Monday, February 26, 2007

Fly Like an Eagle...



I'm not a birdwatcher. You're never going to find me camped out in the woods with a pair of high-powered binoculars, waiting for a glimpse of the Ruby-throated Whackamole or anything like that. But I am fascinated by Eagles. I suspect it's because I'm originally from the large expanse of the United States were the birds are nearly mythical - everyone's heard of them, but noone has ever actually seen one. So being out here near Seattle, where you can see one downtown, is fairly amazing. And the last time I saw one, a juvenile, I had my camera, and managed to get some pictures. And today, rather than pontificate about some random topic, I decided to share them with you. Enjoy.



(Okay... so they aren't the best pictures you've ever seen. I'm a project manager, not a nature photographer!)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Lovin' Life

On my way home from an afternoon with freinds, I stopped by a grocery store. Hanging out there on the walk in front of the store were two young adults, one boy, one girl, somewhere in the 16 to 19 age range (I guess). They were just hanging out in the evening dark, with the store's awning to keep the rain off. Both wore layers of mostly black clothing, and nice gym shoes, and were lounging on the patio furniture display near one of the doors. The boy was resting his feet on a pair of skateboards. And they were talking and laughing, and having the time of their lives, and clearly enjoying each other's company, despite the cold and wet of a Puget Sound winter rain. And I recalled a stidy that said that children laughed a hundred times more often than adults, or something like that, and for a moment, I mourned being so carefree.

And then I realized that I had no reason to. I live in the United States of America in the twenty-first century. And, by the standards of most of the world, I have nothing to worry about. I can get in my car tomorrow, and drive three thousand miles to the Atlantic Ocean, and no one's going to care. There won't be random goverment checkpoints asking to see my "papers" or demanding that I give them a detailed rationale for my travels. I can pay for food, lodging and gasoline along the way with a little plastic card, secure in the knowledge that the people running my bank aren't going to suddenly steal all of my money and flee the country. I can buy all sorts of random bric-a-brac along the way with cash - and know from one day to the next that about what its worth. If I get a ticket, it will be because I was blowing off traffic laws, not because some underpaid police officers have decided to supplement their income by holding me up for a bribe. I can take my digital camera, and take pictures of almost anything that I see along the way without worrying that I'll be arrested as a spy. If I chose to wear a bracelet, with my name and emergency contact information on it, it will be because I'm concerned that I might get into a traffic accident, not that I'm worried that I'll be killed by political violence.

When I get home, I know that I'll have a roof over my head, access to healthful food, clean drinking water, and if I get careless and fall down the stairs, competent medical care. I have a safe place to keep my things, and a comfortable place to sleep. I can get around my local area to access any number of goods and services that make my life easier.

"So what?" you ask.

"Precisely." I answer. None of this is a big deal. I'm not describing a life that only a "priveledged few" can aspire to. For most us us, it's par for the course. Sure, the United States has it's poor people, but consider the following - even many poor people in the United States have access to personal transportation, own their own homes, and/or possess minor luxury items. Contrast that with the fact that in many parts of the world, if you can get enough calories on a regular basis to be fat, no-one would consider you poor.

So why shouldn't I laugh more often? Sure there are uncertainties ahead of me, circumstances that might completely throw my life off course, and deprive me of everything I have. But I'll burn that bridge when I come to it, and if I'm smart, I'll realize that I'm still likely to be in a position that people the world over would evny. It might not be prudent to completely ignore the future, but there's no reason to not enjoy the present.

So if you see me out in front of the grocery store, kickin' it on the cheesy patio furniture, staying out the rain, and loving life out loud - I haven't lost my mind. I'm realizing when I'm well off. And don't be surprised if I ask you to join me.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

No matter how you look at it...

The War in Iraq has become a sort of everpresent specter in American political life and conversation. Given the perception of a nearly ironclad correllation (bordering on causality) between one's party affiliation and political philosophy and whether or not one supports the continuation of the War, this is only to be expected. But when a bunch of random citizens talk politics, everything has an easy solution. I've never been convinced that the reality is ever so easily dealt with.

In 2002, the United States Congress granted to President George W. Bush the power to go to war. And to wage that war in pretty much any way he chose, for as long as he deemed it necessary, and without anything in the way of real Congressional oversight. A number of both Representatives and Senators, primarily (but not exclusively) in the opposition, who are now the war's staunchest critics voted in favor of that measure. (Not that they needed to. Their opposition wouldn't have withstood a party-line vote.) And despite the fact that a number of them claim that they were duped into voting for an open-ended war by an Administration that lied about intelligence (or, if they're feeling somewhat more charitable, was simply acting on honestly mistaken information), they were really only doing their jobs when they voted in favor. No, the job of Congress is NOT to rubber-stamp everything that the President, as the Chief Executive, wishes to do. While parlimentary bodies the world over may do just that from time to time, it's not actually in the job description. The Congress did its job back in 2002, because that's what the majority of the public wanted them to do at the time. You could say that the Administration lied to the public, or simply passed on flawed information, but that's pretty much beside the point at this stage of the game. The point is, in 2002, with the destruction of the World Trade Center towers by Al-Queda suicide operatives still fresh in everyone's mind, the public wasn't in the mood to quibble in the face of a potential threat. The Aministration held out Iraq as just such a threat, with data (accurate or not) to back that up, and that's pretty much all anyone needed to know.

Fast forward to 2007. The war has dragged on for years. Despite the fact that President Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and proudly proclaimed "Mission Accomplished," it's hard, if not impossible, for the average Joe on the street to see how ANY progress has been made since the depostion of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In anything, a before-and-after comparison seems to indicate that the place has gone to Hell in a handbasket, and no-one can find the brakes on the handbasket. Despite the fact that we're constantly hearing about how Iraq is now stuffed to the rafters with bloodthirsty Islamic terrorists, bent on killing Americans, the 6 o'clock news shows a nation full of people who appear to be mainly Hell-bent on killing each other by the double-handsfull. They say that no official records are kept of the death toll in Iraq, so the numbers vary widely, but even the low estimates are insane, by American standards. Pre-war Baghdad was about the size of Chicago. Do you really think that Chicago would still be a functioning municipality with car and/or truck bombings being a weekly occurance, and the discovery of multiple bodies a daily one? As much as people bemoan the murder rate in large American cities today, I think the people of Baghdad would swap places with us in a heartbeat.

And so, unsurprisingly, as the public has started to decide that maybe this WASN'T such a good idea, after all, we're starting to hear calls to cut our losses and let the Iraqis sort it out for themselves. Some people say that the violence in Iraq isn't really our problem, others say that WE are the problem, and there are likely a number of people who say both.

And this is where the politics begins. Despite the fact that I'm not really a fan of this administration, and this particular demonstration of their ability to wage a long-term conflict doesn't spark any sort of confidence in me, I actually feel sorry for a number of senior administration officials, and Republican politicians. They've wandered in between a rock and very hard place, and it's obvious to anyone with half the sense that's been given to cabbage that there isn't a graceful way out. Leaving Iraq, and letting the Iraqis fend for themselves is, actually, a no-win situation. Either the Iraqis botch the job, and the whole place collapses, perhaps dragging down half the region with it, or the Iraqis, by themselves or with help from neighbors, get their act together. One scenario puts the United States in the position of having demolished a nation-state and then, after mis-managing the reconstruction, abandoning it to complete meltdown; and the other demonstrates that it was our very presence that either destabilized things or allowed the local authorities to avoid dealing with issues that, when they had no other choice, they were perfectly capable of handling.

So that leaves them with staying put, and throwing one strategy after another at the situation, hoping that sooner or later, one of them actually works out. In the meantime, the political opposition is holding them up as the very definition of (depending on who you ask) either incompetent or malicious, the public is rapidly both losing patience and turning on itself, and the many members of the international community are becoming cynical, hostile or paranoid about out long-term intentions. And at this stage of the game, there's so little faith that the Administration could actually come to manage the situation well, that a workable solution is going to be seen mostly as the Universe taking pity on the luckless.

Not a position that I want to find myself in.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith, R.I.P.


Sooner or later, anyway...

Okay, I'm going to get back up on my soapbox and rant about the news media again. This time the subject is yesterday's CNN headline over the court battle over Anna Nicole Smith's body (I didn't bother to read the story, so I don't have a link to it). The judge placed the body in the custody of the guardian ad litem for Smith's infant daughter. But, according to CNN:

Smith's infant daughter gets custody of body
I mean, really. The idea that, no matter how you slice it, that there's no real difference between a person having custody of something, and their attorney having custody of that thing is absurd. While I must admit that I haven't read CNN often enough to be certain, I doubt that they would presented the story in such a way if it didn't make for such a sensational headline. Granted, from what I've heard of the judge in this case, ruling out the idea that he actually would have granted custody to a five-month old may have been premature, but as you can see right there in the blurb, the headline and the facts were in opposition.

Would it really have been that difficult to write a headline that was both brief AND accurate?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

I don't get it

One of the downsides of growing up in middle America is that you never learn much about foreign cultures, and this leads to a certain amount of cultural confusion when you're attempting to understand international news stories. I was reading an Associated Press story on the CBS News website about the firing of Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour al-Samaraie by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after al-Samaraie called for an international investigation into sexual assault allegations leveled by a Sunni Arab woman against the Shiite-dominated police. The following paragraph caught my eye:

Rape is considered especially heinous in conservative Muslim countries, and victims rarely come forward since they risk not only public scorn but possible "honor killing" at the hands of male relations seeking to restore the family's honor.

This passage, as writen makes little sense to me, and I must admit that I don't have the cultural background to make heads or tails of it. But at first glance, if a woman who has been raped is in danger of being murdered by her own family members, to cleanse the stain on their honor, it seems that BEING raped is considered pretty heinous itself. Here, if a posse of relations got together form a family lynch mob, we'd expect them to go after the rapist. The practice of honor killings recalls the United States of some fifty-plus years ago (and in some instances/places, much more recently than that), when men were effectively assumed to have zero control over their sexual impulses, and rape was routinely blamed on women, unless clear issues of status were involved. (Raping a woman of a higher status stripped a man of being able to claim that she was a wanton who incited him to assualt her. Of course, in many cases he also couldn't claim that the sex was consentual - even if it was.) While many Americans may not like to talk about such things in relation to our ancestors, we routinely consider men who claim that a woman as "being provacative" or "asking for it" as backwards - barely fit to be considered any sort of higher life form, let alone human, and "civilized" is right out. A woman who makes such a claim is considered to be in dire need of therapy or deprogramming.

I'm sure that I'm not the only Westerner who finds this infathomable. I don't know if a clearer understanding of Middle-eastern culture would let this make more sense to me or not, but I suspect that it would be worthwhile knowledge in any event.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Titillation

Okay, I admit that this is clever and likely to be something of an attention grabber, and it even directly calls to mind their chosen cause of ridding the world of breast cancer. (Although the photo is a bit washed-out. I wonder if that was intentional?)


The online dating site True had the same idea, it seems. But they decided to kick it up a notch:


I guess that it just goes to show that pictures of breasts and some clever copy can sell anything. And I guess that's what makes this interesting. The two ads use the same approach. But they're making vastly different pitches, to vastly different demographics. And while the True ad could be seen as objectifying women, it's unlikely that anyone would say the same about the Susan G. Komen ad.

Not guilty then, but guilty now?

So a man who was exonerated of rape is now on trial for murder. As one might expect, the defense is arguing that police officers planted evidence in order to prove the guilt of a man who embarrassed them by being shown to be innocent of an earlier crime they arrested him for, and that he was convicted of. From the Court TV coverage, that seems to be the crux of the defense case. (Of course, this is perhaps the most interesting angle - so I'm not surprised that an outfit like Court TV, that makes it's money from sensationalizing the legal system, would concentrate on the most sensational aspect of the case.)

In any event, I find myself of two minds about this particular case. On the one hand, I'm sincerely hoping that the police have the right person in this case. Primarily because the idea that the police would set about retaliating against people who are wrongfully convicted to be too unpleasant to want to lend credence to - even though I don't think of police officers as superhuman enough to be above such things. Secondarily, because I think that it will spark in other people the idea that the police, as an institution, are capable of being petty and vengeful (although going to prison for the rest of one's life is anything but petty). There has been a crisis of confidence in the police for a very long time among certain segments of American society. The idea that the police would go after people who they feel have embarrassed or defied them in such a public way can't possibly be helpful. And given the number of people who feel that our government hasn't acted in good faith over the past several years, the last thing we need are more reasons to be distrustful.

On the other hand, if this man is guilty of murdering one person after having been exonerated of the rape of another, it raises an interesting point - one that seems to be gaining currency in the modern-day United States - if this man had remained in jail, he wouldn't have been able to murder the young woman. The War on Terror is showing us that we're developing a tolerance for pre-emptive incarcerations in the name of stopping "dangerous people" from committing crimes simply based on the idea that they have the capacity and the will to commit them - will we always be opposed to applying that logic to American citizens? Especially if we're able to point to a case of a dangerous man who was incarcerated who then murdered someone when he got out? Of course, the case could, and perhaps should, be made that after nearly two decades of incorrect imprisonment, anyone's not going to be "quite right in the head" anymore (which, obviously, is a point that some make about the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), but I wonder about our acceptance of that line of reasoning.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Campaign Two-Thousand Eight

So the race to be the next President of the United States of America is on. Conventional Wisdom says that when it's all said and done, the winner of the race might have spend upwards of one hundred million dollars to get their message out the voters.

I have a hard time with that number. One hundred million dollars is an awful lot of money. Where could it all possibly be going? Why do you need to spend that much capital?

At first, I thought that a level of expenditure that high would surely be a liability to whomever won in the end. People would see all of the money that they spend as an investment that was being made by the people who donated funds to their campaigns - people who would expect to see some return on that investment. Okay so some party loyalist in Middle America isn't going to be thinking that they're going to directly get anything tangible for the two-hundred dollar check that they wrote out to this candidate or that political action committee, but the wealthy corporations, organizations and individuals that are ponying up many thousands of dollars? People are going to believe that they're expecting a little quid pro quo. This is the same reason why lobbying reform became big. The appearance of impropriety can be as bad, if not worse, than the fact of impropriety. So if it's going to encourage people to think that you're corrupt, why take the money?

I was taking with a friend of mine about the campaign, and she was telling me about what she liked about Senator Barak Obama. He's the correct political party (Democrat) and philosophical bent (liberal). From what she knows of his policy positions, she likes them, and she feels that he's "electable." And from what she knows if him and his history, he's a great guy on a personal level. But she expressed reservations about voting for him - because he smokes. Now I understand that she's a public health worker and advocate, and that smoking just isn't cool anymore, but basing one's choice for President on that? But voting for a smoker just didn't feel right to her.

And that's where one hundred million dollars is going to go. Into creating a message that will make people feel comfortable in voting for a candidate on an emotional level. Who knew that feelings were so expensive?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Rich nations not doing enough...

...to make the poor hate children.

In my next life, I want to be a Spin Doctor for a living. It just seems like an incredibly fun job. And there are certain people who just make it so easy.

The United Nations recently put out a report that attempts to measure child welfare in developed nations. Ignoring for a moment the fact that the report grades all of the nations in it relative to each other, rather than against an objective standard (so someone's always going to be on the bottom, no matter how well they're actually doing), it's still likely to be fodder for people who think that the U.N. is stuffed to the rafters with crazy bleeding heart lefties who just can't bear to see anything go wrong for anyone.

But what surprised me was the number of ways that the report left itself open to being used in ways that I can't imagine the authors intended. Not that anyone is likely to do so, but if you really wanted to, you could make some very bizarre arguments based on the statements and conclusions in the report.

For example, to go back to the title of this post, according to the UNICEF report (and I quote):

"To a young person with little sense of current well-being - unhappy and perhaps mistreated at hime, miserable and under-achieving at school, and with only an unskilled and low-paid job to look forward to - having a baby to love and be loved by, with a small income from benefits and a home of her own, may seem a more attractive option and the alternatives. A teenager doing well at school and looking forward to an interesting and well-paid career, and who is surrounded by family and friends who have similarly high expectations, is likely to feel that giving birth would de-rail both present well-being and future hopes."
You can see how it's easy to spin this to say that: "According to the United Nations, rich countries should do a better job teaching young women that children are a threat to their present and future well-being." Because, after all, if poor people had the sense that children would be nothing but a burden, perhaps they wouldn't have as many...

Of course, that's not what they mean, but you get the point. But even their intended meaning misses the point somewhat. For any poor woman, having a child means another mouth to feed - and if you don't have the resources to care for yourself properly, how can you care for a small child? I mean, once the hypothetical unhappy teenager is an adult, and firmly ensconced in her low-paying dead-end job, is she really in a much better position to have a baby than she was as a teenager? Are miserable adults any less likely to have children based more on the percieved emotional benefits than miserable adolescents? (Personally, my experience says "no.")

What's really going on here is that this isn't really a report about the plight of children. The idea is to spur wealthy countries to do more to tackle poverty and income disparity - it's a "do it for the children" pitch. This is why I think they don't set an objective standard to reach - what they're looking for is a sort of perpetual "race to the top" where the various named nations are in constant competition with one another. And many of the standards deal more or less directly with either material affluence, or other factors that have been directly shown to correllate with poverty - such as teen pregnancy and single or divorced parents. But I think that this is another case where "say what you mean" may be the best way to go about it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Bad News

One of my soapboxes is sloppy journalism. Ostensibly, the purpose of "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," is so that people can be informed. After all, if people are going to participate in government, they need to have access to a certain level of information, so that they are capable of making informed policy decisions, and base their voting behavior accordingly. And the press howls whenever they feel that they're being cut out of information that they feel is important. But what good is the freedom to disseminate information without government interference, if you can't be bothered to verify that they information is correct?

Late last month, the splashy random-news-trivia story of the day was the fact that the Census Bureau had released a report showing that 51% of women over the age of 15 were not living with a spouse. Here is a commentary on the New York Times piece that broke the story. (Despite all of the hoopla surrounding this story, news articles that deal with the survey directly are hard to find.) This referred to women who were unmarried, AND those who's spouses were elsewhere - serving in the military overseas, incarcerated or working on a fishing boat somwhere. In the less than three weeks since the story had become big news, the interpretation has changed, and now 51% of adult women are SINGLE, as reported in this Associated Press story on the rise of "Anti-Valentines Day."

While I suppose that there are people who don't make a distinction between a woman who currently doesn't have a husband, and one whose husband is working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico for six months, professional journalists shouldn't be in that category. Especially when the change in meaning leads people to question the accuracy and the agenda of the source material. Here conservative columnist Shaunti Feldhahn, acting on the misconception, takes aim at the New York Times, noting (correctly) that the idea that 51% of women are single is, in fact, false - and she goes on to attack marriage "naysayers" as disseminating false information. (It seems that she was following the lead of Michael Medved, who also attacked the article.)

To be fair, it turns out that it is warranted to attack, if not the accuracy, the overall relevance of the story. Even the New York Times (which reported it as a front-page story (subscription required)) itself isn't completely happy with the reporting. A more realistic look at the numbers, including only women aged 20 or older, brings the percentage down to 47 percent. (Note that the Census Bureau tracks marriage statistics starting at age 15 because this is a survey that they've been taking for decades, since when the average age of first marriage was significantly lower than it is now. At one time, the survey started at 14.) But 47% isn't newsworthy - 51%, with its implication of a new social paradigm amoung the majority of Americans, is. (By the way, you could make the point that since the average age of first marriage has climbed into the mid-twenties, even starting at age 20 may not be particularly warranted.)

So what we're left with is sloppy follow-on coverage of a story that was sloppily (and misleadingly) reported to begin with, because it created a splashier headline that way. Otherwise it would have been just another random bit of government trivia. Not that it doesn't point to a much greater social trend, over the long term. There WAS a time when a majority of women 15 and older were living with a spouse. But I suspect that most Americans today would be surprised to learn it extended into the 20th century. The idea that a noticable number of teenagers would be wives is something that makes most Americans think of the distant past, or some benighted third-world nation somewhere, where women are ranked as somewhat less valuable than goats or something, rather than the America of only a century ago. So some corners were cut to make the story worthy of attention. And while an entertaining public conversation was started, I don't think that you can say that it was useful - noone knew what they were talking about.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

I'm going to hurt you, Father

...for I have sinned.

This is Old News. I felt the desire to post something today, but I couldn't think of anything interesting. So I went back into my "archive," as it were, and pulled out something that I didn't get around to posting when I'd actually written it. I added to it, and did some editing, and here it is.
I was reading "Vertigo," by Christopher Hitchens, on Slate when I came across the following confusing passage:
"But, as with Beirut, it is unlikely that anything will stop the confessional violence as long as either side thinks there is anything to be gained from it."
At first, I thought that the use of the word "confessional" was just a strange substitution for the term "sectarian." After all, both terms have religious connotations, and perhaps Slate's editors felt that "the s-word" is becoming a little long in the tooth, with all that Americans have been hearing and reading it recently. The definition of confessional that I was familiar with dealt with a weird little box that one finds in Catholic churches, and/or to the process of admission of wrongdoing (or wrongthinking) and the subsequent assignment of penance that takes place within. Clearly, there was a meaning to the term that I wasn't hip to. So, I looked it up.
Confessional: Adjective. 1) of, relating to, or being a confession - especially of faith. 2) of, relating to, or being intimately autobiographical.
Violence as autobiography wasn't particularly intuitive, either, so that wasn't much help. I still didn't understand the context. So I figured that I'd drop down a level, and looked up "confession." And found, in part, "a formal statement of religious beliefs." The light bulb flared into sudden brilliance.

To be honest, I wasn't completely enlightened by the realization. The idea that Shiites have undertaken a campaign of sectarian clensing in the capital of Iraq, not out of religious ambition or even obligation, but as a religious proclamation struck me as nothing short of utterly bizzare. But, I'm sure that we're all aware of the segment of Western society (many of them American evangelopatriots) that views Islam as a creed harboring (if not actively demanding) a bloodlust that would make a Tyrannasaur sick to its apex-predator stomach. For them, the idea that violence is how Moslems intentionally and formally express not only their religion, but their religiosity would make perfect sense. I haven't read enough of Christopher Hitchens to know if he is a member of said segment, but even if he isn't, what would otherwise simply be an odd turn of phrase becomes instead a very precise way of conveying the intended point.

The more I think about it, the more this new understanding makes sense to me. There are so many ways in which violence, in Iraq or here in the United States (or anywhere else, for that matter), can be understood to be both meduim AND message that the use of the term "confessional" becomes strikingly appropriate. It's hard for me to relate to, mainly because the idea of using violence simply to convey a message seems to at once go too far, and not far enough. Therefore, the idea that violence could actually BE the message is foreign to me. I can't even provide a sensible example, other than to say that the clich├ęd "random acts of violence and senseless brutality" - that is, the the violent episodes that we don't understand, may, in fact, be the very point that they're attempting to convey.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Al Jazeera

Until today, it had not occurred to me that one of the many news sources that one can access from Google News would be the English language page of Al Jazeera. It reminds me of the BBC - they use the British English term "Sport" rather than "Sports" as we do in the United States. (As an aside, the lead sports headline was the Super Bowl.) Curious, I read their article on the Court-Martial of First Lieutenant Ehren Watada. I also popped over to a local paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and read their article on the same topic for today.

The P-I, went into a LOT more detail. This is unsurprising. For most of Al Jazeera's readership this is foreign news. But since the trail is being held at Fort Lewis, which isn't all that far from the Seattle-Tacoma area, its something of a big deal around here. Given the realitive brevity of the Al Jazeera piece, and the likely nature of its audience. Also, given the expected audience, I'm not suprised that the Al Jazeera story seemed to focus more or less exclusively on Lieutenant Watada's side of things, although it didn't veer into an anti-United States Government screed, or anything like that. I don't know if the goal was to illustrate dissention in the ranks of America (just in case there was someone who wasn't already aware of that) or to say: "See, there are even American SOLDIERS who know the war is wrong." I guess you could go either way. Perhaps I'll take some time and read more of their coverage - next time contrasting it with a source for whom it isn't the big local story of the day, and see how they stack up.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Right Things

One day, I was in a bar in Seattle, and I ran into a man whom I could only describe as a "moderate White Supremacist." Perhaps it says something about Seattle that even the people who hold extreme right-wing views can manage to be reasonably civil (if not always tactful) about it.

In any event, he was going on about books that he'd read that supported his views, and when the topic of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond came up, he described it as "politically-correct propaganda." And while I found GG&S to be fascinating and informative (although somewhat dry), I can see how he'd reached that conslusion.

If you're unfamiliar with the book, Guns, Germs, and Steel seeks to explain, in understandable terms, why some cultures developed higher technology levels, denser and more complex societies, and nastier infectious diseases than other societies. To boil it down to it's absolute simplest, the reason the book puts forth is that all of these things spring from certain accessable natural resources in any given area, mainly domesticable plant and animal species, and that these vary around the world.

Of course, there have been plenty of other explanations for this phenomenon, many of which deal with the idea that certain groups are superior in intellect or inventiveness to other groups. Mr. Diamond takes direct issue with such theories, stating that: "The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome, but also that they are wrong."

But why does that fact that racist explanations are loathsome matter? Isn't it enough that they be wrong? And if a demonstrably correct explanation of a phenomenon is loathsome, is that by itself grounds for objection? This is where we run the risk of confusing an arrival at popular orthodoxy as scientific rigor. As William Saletan put it: "It's too bad they think good science consists of believing the right things."