Lest We Forget

May 23rd, 2012

I have a confession to make: in the 2004 election, I voted for George W. Bush.

At the time, I was mostly uninformed on economic issues, and everything seemed to be going OK. We were in two wars, and I felt an obligation to support a president in wartime. I believed in Jesus, that being gay was a choice, and that most of my taxes were going to lazy minorities who bred too much.

Yeah, it was that bad.

To demonstrate my commitment, when I left for college, I drove my lifted truck from San Diego to Santa Cruz, defiantly emblazoned with a Bush-Cheney sticker. I read Atlas Shrugged on the bus to and from class, and at parties, I took delight in seeing the look on people’s faces when I introduced myself as a Republican.

However, that all changed in 2008. After struggling to find a job for two years, going without healthcare, and realizing that we were duped into the war in Iraq, I had a massive change of heart and voted for Obama. Granted, I had already been softened on the social issues living in Santa Cruz and France (I guess that’s what happens when you meet people who are different from you), but the switch in party affiliation was a huge milestone in my adult development.

Now, if any of you have been following the things I post on my blog or on facebook, you probably think I’m just another firebrand liberal, but if you know me, this is only a recent development. While I used to take a lot of personal credit for this trasformation, lately I’ve realized I’m a much simpler animal than that. My political leanings are easily elucidated by the maxim “once bitten, twice shy,” and I got bitten pretty hard at the end of the Bush years.

That’s why, in 2010 when Republicans took control of the House, I remember being astonished that the rest of America hadn’t shared my deeply personal transformation; half of them still thought that conservatism was a viable option! Admittedly, since then I’ve learned a lot about ingroup loyalty, confirmation bias and selective amnesia, although I’m still surprised.

These days, I spend a lot of time listening to conservative talk radio, and it’s particularly surprising how myopic these pundits’ view on our economy is. Obama gets the brunt of the blame for everything from gas prices, to the national debt. At best, they blame him for an “anemic recovery” and at worst they fabricate lies that he’s “doubled the national debt.”

I want to use this blog post to put some of these claims in context. I’m sure these facts will be effortlessly deflected by the force-fields of cognitive bias that surround most of my conservative friends, but I have to try, since I’m living proof that the force-field is not impenetrable.

Claim #1: “Obama has made the economy worse.”

Jobs are slowly getting better:

Job Losses

Total Jobs

Qualitatively — in the second graph — the rate of jobs addition (tangent line) under Obama is similar to that under Bush. This, in spite of a Republican controlled House and a filibuster-happy Senate that have stonewalled the president at every turn. Do you remember the American Jobs Act? Neither do most people, because it died the death of a thousand cuts in Congress. This makes it hard to blame him for an “anemic recovery.”

The stock market, on the other hand, has made a speedy recovery (insofar as that’s an indicator of economic health)

Dow Jones

Claim #2: “Obama is responsible for the terrible gas prices.”

Meh, probably not. The cause of high gas prices is multifactorial. Lifting Obama’s moratorium on drilling wouldn’t have an effect for many years, and even if it did, it wouldn’t drop prices much here at home.

Slate has a really cool presentation on why, here. In it, they explain that gas is a commodity sold on a world market. So, even if we dramatically increased domestic production, it wouldn’t have that much of an effect on the going price of a barrel of oil, which is what primarily dictates what we pay at the pump.

Also, in the continuing theme of cognitive bias (perhaps Rosy Retrospection?), prices were worse at the end of the Bush presidency:

Gas Prices

Claim #3: “Obama is responsible for the skyrocketing debt.”

True and false, but mostly false. In four years, the Obama administration has overseen nearly a $5 trillion increase in the debt, amounting to a +45% change. Bush increased the debt by almost $5 trillion over the course of eight years, amounting to an +86% increase at the time. The total debt currently stands at $15.7 trillion. Without context, that doesn’t mean much, so here’s a graph of dollar amounts, which helps to visualize:

Debt Increases Since Reagan

Again, Obama’s increase happened over a shorter period of time, so it represents a more rapid accumulation of debt. This can be put into perspective by scaling debt to GDP:

Debt to GDP

However, it’s important to remember where this debt came from. The Congressional Budget Office reports that, since 2001, we’ve paid

$3.0 trillion for the Bush tax cuts
$3.6 trillion in reduced revenue (due to recessions)
$1.4 trillion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
$1.4 trillion for stimulus after 2008 crisis
$0.3 trillion in unfunded drug benefits                
$9.7 trillion attributable to Bush or his recessions

Given these numbers, it becomes unconscionably disingenuous to blame the debt on Obama. The same goes for the related criticisms about the deficit, as most of the budgetary shortfall is not due to Obama’s policies.

Growing up, I thought the media, courts, and places of higher learning were united in a conspiracy against conservatives, but over the the last few years this veil has been lifted. I realized what these edifices have in common is that they’re institutions concerned with facts, and — as Steven Colbert says — reality has a well-known liberal bias. Most of the facts are probably going to be ignored in this election, as the Right has been phenomenally successful in hanging the albatross ’round Obama’s neck.

Personally, I’m disappointed with Obama because he hasn’t closed Guantanamo, he’s stepped up federal marijuana raids, and he blew his political load on a shitty healthcare bill, but it’s tragic how soon people forget why he was elected with a mandate, and why his predecessor shafted us all.

1) http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2012/05/april-employment-report-115000-jobs-81.html
2) http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/NPPTTL?cid=32250
3) Google Finance
4) http://gasbuddy.com/gb_retail_price_chart.aspx
5) http://www.treasurydirect.gov/NP/BPDLogin?application=np
6) http://www.factcheck.org/2012/02/dueling-debt-deceptions/
7) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_public_debt
8) http://www.whitehouse.gov/infographics/us-national-debt

I-Mutation and English Noun-Adjective Morphology

May 26th, 2010

For a while, I’ve been interested in a subset of English nouns that are formed by suffixing /-th/* to an adjective. What’s peculiar about them is the alternation of vowel sounds between the lexical categories: the nominal form has one vowel, and the adjectival has another. Here are two common examples:

long – length
strong – strength

In both cases, the stem vowel shifts from /ɑ/→/ε/. This process is called “I-mutation”[1],[2] because it involves pulling the vowel closer to the sound /i/ (“ee” as in feet).

The chart below visually demonstrates the process. It’s essentially a diagram of your tongue’s location in your mouth during the execution of vowels. For the /ɑ/ in long and strong and your tongue is low and retracted, and for /i/ of feet its pushed forward and up. A quick test on your own will confirm this.

Figure 1: /ɑ/→/ε/

a-e I-Mutation

During I-Mutation, the sound /ɑ/ is pulled upward and forward, and settles at an intermediate between /ɑ/ and /i/, namely /ε/.

This process doesn’t happen spontaneously: it’s environmentally conditioned, meaning there must have been an /i/ nearby to trigger the change. Historically, the /-th/ suffix was more like /-ith/ or /-ithu/, so it actually contained the sound /i/ (“ee”). So, in anticipation of the vowel in the suffix, speakers would move the stem vowel incrementally closer to /i/, and they stopped off somewhere in between. Later the /i/ was deleted in a process called syncope.

Some linguists have attributed I-Mutation and similar processes to human laziness, claiming that speakers try to expend minimal effort to pronounce the vowels of a word. However I think it’s more likely a constraint on articulation: the tongue is physical object, and must actually move from one position to another. Over time, this transition becomes audible, and begins to color the vowels. Eventually, the “slide” between sounds becomes part of the accent of that language and becomes established (think of a Spanish speaker trying to say home, they have much trouble mastering the slide from “oh” to “oo” packed into that vowel). But I digress.

For the other words in this class, an original I-Mutation has been obscured by other processes. For example, in the following words, the adjective was derived from the noun and was preserved. Later, the Great Vowel Shift changed the sound of the noun, but left the adjective intact:

fūlfilth [3]

Figure 2: /u:/→/ɪ/

u-i I-Mutation

Later, fūl (pronounced “fool”) became foul by means of the Great Vowel shift: /u:/→/au/

hālhealth /ɑ/→/ε/ (See Fig. 1) [4]

Here, the Great Vowel Shift covered I-Mutation’s tracks by changing hāl (pronounced “hall”) to whole and a less commonly used word hale. The likely explanation for the two results is that there were two competing pronunciations of hāl, and each went a different way with the Great Vowel Shift (and it probably has to do with the influence of /l/ on the preceding vowel … don’t ask).

In other instances, it’s more complicated. The Old English word slaw had the same vowel of modern (cole)slaw, but the /w/ was actually pronounced /slɑw/. I-Mutation pulled the /ɑ/ forward:

Figure 3: /ɑ/→/æ/

a-ae I-Mutation

… and we were left with slæwth (rhymes with mouth, which stuck around for quite a while in Old English. However, in Middle English, slaw changed roughly to the modern pronunciation slow, and speakers – conscious of the relationship between slow and slæwth – futzed the vowels. [5] The important thing is that the /th/ stuck around.

One final example is young – youth, although the story of /ng/ is a bit convoluted.

All of the derivations we’ve examined thus far were formed in Old English and were fossilized. Since then, the /-ith(u)/ suffix ceased being a preferred way of forming nouns, and has been abandoned in favor of suffixes like /-ness/. Linguists say suffixes like /-ith/ are no longer “productive,” because they aren’t actively used in the generation of new words, despite remaining as vestiges in certain words and phrases.

Although /-ith/ suffixation fell into disfavor, some words have nevertheless been formed to superficially resemble the fossilized forms through the process of analogy. For example, wealth was formed from well under analogy to health [6]. Here, both forms have the same vowel. This is probably evidence that analogy was afoot, because speakers don’t have conscious access to the rules of phonological rules like I-Mutation: they just added /th/ and called it a day.

On the other hand, some analogized words do exhibit change in the stem vowel, just not in the manner we know to be consistent with I-Mutation. Depth was formed under analogy with length [7], but this vowel alternation is inconsistent with I-Mutation. Similarly, analogy to length is also the provenance of width (from wide).[8]

One final example is the word breadth, derived from broad under analogy with length. [9] This example does obey the rules of I-Mutation, but we can tell from its first attestation (1520) that I-Mutation had already swept through the Old English lexicon by the time it was coined. If it wasn’t one of the originally I-Mutated forms, it’s probably just a faithful imitation of the long – length alternation.

Most interesting is the emergent tendency to analogize to length for words relating to dimensions. It’s as if speakers wanted wide, deep, and broad to behave like long so that they could all be one neat set. This “ironing out” the kinks in the language is still happening today (although there’s some out there who would fight it). The noun height is traditionally formed from the adjective high, but you can often hear people saying heighth! It’s not hard to imagine a day when heighth has become accepted, and all the words for dimensions end in /th/.

* This sound is usually transcribed with a theta /θ/, but here I use /th/ for typographical simplicity.
† Technically, it was probably /ɔ/→/œ/ which was subsequently unrounded to /ε/. That’s why we have “o” in spelling today, but you get the idea.
‡ This almost certainly involved an intermediate /ʏ:/ which was later unrounded to /ɪ/.

Additional sources:


Mitchell & Robinson. A Guide to Old English. Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

Can We Trust Our Brains?

June 3rd, 2009

I have recently been repeatedly confronted with the philosophical quandary of whether or not our perceptions of reality can be trusted, or if our internal models of the world around us are bound to be riddled with flaws and misrepresentations. A fellow blogger has spurred be to put down my thoughts in writing.

I think you have to begin by admitting that we can never know if our senses do justice to reality, because we have no other way to gauge their efficacy than by our senses themselves. However, ultimately, I think they do a pretty damn good job.

I’ve found evidence for this in the fact that a brain is, in its most basic form, an input-output system. Input stimulus: output response to stimulus. Evolution tunes the system to give the proper response to the proper stimulus, and therefore to be faithful to reality. For example, we have a vermicompost box, and when we want to get the worms to move in a certain direction, we expose them to light. They promptly wriggle in the direction of the nearest shade. If their flee response weren’t faithful to reality, they’d fry to death, or waste valuable energy wriggling when there was no sun.

Granted, the human brain is more sophisticated than that, because it has a complex intermediate step of model building based on memory. This apparatus allows synchronic tuning of responses to stimuli, as opposed to letting natural selection tune them. However it’s still just an elaborate version of “when the world is this way, respond in that way.”

Therefore, if you’re not building an accurate model of the world around you, then your brain isn’t performing its function. Evolution should then select for brains that make increasingly accurate models of the surrounding environment, or at least as accurate as any given organism needs (a human needs no sense for surface tension, but a water strider needs no sense for vertical orientation). Sure, there are glitches in the system, and they give rise to models that belie reality, but only in trivial ways: like optical illusions, pareidolia, and religion.

And there’s my daily epiphany: religion belies reality only in trivial ways. The belief that there is an invisible man in the sky who sees everything you do fits neatly into the gaps in our perception in such a way that it cannot be disproven, and it does not (often) dictate our reactions to stimuli. If it interfered with our model-building apparatus in either of these ways, evolution would have–and modern science could have–disposed of it quickly.

In closing, I’d like to analogize the brain to a house; the function of the brain is to construct models of the world, and the function of a house is to protect its inhabitants. You can build a house out of all kinds of things (aluminum, bricks, adobe etc.), and while you’ll have different engineering strategies based on the materials you are using–and different drawbacks with each–the end goal is still to create shelter (in the case of the brain, to build faithful models). Evolution set us on a particular path, with a particular set of materials–namely, the more basic reptilian and mammalian brains–and the drawbacks inherent thereto. The evolutionary history of the brain presents a unique set of obstacles to building a functional model-building apparatus, and has crucially informed its eventual architecture, in the same way selecting Play-Doh as the building material for your house would present a unique set of obstacles to its construction. Surely, it’d be better to choose bricks than Play-Doh, but evolution won’t let you switch materials mid-build, but we got as close as we could. Obviously, the materials we got stuck with weren’t that bad, because we’re still here. And our model building apparatus can’t be that bad either.

The Deeply Unsatisfying Theory of a Creationist God

April 7th, 2009

The first thing we notice about the world around us is that it’s self sustaining. Every observable effect has an observable cause: babies are born because eggs are fertilized; rain comes from clouds, which form from evaporated water; the sun rises and sets because the earth is spinning. These processes are no longer miracles because at no point do we need to assume an interventionist deity to explain them.

Not only does the world exist independently, but we don’t even expect god to intervene when we want him to. When I drop my toast, I don’t expect a little chariot of cherubim to intercept it before it hits the ground. I shouldn’t expect to wake up with straighter teeth if go to church enough. Alleged instances of god intervening on someone’s behalf can always just as easily be attributed to fortuitous chance. For example, he only cures diseases that might have gotten better anyway — he never heals amputees. If there is a god, he has apparently made the universe in such a way that it can exist independently, and without his continued tinkering.

This is why intelligent design is so unappealing to me. It admits that that natural systems are pretty much self contained, but at the same time, invokes a creator to explain certain special cases, like the bacterial flagellum, the bombardier beetle, or the blood clotting cascade. It’s inconsistent. I mean, if an omniscient, omnipontent god went to all this trouble to create a world that functioned without him, he could have accomplished it, right?

Presumably he could have, but creationists and design proponents seem to think we would be able to catch this guy with his finger in the pudding if we find examples of ‘irreducible complexity.’ These are places where conventional evolutionary explanations are purported to break down. One of their favorite examples is the bombardier beetle, an animal with a very strange defense mechanism. The beetle ejects two chemicals from its body to create a boiling hot spray that drives away predators. Design proponents say that since neither of the chemical components is of any use to the beetle without the other — the system could not be simplified and still be functional, hence irreducible complexity — this constitutes evidence for an all-in-one-go biological creation. Come on!

We have natural explanations for the hand, the eye, goosebumps, canine teeth, the spinal cord, mammary glands, feathers, flippers, egg laying, and camouflage, why wouldn’t evolution or physics explain a chemical reaction that happens on the back of a beetle?* If that were the case, we’d have to assume god stopped short of creating a pristine universe free of all supernatural influences, and just bitched out in a few places. This doesn’t really say much for god’s alleged omnipotence.

Imagine god, in the process of creation, working himself into a corner. “Shucks, I did all that work laying out the evidence for evolution — working in all of those details about common descent, features shared in lineages, the fossil record – but now I have to find a way for this bacterium to locomote. Oh well, they’ll never be able to see anything this small, so they won’t mind if I cheat a bit.” This is totally unsatisfying from both a scientific, and theological standpoint.


It makes no sense why god would make a clockwork this intricate, carefully avoiding leaving evidence of his agency, and then in handful of places, slip up or get lazy. However, a creationist/design proponent may come back with the old ‘god works in mysterious ways, that we may not understand.’ If they want to play it that way, then they should admit that they aren’t actually in the business of explaining things.

Personally, I think life is wondrous mainly because of things like the bacterial flagellum and the blood clotting cascade, which are so remarkably unlikely they must give you pause. That these seemingly irreducibly complex things have an explanation within the bounds of physics and evolution should be something to marvel at.

*Hint: It does.

Ir, Ser, and suppletion in Spanish: why the preterites of “to be” and “to go” are the same

February 19th, 2009

From my perspective as a linguist, Spanish is a rather unremarkable language. It has a relatively normal sound inventory (no ejectives, clicks, or voiced aspirates) it has a standard verbal conjugation system reflecting person and number, and its syntax is, for the most part, vanilla Subject-Verb-Object — like English.

However, there was always one thing about this language that bothered me: the past tense of its verb ‘to be’ is the same as the past tense of its verb ‘to go,’ ser and ir respectively. Take a look at the following tables for comparison:

ser ‘to be’ (preterite)

yo fui ‘I was’ nosotros fuimos ‘we were’
tu fuiste ‘you (sg. familiar) were’ vosotros fuisteis ‘you (pl. familiar) were’
él/ella/vd. fue ‘he/she/you (sg. formal) was/were’ ellos/ellas/vds. fueron ‘they(masc./fem.)/you (pl. formal) were’

ir ‘to go’ (preterite)

yo fui ‘I went’ nosotros fuimos ‘we went’
tu fuiste ‘you (sg. familiar) went’ vosotros fuisteis ‘you (pl. familiar) went’
él/ella/vd. fue ‘he/she/you (sg. formal) went’ ellos/ellas/vds. fueron ‘they(masc./fem.)/you (pl. formal) went’

Exactly the same! Freaky, I know.

I always wondered how a language could get by without the ability to distinguish ‘went’ from ‘was’ — it seems like such an indispensable distinction. Other related languages, like French, maintain two separate words for these concepts, as did Latin. So this got me thinking: what happened to Spanish along the way that allowed these verbal paradigms to collapse into one?

As always, the past is the key to the present. In Latin, the word ‘to go’ was the tiny little word īre. The macron over the i means that it was pronounced twice, so another way to write it could be iire. However, given that the morphological marker for the infinitive in Latin was [vowel]re, the stem of this verb was even smaller; it was really just i. Not a very substantial morpheme, and it tended to get bullied around a bit, sometimes showing up as e. Take a look at the present tense:

īre ‘to go’ (present)

eo ‘I go’ imus ‘we go’
is ‘you (sg.) go’ itis ‘you (pl.) go’
it ‘he/she/it goes’ eunt ‘they go’

The blue parts are conjugational endings that are added to every verb. For our purposes, they don’t even count as part of the word, so you can really get the feel that this word was a feeble little guy.

Most of the romance languages were of the same opinion, so one of the first things they did was dispense of īre, usually replacing it with a version of the word vadīre, which meant ‘wander.’* This is where the French get their present forms vais, vas, va and vont, and where Spanish gets voy, vas, va, vamos, vais, and van (although both languages retain some forms that use the base ir, and we will see why in a moment).

Having already developed a propensity for suppletion — which is the technical term for replacing part of a verb’s paradigm with forms of another verb — īre was ready to lose its past tense. Fortunately, there was already a good candidate for replacement, and it came from an alternative past tense expression using the word ‘be’ followed by an accusative. We have the same construction in English: ‘We’ve been to France.’ Over time, this expression became the predominant means of expressing ‘go’ in the past tense, and so ser slowly replaced the original past tense of īre.

When no reasonable alternative to īre was available, the languages were stuck with it. This is why today Spanish still forms its futures, imperfects, and conditionals on a descendant of īreiré, iras; iba, ibas; and iría, irías etc. French uses the stem ir- as a base for futures and conditionals — j’irai, j’irais — but has performed even further suppletion, replacing the imperfect, preterite, and some present forms with the base all-, borrowed from neighboring Germanic languages.

So, as you can see, what appears today to be totally nonsensical irregularity has a completely sensical, regular origin. Understanding the mechanisms that are responsible for creating the irregularity in the conjugation of ‘to go’ in Spanish sheds light on the irregularity of verbs like aller in French, whose forms vary unpredictably from je vais, to j’allais, to j’irai. Ultimately, these processes even illuminate the origins of highly irregular English paradigms like go/went and be/is/was.

Historical linguistics is cool!

*Interestingly enough, English did a similar thing. Our past tense went is taken from the word wend, which means something close to ‘wander’. It supplanted the original past tense of go.

Old Glory

August 5th, 2012

In elementary school, we were (erroneously) taught that the red stripes on the American flag represent the blood that was shed defending our country, while the white represent peace.

I decided to run with that interpretation to make this graphic.

From top to bottom, every three pixels of the full size image correspond to one year of our country’s history. The relative intensity of the red stripes represents the number of conflicts we were engaged in at the time. The information is sourced from Wikipedia’s timeline of U.S. military operations.

The full size image can be found here, or by clicking on the image below.

Racist Scarecrows

March 16th, 2012

In the continuing theme of conservative racism, I present you with the following image which recently made the rounds:

Don't Re-Nig


This week, Rick Santorum told a Puerto Rican newspaper that English should be the commonwealth’s primary language if it is to be considered for statehood (notably, this was not a requirement for any of the currently recognized states). This is coming from a man who — earlier in the primary season — said “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” He later went on to issue a correction … that he had actually paused to say “blah people.” But as retarded as that sounds, it didn’t sink him. He made it out of the situation relatively unscathed, and is now battling Romney fiercely for the title of front runner. Why? Because the people he is courting for nomination know what he meant, and his later retraction is all but a formality. In my mind, Santorum (and other conservatives) are like scarecrows filled with racist straw. Every time they bend in the wrong direction, it pops out, and they scramble to push it back into place.

These aren’t just unfortunate coincidences. Racist Freudian slips are a recurring problem for these people because their rhetorical strategy requires that they constantly flirt with overt disdain for minorities. Reagan coined the term “welfare queen,” whose plausibly deniable reference to impoverished black women is poorly concealed. In his defense of deeming President Obama the “food stamp president,” Newt Gingrich describes youths in “poor neighborhoods” who have no work ethic. These phrases don’t need to be delivered with a wink or elbow nudge to for their implications to become clear.

Today, it’s safe to say that not all right-wingers are racist, but most racists are right-wingers. A recent study shows that people of low cognitive ability tend to gravitate to conservative ideologies. This may seem unfair, but in the way the researchers frame it, it makes perfect sense: people who are seldom exposed to different groups and viewpoints are poorly socialized. Because of this, they’re less intellectually developed, and are attracted to belief structures that reinforce their prejudices. The same observations about racism are also true of homophobia … which is (quite unremarkably) another problem for the right-wingers in the US.

This is why — even if I was convinced of the virtues of the unfettered free market — I could not conscionably vote for Republicans. There’s too much icky baggage that comes with.

The Frothy Mixture Speaks

February 11th, 2012

I guess I spend too much time listening to Dan Savage, because until recently, I thought Rick Santorum was just a boogeyman: a hyperbolic caricature whose name was merely invoked to illustrate the ridiculous extremes to which social conservatism can be taken. I thought that even among republicans he was a sort of pariah, too embarrassing to actually support.

Turns out I was tragically wrong. As his recent performance in the primaries has demonstrated, many people actually consider him a viable candidate for the presidency. To properly understand my shock and puzzlement, consider if Bill Ayers won three primaries in the 2016 election.

Anyway, here’s this farce of a man explaining how he reconciles his religious belief that health care is a human right with his political belief that the government shouldn’t provide it.

Rick Santorum is right. Even if we hold a deep-seated religious conviction that something is right, we shouldn’t ask the government for help effecting the necessary changes. The government only offers inefficient solutions that trample our personal liberties.

Which is why we have to immediately outlaw abortion, or in the least, make it as difficult to access as possible…

If Santorum actually went through the process of weighing rational solutions against biblical prescriptions — as he says he does — then he would have considered that the number of women seeking abortion does not change when the procedure is outlawed. He’d realize that providing birth control decreases the number of unwanted pregnancies, so it constitutes a much better means of prevention for “baby murder.” But it’s clear that he doesn’t actually think about the bible rationally. In fact, it’s clear he doesn’t even think about the bible. In December of 2011, he was taken aback when a student at Dordt College (a christian institution) asked him how we can care for our poor without our social programs. Santorum, visibly shocked that a Christian would be concerned with helping the poor, replied “You go to Dordt College and ask me that question?”

Evidently, Santorum believes charity should be limited to personal or church-mediated giving, but assuming his confusion was not simply feigned for the sake of his condescending retort, it’s frustrating that he wouldn’t have considered that many christians’ motivation for supporting social programs is due to their theological beliefs.

One more Santorum gem:

(Embedding disabled, so watch here)

Yeah, this is why all math majors just dogmatically believe that x0=1 … because if they didn’t, the liberal establishment would not have granted them membership to their elite, close-minded echo chamber.


February 9th, 2012

Dear incensed Catholics:


Trip to the Mormon Castle

January 13th, 2012

My brother-in-law Z– came to visit this weekend, and after an extraordinarily fun day of touring wineries and visiting friends in Sonoma, we awoke the next morning to find ourselves hazy-headed with an open schedule. So we decided to visit what my wife and I have called the “Mormon Castle” since we moved to Oakland: an imposing temple perched in the Oakland hills, clearly visible from most parts of the Bay. I was excited, but also mildly apprehensive that a confrontation with a believer could turn sour pretty rapidly.

Mormon Castle

We arrived with no expectations, but decided it could be fun to tour the visitors’ center, upon entering which, we were immediately accosted by a doe-eyed twenty-something who was secreting a mucilaginously welcoming demeanor. She introduced herself, but I promptly forgot her name. Her badge read “Hermana T–”, which I initially thought to be a feminine form of Herman.

She sat us down next two to other gentleman: a hardened-looking man dressed in black leather, and his adult son who looked terribly inconvenienced and desperately in need of a cigarette. I began asking Hermana questions about the history of the building, and of the western migration of Mormons to Utah. However, I was soon cut short when she directed us to focus our attention on the larger-than-life statue of Jesus in front of us, and his presumptive voice that was being piped in from above. It was the standard “get to the father through me” stuff that you’ll hear from most Christians, and was pretty uninteresting.Jesus

When she returned, she eagerly asked us what we thought of the presentation, and all I managed to muster “this room is cool.” Z– said it made him wonder who did the voice. She seemed unfazed when we admitted we didn’t feel touched by Heavenly Father over the course of the presentation.

Hermana, and her associate, who I’ll call Hermana Dos, then asked us if we wanted to watch a 20 minute presentation. Z– and I looked at each other, back to the Hermanas, and said “sure, why not.” They took us to the entrance of a presentation room that I could tell from the lobby contained dioramas. My heart sank, as I was then sure we were entering a Hell House. Luckily however, it turned out to be nothing more than a rather boring video about the story of a Mormon family. It was presented in vignettes, as we moved from exhibit to exhibit. It laid the “importance of the family” theme on pretty thick, but didn’t say anything that surprising. Finally, we ended up in a room where we watched a short video about the role of the Mormon Temple in the lives of the family, and how Mormons are “sealed” to their spouses and children, so they can spend eternity together.

When the lights came up, the Hermanas picked on Z– to ask a question, and he obliged. “I grew up in a Christian church,” he said “and from this presentation, I don’t see a difference between that and Mormonism.” The Hermanas looked at each other, and then to the man in leather: “maybe you can answer.”

Turns out he was a recent convert — two weeks a Mormon — who was ostensibly trying to straighten out his wayward son. The man looked down solemnly for a moment, and then cast piercing (but somewhat vacant) gaze directly into my eyes and said “love. It’s the love.” He went on to explain how Mormonism had led him out of bad times, which made me feel icky (read: vaguely malicious/immature) for visiting what I thought to be a theological petting zoo.

We wrapped up the visit in a fantastically beautiful room with soaring windows looking out over the Bay. I tried to extract some more details on dogma and doctrine from Hermana Dos, but she was more interested in having us interact with a touchscreen kiosk that explained the different rooms in the temple (since we were “unclean” and therefore forbidden from entering to see them ourselves). I tried to get her to state the church’s position on evolution, but all I could elicit was a vague distrust of Darwinism, and that we are not apes. Nothing on the age of the earth.


I also asked (rather pedantically) how you could expect to be together with your nuclear family for eternity, if your spouse will still be “sealed” to her parents and your children will be sealed to their spouses etc., to which she responded “we have faith that it will work out, though we do not understand.”

Hermana Uno returned for her comrade, and they left us for a moment while we marveled at the display of Books of Mormon in different languages. I salivated over the Mayan copy.

They returned with literature for us, as well as an (English) copy of the book, inscribed with a handwritten blurb from each of them on the front cover. We said our goodbyes and thanked them warmly.

It was an interesting experience and I’m glad we did it, but it wasn’t life altering. Mostly what I took away was that Mormons are deeply preoccupied with the concept of family, surely because they believe you’ll be with yours for eternity. In retrospect I remember hearing this before, when Proposition 8 was on the ballot. At the time, a source I read stated that the measure carried great meaning for the eternal family: if gays can marry, then shit gets all fucked up. My visit to the temple brought this fact into sharper focus.

Also, I gathered from the presentation that Mormons obsess about the afterlife in a way that would be foreign to most “vanilla” Christians. Each of their temples has a “celestial room” which partially replicates the place where you’ll lounge with your ‘fam in perpetuam. This gave me the feeling that they’re a creepier death cult than mainstream Christians.

As for the nitty-gritty on the history of the Mormon church, I think I learned more from South Park’s Mormon special.

The sisters Hermanas were great sports. They were very kind and did an excellent job leading the tour and answering questions. They never seemed judgmental or rude, although Z– and I were on our best behavior. I just hope that someday they make it out of the church, for their and their children’s sake.

Back in the Saddle

December 19th, 2011

Well, it’s been the better part of a year since I’ve written anything for Sour Apples, but I’m back — here to work off the ache of projects abandoned.

Lots has happened this year. I’ve gotten all but one of the pre-requisites for medical school under my belt. They were hellish at times, but I never doubted my commitment to sparkle medicine. Now I’m set to take the MCAT in April, and I’m looking forward to four months of frantic cramming in preparation. Admittedly, part of my motivation to come back to blogging was is to re-sharpen my writing skills for the essay portion of the test.

But more importantly, there’s all kinds of religious and political wackaloonery that I’ve just gotta soapbox about.

Here’s to coming back with a vengeance.

Racist Turing Test

April 11th, 2011

I put someone in a box, and I’ll tell you they’re either a Ku Klux Klan member, or a Republican. You must devise questions to ask this person, to find out which of the two they are. You are limited to asking them yes/no questions about hot-button political issues.

For example:

1) In general, do you support welfare?
2) Do you support Arizona’s law SB 1070?
3) Do you support affirmative action?
4) Do you oppose the “Ground Zero Mosque”?
5) Do you believe the United States is a Christian Nation?
6) Do you believe president Obama is the legitimate president of the United States?
7) Do you support a ban on burqas, niqabs and hijabs?
8) Are you against immigration?

I think you’ll generally find the Republican position on the issue is indistinguishable from the racist position. Note, the default “conservative” position on questions 2, 4, and 7 is opposite the Republican position.

This is why conservatives get called racists. Because assuming there’s a little racist homunculus living inside their head is a perfectly reasonable way to predict their opinion on any given issue. In fact, doing so even explains their deviation from principles which might otherwise be considered conservative, like supporting constitutional freedoms of minorities.

Comparing Apples to Foreskins

March 10th, 2011

In response to my post “Quick, let’s talk about my pee pee” commenter namae nanka provided a link to an article entitled “A Rose by Any Other Name? Rethinking the Similarities and Differences between Male and Female Genital Cutting.” I read the entire thing from start to finish, and all I can say is thank you. I found it extremely illuminating, and I implore anyone considering becoming a parent to read it through and thoughtfully examine your position on circumcision.

The article cogently addresses the main point of my previous post — the assertion that consistently drawing a comparison between FGM and MGM can be useful:

[Some researchers] criticize the fortresslike separation of male circumcision from FGM and suggest that the real issue in the debate is child protection: “Whether we should be subjecting any children to . . . procedures involving the excision of healthy tissue” (Fox and Thomson 2005a:467). In a further article, Fox and Thomson (2005b) develop these arguments and criticize medical and legal authorities for neglecting the rights of children and failing to undertake a full cost-benefit analysis of the effects that routine circumcision has on males.

From an ethics perspective, no coherent criticism of FGM on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity can be mounted without also being a criticism of MGM. I think that’s an extremely important point to grasp. The authors drive it home by observing that practitioners of FGM often point to MGM as an equivalent Western practice, saying that it’s hypocritical of us to decry FGM while routinely circumcising our infant males. And in America, you’re cutting boys!

The authors also make an interesting conjecture about Western studies addressing the cost/benefit of circumcision:

…[O]ne wonders whether it is culture or medical science that is really in the driver’s seat here. The evidence thought to show a “potential health benefit” for MGA may in fact be an artifact of its cultural acceptability and long history in U.S. society. By the same token, the absence of any culturally conditioned demand for FGA has discouraged researchers from seeking evidence of the potential advantages of such surgery. It is the cultural demand for MGA that generates the research that appears to implicate the foreskin in whatever disease is holding the public’s attention (Goldman 2004). In a culture that values science, medical (usually miscalled scientific) justifications for cultural rituals must be found, hence the numerous horror stories about the terrible risks of retaining normal human anatomy (Van Howe et al. 2005). As Lawrence Dritsas (2001) has eloquently argued, the cultural tail would appear to be wagging the scientific dog.


One final excerpt, because everyone loves an appeal to evolutionary biology :)

All mammals have foreskins; males are what they are because that is how they have evolved … Evolution, however, appears to be favoring ever-longer foreskins in males (Cold and McGrath 1999), suggesting that they improve survival chances and reproductive health rather than the reverse.

Definitely worth the read.

Fingerboxes and Fundamentalism

January 17th, 2011

For those of you who aren’t up to speed with your 4chan memes, you’ve been missing out. Behold, the fingerbox:

Your typical, baseline model fingerbox.

Your typical, baseline model fingerbox.

What is it? From Encyclopedia Dramatica:

A finger box, though ostensibly a relatively simple device, is in fact a staggeringly complex machine comprised of several thousand finely crafted components. These are most often distributed in sets of nine, but the poor, the disenfranchised and the mentally handicapped have all been observed amusing themselves for hours at a time with just a single unit. Finger boxing (also referred to colloquially as ‘fingering’ and/or ‘boxing’) is a rapidly growing trend among teens aged 13-18. The first instance of the device, though in a cruder and less intricate form, was invented by Sir Eustace Henry Trollington more than 130 years ago in Dunbartonshire, Scotland.

A Finger box basically creates a variety of sensations by stimulating the nerves of the finger tip, though the fun was short-lived when a group vicious saboteurs started contaminating the devices with old razor-blades, broken glass and ebolavirus. Panic ensued as a result of the dismemberments, lock-jaw and in some cases, slow and inexorable deaths. This led to the inevitable banning of the devices by the UK parliament in 1919, with the rest of the developed world quickly following suit.

No, really, what is it?! Know Your Meme gives a great explanation, but basically the fingerbox is a way of ferreting out newcomers on forums. Someone will post a picture of a fingerbox, at which point everyone who’s in on the joke will compliment the original poster on the quality of his/her fingerbox, or wax nostalgic about fingerboxes they used to own. Inevitably, the trap is sprung when someone asks “what is a fingerbox?” The trollers then proceed to lol vigorously at the n00b. Pretty stupid, right?

That’s what I thought, until I realized this phenomenon is analogous to bizarre religious doctrines like the Trinity. Many ambitious people have endeavored to explain a triune God who sent himself to earth to be killed so humans could be forgiven in his own eyes, but it remains a perplexing part of Christian dogma.

However, it may not be important whether belief in the Trinity actually makes sense. Like the fingerbox (or a secret handshake or codeword), such articles of faith could serve to define an ingroup, and nothing more.

Insanity Wolf

In fact, the success of these phenomena may be due, in the end, to their incomprehensibility. One of the roles of religion — and 4chan — is to provide members a sense of belonging. This sense is augmented when the qualifications for membership become stricter. Religious groups “up the ante” of exclusivity by being increasingly demanding of their constituents — the harder it is to make the cut, the awesomer it is to be a member of the extra-special cool club. Ultimately, this may explain certain commonalities in practices among the world’s religions: abstinence, fasting, dietary and sartorial prohibitions, eschewal of certain music and dances, and demonization of certain sexual practices, to name a few. It makes sense that this process could extend to the articles of faith themselves, such that paradoxical or outlandish dogmas act as stringent qualifying criteria: “if you can believe that, then you definitely deserve to be a member!”

Intriguingly, nuttier beliefs could be an asset to a religion?

In Breaking the Spell, Dan Dennett makes the point that America is a thriving free market of religious ideas in vigorous competition. It makes sense that the religions that offer a better “product” — that is to say, exclusivizing doctrine — would be more successful by garnering more adherents. In other words, there’s a tendency towards an arms race of crazy beliefs, wherein sects with loonier beliefs are more fit and have greater selective advantage.

Anyway, next time you’re listening to some Christ-bot defend Noah’s Ark or Jonah living inside a whale, and you’re like “lol wut?” … you have just been pwned, ya n00b.