to winning.

But, they won’t be ashamed. They’re the Red Sox, after all, and no matter how dreadfully they play, they just keep rolling in money.

One last thing: It’s clear the Tampa Bay Rays deserved to get the AL Wild Card this year; it was no fluke, even if some might think so. I wish them luck — even though they’re rivals of the Red Sox in the AL East. The other three teams in the AL playoffs — the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, & N.Y. Yankees — are all going to be tough competitors. So the Rays will need that luck.

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The Watchtower and Awake from The Jehovah's WitnessesI’m not sure why it took a couple of months for this to become generally known, but a July 2011 edition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official magazine, The Watchtower, included an article which declared former members of the J.W.s “mentally diseased.” The (UK) Independent reports on the controversy that’s been kicked up over this (WebCite cached article):

The official magazine for Jehovah’s Witnesses has described those who leave the church as “mentally diseased”, prompting an outcry from former members and insiders concerned about the shunning of those who question official doctrine.

An article published in July’s edition of The Watchtower warns followers to stay clear of “false teachers” who are condemned as being “mentally diseased” apostates who should be avoided at all costs. “Suppose that a doctor told you to avoid contact with someone who is infected with a contagious, deadly disease,” the article reads. “You would know what the doctor means, and you would strictly heed his warning. Well, apostates are ‘mentally diseased’, and they seek to infect others with their disloyal teachings.”

So you see, according to the Jehovah’s Witness religion, apostasy is more or less the same as an infectious disease you can catch from someone who already has it, and your only defense is to stay as far away from them as possible.

What’s odd about this is that some of the so-called “New Atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have suggested that religious belief may be a form of mental illness — but they’ve been widely vilified, by believers, for having said so. I wonder how many of their fellow believers are going to vilify the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for claiming — explicitly and overtly rather than just by implication or suggestion — that anyone who dares leave their sect is by definition mentally ill? My guess is the number of such people will be zero.

Added: In a comment below I explain a better way to understand the original Greek expression used in the Bible:

Let me use a similar example that actually is very close to the same thing, from the English language. Let’s say someone tells you that a friend is “heartsick” over something that happened. This is a common expression, which means someone is intensely upset. And it’s used all the time. But, it most assuredly is not the same thing as a diagnosis of heart disease (which is what the JW’s New World Translation does with the verse in question). They’re interpreting a “figure of speech” in the most literal way possible, because they have no fucking clue what that expression meant in koine Greek or how it was used in that language … because none of the translators is literate in koine Greek!

Photo credit: Dan Patterson.

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US-FBI-ShadedSealI’ve complained before about pseudohistory in many venues. Most of the time it’s merely annoying, and rarely does it have any serious, direct consequences. But recently, Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog revealed that there’s more than a little pseudohistory lurking deep in the heart of the FBI’s counter-terrorism training program: (WebCite cached article):

The FBI is teaching its counterterrorism agents that “main stream” [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a “cult leader”; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.”

Note that all three of these notions are typical “talking points” which comprise part of the continuous mantra of the Religious Right’s Neocrusade against Islam. More specifically, though:

At the Bureau’s training ground in Quantico, Virginia, agents are shown a chart contending that the more “devout” a Muslim, the more likely he is to be “violent.” Those destructive tendencies cannot be reversed, an FBI instructional presentation adds: “Any war against non-believers is justified” under Muslim law; a “moderating process cannot happen if the Koran continues to be regarded as the unalterable word of Allah.”

These are, of course, completely unlike all those fundamentalist Christians here in the US who claim their Bible is the “unalterable word” of their own Christian God. Got it. Personally I don’t see any real difference between the two, but there must be one, because the FBI’s counter-terrorism trainer, William Gawthrop, says it, so it simply must be the case! Somehow. Some way.

Wired snagged a printed copy of some Powerpoint slides that purport to show that, from their birth to the present, both Christianity and Judaism have become steadily more peaceful and less militant, while Islam has never been peaceful and remains nearly as militant as it was in its first decades (cached). The whole thing contains a number of historical lies, nearly all of which are evident in this one slide:

Printed copy of slide 10 from Powerpoint presentation 'Militancy Considerations' / FBI training materials via Wired

Printed copy of slide 10 from Powerpoint presentation 'Militancy Considerations' / FBI training materials via Wired

Here are a few of the historical untruths contained in this slide:

  1. The Torah was not written in 1,400 BCE. Its sources were written during the period of the two kingdoms, and it was compiled into something near its present form, sometime around the middle of the last millennium BCE.
  2. The Christian Bible was not written in 3 BCE. Its Old Testament already existed, to be sure, but the earliest New Testament books — the 7 “genuine” Pauline epistles — weren’t written until the middle of the first century CE. The rest of the NT books weren’t written until decades later, starting with Mark in the early 70s CE.
  3. Neither Judaism nor Christianity began in states of “maximum militancy & violence.” In particular, the very first Christians were decidedly non-violent; violence didn’t really creep into that faith — as far as we know — until Christological conflicts arose in the late 2nd century.
  4. Neither Judaism nor Christianity went steadily from maximum militancy to non-militancy. Their levels of violence and extremism rose and fell along with their environments and as they progressed.
  5. The Christian graph line should instead look like a very large wave, with a long plateau at maximum violence, stretching from the late 11th century through the 16th.
  6. The Islam graph line should also be different; Islam did experience some periods of lower violence; it has not remained steadily violent as this graph suggests.

Lastly, I’ll point out something I’ve said before. Within all religious traditions — Judaism and Christianity included! — it is always the case that the militant extremists at the fringes of a faith are accommodated, to one degree or another, by more “mainstream” and less violent adherents. Militant adherents generally find it easy to intimidate and bully their co-believers. The reasons for this are myriad. Sometimes it’s because the militants will go after anyone who opposes them and “mainstreamers” are, basically, afraid of them. Other times it’s because the “mainstream” adherents have some sympathy for the extremists. Still other times it’s because even the “mainstreamers” would secretly like to see the extremists succeed. To assume this is only true of Islam and not of Judaism or Christianity, is foolish in the extreme. The political successes of the Christian Right in the US and ultraconservative Orthodox Jews in Israel, clearly demonstrate this is so.

At any rate, there are a number of demonstrable factual errors in this Powerpoint presentation, and there’s no reason the FBI should be relying on it. Yet apparently — to the country’s detriment — they are.

Hat tip: Unreasonable Faith.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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Ruth Eglash, Jerusalem PostAt a time when the Religious Right in the US has decided to go to war against women, the misogynist kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken an opposite tack. Reuters reports that Saudi King Abdullah will grant women in his realm the right to vote and to stand for election (WebCite cached article):

Saudi Arabia will allow women to stand for election and vote, the king announced on Sunday, in a significant policy shift in the conservative Islamic kingdowm.

In a five-minute speech, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud said women will also take part in the next session of the unelected, advisory Shura Council, which vets legislation but has no binding powers. …

“Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”

To be sure, Saudi women are still severely restricted, even with this concession, as the Reuters article explains:

The king did not address the issue of women being allowed to drive. Although there is no written law against women driving, they are not issued licences, effectively banning the practice.

Women in Saudi Arabia must also have written approval from a male guardian — a father, husband, brother or son — to leave the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.

Despite this, women’s suffrage in Saudi Arabia is unprecedented, and is a large step forward. There are lots of misogynist Christofascists here in the US who could learn a thing or two from this.

Photo credit: Jerusalem Post / Ruth Eglash.

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Get Out of Jail FreeDeep in the heart of the Bobble Bay-elt (also known as “the Bible Belt”), in the town of Bay Minette, Alabama, the local sheriff has come up with a clever way to increase church attendance and incentivize crime by churchgoers. The Mobile Press-Register reports that people convicted of non-violent crimes can go to church instead of to jail (WebCite cached article):

A new alternative sentencing program offering first-time, nonviolent offenders a choice of a year of church attendance or jail time and fines is drawing fire from the American Civil Liberties Union as well as national attention, officials said Friday. …

But the local police chief who is heading up the program starting Tuesday called “Restore Our Community” says no one is being forced to participate.

Forced? No. But what it means is that any regular churchgoers effectively won’t be punished at all. It’s also inherently selective, since those who don’t belong to a church cannot choose to participate in this program. This policy’s proponent explains his motivation:

“Operation ROC resulted from meetings with church leaders,” Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland said.

Of course the local preachermen like this idea, it will get more people through their doors and more collections in their plates! They stand to profit from this. The religiofascist continues idiotically:

“It was agreed by all the pastors that at the core of the crime problem was the erosion of family values and morals. We have children raising children and parents not instilling values in young people.”

Ah. I see. So there was no crime, way back when everyone was a devout, dutiful, church-going Christian. Is that it? Christians don’t commit crimes. Is that it?

Do you truly expect that we’re stupid enough to believe this, Chief Rowland? Especially since it’s demonstrably untrue that being Christian means one never commits crimes? Lots of Christians — including some who are famous because they’re Christian — are indeed criminals. I need only mention names such as Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Ted Haggard … just to name a few … in order to show this is the case.

Religiofascists like Chief Rowland love to assert that churchgoing Christians don’t commit crimes, but they absolutely do. Crimes like embezzlement, fraud, buying the services of prostitutes, taking illegal drugs, and much more. The truth is that America’s prisons contain many, many Christians. It’s absurd and laughable that anyone could say otherwise … yet Chief Rowland does. And he means it.

Hat tip: Friendly Atheist.

Photo credit: swanksalot.

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Syringe 5 With DropsThe recent “tea party” sponsored GOP presidential debate has kicked up some testiness within the Religious Right over the simple matter of a vaccine.

Yes, that’s right, a vaccine.

As the New York Times explains, this controversy concerns TX governor Rick Perry’s support for vaccinating all girls in his state against HPV or human papilloma virus (WebCite cached article):

An unlikely issue — whether to vaccinate preadolescent girls against a sexually transmitted virus — has become the latest flashpoint among Republican presidential candidates as they vie for the support of social conservatives and Tea Party members.

The issue exploded Monday night when Representative Michele Bachmann and former Senator Rick Santorum attacked Gov. Rick Perry of Texas during a debate for issuing an executive order requiring sixth-grade girls to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, criticizing the order as an overreach of state power in a decision properly left to parents. Later, Sarah Palin, who has yet to announce her 2012 intentions, also found fault with Mr. Perry.

This particular controversy is multi-pronged, as the Times explains:

The issue pushes many buttons with conservatives: overreach of government in health care decisions, suspicion that sex education leads to promiscuity and even the belief — debunked by science — that childhood vaccinations may be linked to mental disorders.

The militant Ms Bachmann insisted that the problem was the “dangerous” nature of the vaccine, however, the HPV vaccine was approved a number of years ago and its safety is not at issue. Rather, from the time it was approved — as Time magazine reported then (cached) — it became a target of the Religious Right, having been tagged “the promiscuity vaccine.” They can claim concern with the vaccine’s “safety” all they want … but really, their sole concern is women’s health and depriving them of control over their own affairs. We already know that the Roman Catholic Church considers the lives of pregnant women forfeit and of no account; the mostly-Protestant Religious Right more or less agrees with this position.

Yes, it’s true: Christianists like Bachmann actually believe it’s better for women to contract illnesses caused by HPV, including deadly cancers, rather than innoculate them early in life, merely because they perceive that it grants girls license to be sexually active. The idea that an HPV virus does so, of course, is completely laughable; it prevents only HPV-borne illnesses, it has no effect on other STD’s, and it doesn’t prevent pregnancy.

It just goes to show that facts and reason don’t matter to the Religious Right, just their emotional assessments, irrational beliefs, and slavish devotion to laughable dogmas.

Lastly, I’d like to give Gov. Perry, whom I generally dislike, some credit here. In the name of promoting health and fighting cancer, he’s taking on his own co-religionists and seems rather determined about it. I only hope he doesn’t cave in to them.

Photo credit: ZaldyImg.

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September 11 Photo MontageToday is the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that killed thousands in New York City, the Pentagon, and in a field in Shanksville, PA. The mass media are running story after story about the commemorations and remembrances and lots of other aspects of this milestone. For me, this event provides an object lesson in human nature and demonstrates conclusively where we go wrong.

First, all the 9/11 conspiratorialism demonstrates that any event that involves enough details is ripe to be plucked by sanctimoniously-outraged paranoiacs of every possible stripe. Rick Green of the Hartford Courant ran a column the other day about one particular crank named Wayne Coste who stands on Hartford’s streets, railing and wailing like a street-preacher about how “9/11 was an inside job” (WebCite cached article). He uses the fact that he was an engineer as a kind of credential that — supposedly — “proves” his insane jabbering must be correct. But it doesn’t. That he has an engineering credential (in electrical engineering, not in mechanical or civil engineering or in architecture) does not automatically grant his conclusions any veracity. Lots of engineers and scientists have looked at the same evidence he has, but arrived at very different conclusions from it.

Perhaps the seminal explanation of how the World Trade Center came down — researched and written by engineers and scientists with the same kinds of credentials as Coste — was done by the venerable magazine Popular Mechanics. It’s well worth reading for anyone with any interest in this matter. Another source of information is the “9/11 conspiracies” entry at the Skeptic’s Dictionary; it lays out many of the screwy scenarios that have been proposed and picks them off one by one. Yet, in spite of these and many other such “takedowns” of all the lunatic scenarios, the wacky 9/11 conspiratorialism (aka the “Truther” movement) is alive and well and populated by all sorts of animated wingnuts like Coste.

What’s really happening with “truthers” is that their laughable “theories” grant them what they perceive as a moral license to indulge their juvenile impulses and paranoiac brain patterns. Telling them they’re wrong only enrages them more than they already are, causes the person telling them so to be viewed as a willing and integral part of the “wicked conspiracy,” and they just dig their heels in harder and cling even tighter to their insane fantasies. As R.T. Carroll of the Skeptic’s Dictionary puts it in the subtitle of his article on the matter, the “truther” movement is, indeed, very much a “war on critical thinking.”

A second lesson shown by Americans’ reaction to 9/11/2001 is their insular, even selfish reasoning. Too many people in the US view this country as the sole target of Islamofascist terror. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Among the other large-scale terror attacks that have taken place elsewhere in the world since then:

Note, this is only a partial list. There were many more Islamofascist terror attacks in the last ten years. The point is that none of these took place in the US, and Americans were not the targets. Other people in other countries were. The Islamofascist terrorists aren’t killing people in places all over the planet just because they hate the US and our “freedom” — or whatever. They’re doing it simply because they’re murderously religiofascist; quite frankly they don’t give a crap about anything else.

The third chief lesson of the September 11, 2001 attacks, more obviously, is that militant religiofascism can become deadly, and it must be stopped. In every one of its forms. Everywhere it occurs. All the time, every time, without letup, and without granting it any excuses. It’s one thing to have metaphysical beliefs. It’s another to believe that everyone else on the planet must adopt them. And it’s another beyond that to believe one is entitled to kill in order to make that happen. This is rather obvious; we certainly didn’t need 9/11/2001 to tell us so … but apparently there are lots of folks who genuinely were unaware of this fact — and sadly, they remain so, in spite of 9/11/2001.

A proper response to such events is for believers to concede that other people are not theirs to order around or kill because of their beliefs, and just leave them alone. What’s not acceptable is to respond to murderous Islamofascism by becoming militantly Christofascist in return and then launch a Neocrusade to eliminate Islam. This Neocrusade is merely the same sort of religiofascist impulse, just manifest within a different religion and in a different country. Of course, to the Neocrusaders, 9/11/2001 itself is the reason they think they’re entitled to destroy Islam … but this belief, while widespread, is just “two wrongs make a right” thinking and is both fallacious and immoral.

In sum, let’s all stop using events like 9/11/2001 to justify insular thinking, American exceptionalism, and “getting back at Islam” because we feel entitled to. It’s time for us all to grow up, stop “reacting” emotionally every time something bad happens, and start living like the mature adults we all ought to be. And by all means, let’s stop giving in to the idea that militant Christianism is an appropriate response to militant Islamism. It’s not. They’re really just the same thing, only packaged in different wrappers.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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