Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Abandoned to live in the world's largest toilet bowl

I put up - and quickly removed - a post this morning wherein I speculated that the main cause for so many deaths from Hurricane Katrina was that many Americans are too stubborn, mistrustful of authority and ill-educated to actually heed the warnings.

Surfing to a number of other Katrina-related blogs, I quickly realized I was wrong. No doubt a small number of people didn't leave New Orleans for those reasons, but they seem to be in the minority, judging by what relief organizations are saying. Apparently, almost everyone left in the city was too old, sick and/or poor to leave.

Check out a few websites with the evacuation plan for New Orleans. Listen closely for the voices telling you about the government buses taking people out of the city, about the evacuation efforts by the city, the state, the feds...

(sound of crickets)

The state trooper website for Louisiana contains numerous route maps on how to get out of town, but if you don't have a car, there are few options. Most of the people who faced the worst part of the storm were poor and a majority were black.

And now martial law has been declared to control rampant looting. Here's a recipe for civil order: take the poorest 10 to 20 per cent of the population of an already violent city. Add a major catastrophe. Take away electricity, drinkable water, and food. Add the fact that police are mostly busy pulling people off their roofs. Looting, you say? What a fucking surprise.

How much money does it cost to pluck people, one at a time, off of their rooftops with a helicopter? Compare total cost to the fuel, drivers and rental costs of using school, city and charter buses to offer anyone who wanted it a free ride out of the city. Not only is compassion better, it's a hell of a lot cheaper in the long run.


Here's a link to the rescue-worker e-mail, referenced on a number of websites and reproduced at

And speaking of buses, now that a significant portion of the city's voting public might drown in the Superdome, they appear to be available. From CNN:

In New Orleans, authorities prepared Wednesday to evacuate about 25,000 displaced residents who've been stranded since Katrina struck and transport them to the Houston Astrodome.

Texas officials offered to open the giant, mostly disused domed stadium as a shelter for people displaced by the storm. (See the video of the governor's plan to help the stranded -- 3:09)

Most have been staying at the Louisiana Superdome, another domed stadium which was designated a refuge for people who could not evacuate the city before the storm roared ashore on Monday.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The grasslands of Barsoom

I've just finished rereading The Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes. It was actually better than I remembered. As my girlfriend (who is both wise and beautiful) says, it's a great little action-adventure SF story. But I have one little nitpick, which is actually common to a lot of other SF, both of the hard and soft varieties.

A brief synopsis: A band of 200 colonists has travelled in cryogenic suspension to a nearby habitable, earthlike planet and established a colony on an island. They are attacked by a strange critter they call a grendel - built like a Komodo dragon, it can move as fast as a cheetah, bite like a shark and has tail spikes like a stegosaurus.

The colonists kill the first critter after losing some of their number, then slaughter every one of the creatures on their island. But they didn't understand the grendel reproductive cycle. The fish-like critters in ponds and rivers are actually immature grendels, tadpoles of a sort. By removing all the adult grendels, the colonists have sent a signal for every one of the thousands of juvenilles to grow up into fierce adults. And the final battle is on.

My nitpick doesn't concern the grendels, which are great creations. They can supercharge their blood with an oxidizer that lets them move like the Flash, but also overheats them, forcing them to stay near cold water. And their reproductive strategy is based on real Earth animals.

The problem is with the background biology, which is simplistic and essentially a rip off of Earth's.

The planet of Avalon has grass, flowering plants, bushes with berries and fruits and trees, small mammal-like critters and flying pterosaur-analogues. All of the plants are primarily green, apparently using chlorophyl to photosynthesize. But how likely is it that we'll find all those things on any planet?

How long has grass, that ubiquitous plant, been around on Earth? Maybe 30 million years. The producers of the Walking With Dinosaurs and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts series have bemoaned the fact that they couldn't film anywhere with grass for any of the Mesozoic segments, and about half of the Tertiary segments. And grasses evolved from flowering plants, which didn't turn up until the late Jurassic, and didn't become common until the mid-Cretaceous.

There's a fabulous article that goes into all this in much more detail, along with the origins of a terribly addictive South American plant, here.

On another world, the notion that the gymnosperm to flowering plant to grass transition would happen exactly as it did here is fairly absurd. There would likely be whole plant-like species that wouldn't correspond to any known family. And why would they be green? If they struck on a molecule a bit better than chlorophyl (plants only convert about 2 per cent of the sun's light to energy) they would be dominant on their world - in shades of red, blue, orange or purple, perhaps.

So it's particularly galling to read a hard science fiction novel that so lovingly creates an alien animal, but ignores the other elements of the alien biosphere. Sure, it may be that Niven, Pournelle and Barnes just wanted to get on with the meat of their story, and who can fault them for that? But a few elements of the story betray a lack of understanding of the randomness of evolution.

In one chapter, a scientist character has trapped a few furry, mink-like critters, and decides that because they are fur covered and look like mammals, they most likely nurture their young with milk. But there's no reason to expect that on another planet, it won't be the scaly, lizard-looking creatures that give birth to live young and suckle them, and the furry ones that lay eggs and then run off, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. A few advantagous mutations here, a bit of chance there, and wild combinations are possible.

I'm now looking forward to reading Beowulf's Children, the book's sequel. If I remember correctly, it includes a lot of interesting animals as the characters explore their planet's mainland.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Lucas, Scourge of Fans

I had a terrible vision last night. I saw George Lucas, risen supreme and spreading his evil among other creators! The horror!

What evil? The suckness that was Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and (to a slightly lesser extent) Episode Three: Anakin the Whiny Child-Killer?

Those were bad, but not evil. If we had to denounce and hound people for being evil, Jerry Bruckheimer would have been thrown into a pit of molten lava years ago, and he would never have lent his name/cash to The Amazing Race, the only watchable reality show.

Nope, the evil (or perhaps EVIL) that emanates from Lucas is his obsessive recutting of his own movies. The first three episodes were famously "improved" for their second theatrical release just before Phantom Menace. Then he recut them again for release on DVD, adding in Anakin, Poster Boy for Infanticide, in the scene of Jedi ghosts at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Not as well known is that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were altered between the theatrical release and the DVD release. Minor changes, but Lucas couldn't even leave them alone for the six or seven months between releases. That's not a quirk, it's not artistic dedication, it's a pitiful addiction to an editing suite and CGI technology. I can clearly picture George peeling back his neck-flab-supporting turtleneck sweater to jam a coaxial cable directly into is spine. His nervous system connects to the edit suite and his eyes half-close in delicious, meddling bliss. "Yessss," he hisses, his voice soft as Jabba's skin, "where shall we add more flying objects and blobby alien critters today. You can never have enough background detail..."

Who could be infected next?

Quentin Tarantino: Spends next six years creating the directors cut of Kill Bill. After adopting some adorable orphans, decides it's "a little too violent" and replaces slicing sword noises with fuzzy animal squeaks. Blood recoloured green, blue and purple and edited to imply the movie is nothing but an extended Jello fight. Bill Cosby added to push Jello angle.

Joss Whedon: Instead of crafting new works, creates an extended re-release of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD. Because Buffy's outfits now look dated, hires a fashion design house to change her appearance, including hair cut and make up, to stay current. The project starts again every six months, resulting in a new re-issue.

The Estate of Jimmy Stewart: It's A Wonderful Life re-written to provide the happy ending at the 90 minute mark, because who wants to sit through the downer of the last 30 minutes before getting to everyone singing Auld Lang Syne? In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart's filibuster ends when he is stoned to death by Republicans. "How dare he attempt to block the appointment of righteous judges!" yells Bill Frist, in a newly added cameo. In Harvey, Rob Schneider added as the loveable invisible rabbit, making raunchy gestures and oggling Stewart's elderly aunt.

Steven Spielberg: After becoming a creationist, re-writes Jurassic Park to confirm with biblical chronology. "We're recovered DNA from creatures that went extinct in the Flood!" the scientists exclaim. Self-righteous mathematician is eaten early on (the only good change) and children defeat the velociraptors by praying to Baby Jesus. Then Spielberg removes all the guns from E.T., replacing them with walkie talkies.

No, that's too ridiculous to ever happen.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Primacy of History

I'm currently a bit more than halfway through Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson, a much-praised new SF novel just out in paperback.

It's written as a regretful memoir by Sir Robert Bruce, an officer who takes part in the military campaigns of Consul Issac Prophet Fitzpatrick, an Alexander the Great obsessed military and political genius, in a strange, semi-feudal future. The world has reverted to steam after Fitzpatrick's people, the Yukon Confederacy, used EMP weapons to end the Electronic Age. The Yukons have technological superiority in the form of steam-powered fighter and bomber aircraft and the only working satellite network, their Chinese and Turkish Empire enemies have them vastly outnumbered. With war about to break out, it seems certain there will be a huge slaughter, possibly on both sides.

But the novel is also presented as a real historical document. It has an introduction and footnotes provided by a self-righteous and cranky editor, who gives us many of the insights into the Yukon culture. (Despite their name, they aren't from the modern Yukon. They are essentially the descendents of white, mainly Protestant North American farmers, and there is more than a little in their history that suggests they are descended from a militia movement.) The editor provides us with much of the exposition about the history of the period, which seems outlandish, and is definitely self serving. He is a defiantly unreliable second narrator for the book.

It also provides a pessimistic tone to the whole book: we know in advance that we can trust Robert Bruce more than the editor, and that Fitzpatrick is as much a monster as he is a conquering hero. But Judson lets us know that the future will gloss over those crimes, and see only the shining boy-emperor.

It's a brave narrative choice; essentially writing a future in which Hilter or Stalin has won and is remembered for centuries as a great and wonderful man.

I'm looking forward to see what happens next; we know that Fitzpatrick is assasinated, but when and why is a mystery.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Evolution: Threat or Menace?

That might as well be the headline in the National Post today. The actual lead in on page one is "Relgious right's theory of 'intelligent design' has Harvard interested. A3" and in large block type, "Darwin Who?"

While I appreciate the quotes around ID, it's highly misleading, making it sound like Harvard is doing a serious investigation of creationist nonsense. The truth is the exact opposite, as the A3 headline on Steven Edwards column reveals: "Harvard aims to prove Darwin right." The university is launching a study on the origins of life - a subject that is not exactly the same as evolution, although obviously closely linked to it.

Edwards hasn't really written much of an opinion piece here, it's really just the same back and forth he-said she-said nonsense that most writers toss out when writing about ID versus reality. But at the end he takes a groundless shot at Harvard researchers.

Harvard, meanwhile, is confident of the results of its study even before it begins.

"We start with a mutual acknowledgement of the profound complexity of living systems," David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at the university, told The Boston Globe.

"My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention."

But statements like that can only open the door to further criticism from the Religious Right, which will surely argue that declaring the result in advance is hardly scientific.

Edwards, you are a goddamn moron.

Scientists do not perform experiments with no expectation. Roughly, the system goes like this: "X is a well-known fact, repeatedly proved. Based on that, I theorize that Y is also true, and will test it with an experiment." In other words, expectations (not "delcaring the result in advance," which is not what Liu said) are perfectly normal in science. The difference between scientists and others is that when the results are unexpected, they accept that their first ideas were wrong, and change their views.

Creationists and proponents of ID, on the other hand, attempt to fit facts to their preconceptions.

It's also noteworthy that if Harvard really were doing basic research into evolution - as the headlines imply - it would be the biological equivalent of going back to check if gravity really exists, and works the way thousands of physicists have already checked and documented. Yet this kind of work is now made necessary by the loud squealing of creationists and their pet politicians.

Other possible future headlines for the Post:

"Is Earth Round? Princeton profs meet with Flat-Earthers."

"The Four Humours Reconsidered. Oxford doctors taking medieval medicine seriously; leech stocks soar."

"Phrenology the new Kabbalah! Madonna endorsement convinces science that bumps = personality!"

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Five Fun Tricks With Democracy

It's back to school time, and somewhat later than that, it will be back to Parliament time for all those fresh-faced little MPs in Ottawa. They're so cute, with their slanders and partisan ranting! But in between their red-faced yelling matches and self-righteous scrums, they'll be thinking up new ways to improve our democracy and give Canadians more power over their lives.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!

In case they actually want to improve things, here are a few suggestions I've been thinking over recently. In descending order:

Number 5: End land speculation with a Lockean property law.

Currently, we're in the middle of a construction and housing bubble. Don't deny it, you all know it's true. And one of the causes (and the effects) of the bubble is land speculation. There are a lot of properties sitting empty all over the Lower Mainland, where I live, because the owners are waiting for a rezoning that may or may not come, or because they're simply holding on to the land until the price hits their sweet spot.

This means that rents and land prices are driven artificially high because of the scarcity. So why not follow old English common law, which allowed squatters to take possession of any land they lived on for a year and a day unchallenged? We could switch that around, and say that if a property owner does not live on or improve his property for a year and a day, he forfeits title. The next person who improves the property (plants a garden, fixes up the house) would be the legal owner. Condos could revert to the ownership of the strata council. Let common law and the courts decide what constitutes "improvement." This would force landowners to either start developing or sell their properties before the year was up, cutting down on speculation somewhat.

Number 4: Take control of the GG's office away from the PM

Currently, there's some ridiculous controversy about whether the new proposed Governor General is a seperatist. Let's all take a deep breath and remember that, unless wearing a big Admiral Nelson hat and a jacket with lots of braid can sway thousands of voters, this does not matter very much. The GG has a few theoretically important duties to play in our goverment, but the last time one took part in a major way was in the 1930s. If we really need the post, let's open it up to the public.

There are a couple of ways we could do this. First, we could make it completely random. If you're on the federal voters list, your name goes into the (Admiral Nelson) hat, and if you are picked, you get a luxurious one-year stay in an Ottawa mansion.

Alternatively, we could hold a lottery, $10 a ticket, winner drawn in a national TV special, and the money pays for the official duties and mansion upkeep. (This option is my favourite.)

Or we could elect them directly. Boring.

Number 3: Give municipal goverments control of environmental policy

All politics are local, and all environmental issues, doubly so. I spent a long time, when I was with the now-defunct Sterling News Service, covering the biggest enviro issue of the last decade in Abbotsford. This was the infamous Sumas Energy 2 power plant proposal.

Background: Sumas Energy 2 (SE2) was an American firm. It wanted to build a gas-fired power plant just a stone's throw south of the Canada-US border. Because there are no high-tension power lines on the US side nearby, it asked for permission to run a line across the border and connect to the BC Hydro substation in Abbotsford.

The locals went absolutely batshit. The Fraser Valley is a big bowl, surrounded by mountains, which traps bad air. The SE1 plant had been bad enough, this was the limit. They organized mass rallies, protests and bus trips to speak to US regulators. When the matter came before the National Energy Board in Canada (who could control approval of the power line), they sent more intervenors than had ever registered, for the longest public hearing the board had ever held. The process was dragged out for years, and finally, the locals won.

By the skin of their teeth, by a decision by an appointed, quasi-judicial body that wasn't accountable to anyone. Why can't local goverments make decisions based on environmental issues? It's not that I trust local goverments to be greener than provincial or national goverments, but they are a lot easier to sway. Because they are a lot easier to toss out of office if they disobey the will of the people. And you can find them and yell at them in person.

And it was just ordinary people who fought SE2, not radical greens. I saw an incredibly embarassing sight during a big anti-SE2 rally once. A lawyer for the Sierra Club gave a very well-received speech, then tried to get the crowd to join him in a "There ain't no power like the power of the people" chant. They didn't get into it. It just sort of petered out. The crowd was just middle-class, mostly Conservative voting middle aged people. They didn't want to be identified as some sort of environmental crusaders. But they didn't want their kids breathing more smoke. Local issues can get people fired up in a way that ideology can barely touch. If local goverments could veto developments on environmental grounds, it would give enormously more power to citizens.

Number 2: Democratized Courts

We need to make it cheaper for people to reach legal agreements. With divorce, child custody and small claims matters, we could simplify people's lives a lot if we just let them reach their own settlements any way they wanted.

A lot of family-court matters aren't acrimonious, or need at the most a bit of mediation, but lawyers and expensive court time are still necessary. Why not simply have a system where a judge, justice of the peace or other court official could simply ratify any agreement brought to them by two or more parties?

If you've solved the problem on your own, you write down the agreement, swear before the official that all parties agree to the terms, then sign it. Done. Adversarial problems without an easy resolution could still use the court system. Outside the system, you could use your cousin Bernie as a mediator, or a private mediator.

For small claims, some lawsuits and even minor crimes such as vandalism, this system could work well.

Number 1: More Direct Democracy

There are so many ways we could do this, at the municipal, provincial or federal level. Probably the easiest would be to give the public a veto on any new law passed by the goverment. If enough signatures appear on a petition, a referendum is held on whether the law should be repealed. Or new laws could be passed by the same method - and not overturned by Parliament, but only if courts found they violated human rights.

To make things cheaper, we could hold the votes annually, say every October, rather than randomly whenever a petition passed the threshold. I suspect if people were voting for specific health care initiatives, to legalize pot, or to streamline gun control, turnout would be better.

And hey, it'd be a pretty good replacement for the senate. The "chamber of sober second thought" should be extended to the whole country.

Obviously, other people could come up with their own list of five changes to the way we govern, and every one of them would be different from mine. And I don't actually expect any of my recommendations to be accepted, at least not in my lifetime. But the important thing is that thinking about changing goverment something every citizen should do on a regular basis.

Our government is not set in stone. It is just a tool we use to guard our rights and keep ourselves healthy and prosperous. We should change it for the better.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Please give me some delicious FrankenRice!

Two interesting and seemingly unconnected news stories appeared this week, both to do with plants and genetics.

First, scientists with the Rice Genome Project have successfully decoded the complete genome of rice, the world's single most important food crop. This is actually far more important in the short term than decoding the human genome. Messing around with human genetics is both difficult and ethically dodgy, depending on what you want to do. Rice is just rice.

Unless it's... a Frankenfood! Oh no, we're all going to die! Evil, evil scientists are going to put weird GENES in our foods, and contaminate our crops, and we'll have weird allergic reactions and immune system failures and the Frankenfoods will run rampant, destroying the ecosystem and killing baby seals and selling crack to preschoolers!

Oh, and the second important news story? Apparently, the most famous "genetic disaster" ever, never even happened.

According to the National Post (yeah, I know they suck, but this is just a simple story) the infestation by man-made genes into Mexican corn crops has turned out to be a myth. One of the major fears of genetic engineering opponents has been that new genes will be cross pollinated from modified plants into neighbouring, unmodified plants, or possibly into completely different species. A paper in Nature apparently showed it had happened.

Now, a new Ohio State University study has found exactly nothing. From Science Daily:

Over the two-year study, the researchers gathered more than 153,000 seeds from 870 maize plants in 125 fields in Oaxaca . They sent these seeds to two commercial companies in the United States that can test for very low concentrations of transgenic material in maize seeds.

The researchers were looking for traces of two key transgenes – one or both of which are found in all GM maize crops. Test results showed no evidence of the presence of either transgene from any of the seeds.

So where did they go?

Transgenes that were present in Oaxaca prior to this study simply may not have survived, Snow said. Modern GM varieties may not be very hardy in Oaxaca, even if they can mate with local plants and gain a degree of hardiness that way.

Or they weren't there in the first place. Nature has apparently disowned the study that first showed the transgenes were there, and other studies showed transgenes, but haven't been published.

But watch if anyone ever admits to this. I fully expect the Oaxaca "transgene disaster" to crop up again and again Frankenfood literature for decades. Also note what is not present in any of these stories: a threat to human health. There is no mention that the genes harmed anyone who consumed the corn, even while they were allegedly present in the crops.

This is one of the few areas where the modern left and I really part company. I love science. I don't fear genetic engineering. Many people do, and for completely irrational reasons. There are a lot of ways we could screw things up with genetic engineering, but putting genes for drought resistance or extra vitamins in crops isn't one of them. In fact, genetic engineering could be one of the best ways to help the world's poor and malnourished, by boosting crop yields. If we made subsistence farming just 20 per cent easier, it would affect the lives of billions of people. We could start by preventing people from going blind with golden rice 2.

Even if we completely banned genetic engineering (which would be deeply stupid) we could still use the genome sequencing of rice to improve crop varieties. We could use it to identify and breed for specific genetic traits, and then clone large numbers of super-successful plants that include already existing genes for things like sumbergence tolerance or high yields. Even this, the Luddites will likely oppose. Because it has to do with genes, and genes should be left alone.


Genes are just another tool we are learning how to use. We will, hopefully, learn to use it responsibly, as we have so many of our other tools. If we don't, it won't be the fault of science, but of human fallibility.

Maher Arar, abused again

Apparently, Maher Arar has no rights in the United States, except possibly for the right not to be subjected to gross physical abuse. I'm sure this wonderful protection extends to all Canadians traveling south of the border.

Arthur Silber has a great commentary on the situation here.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

When is a treaty not a treaty?

When you don't have to abide by any of the rules, as long as you don't like them, apparently. I'd like to personally thank the United States for clearing this up for us. Rules are for suckers. Ignorance and pig-headedness are a viable substitute for good faith negotiating.

Why in the world do some Americans, and especially the badly misnamed Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, believe that they can simply ignore every NAFTA panel on softwood lumber? The Canadians won the final appeal Wednesday, so of course the logical thing to do is ignore this fact, and launch a constitutional challenge of NAFTA! Not that there's nothing in NAFTA I'd change if I had the chance, but if it fell all at once, it could seriously damage both our economies.

I believe this whole ignorant mess has something to do with a familiar psychological impulse: everyone thinks they are more righteous than they actually are.

In its mild form, this is no problem. People belive they are a little bit nicer and nobler than they really are, but can be reality-checked to within limits.

When it is inflated with ego and ideology, human beings can belive that their personal goals are exactly the same as the moral underpinnings of the universe. It's certainly not a viewpoint that's confined to Americans (Conrad Black comes to mind, along with some other historical Canadian figures). But it is the fashionable ideology down south right now. The Commander in Chief certainly believes it, along with his right-Republican comrades. It's a simple equation to them: We = Right. Anyone who is not We = Wrong.

Part of it is no doubt due to their misunderstanding of the BC stumpage system, a quasi-Georgist edifice that is actually a pretty good model of public land management. They probably think it's some sort of socialist weirdo experiment. Not nearly as noble and proper as their crony capitalist system, in which the US Forest Service builds logging roads for private, for-profit firms.

Now the Canadian goverment is suggesting (not even threatening - wimps) a trade war. They are targeting such things as newsprint, seafood, agricultural and wood products. Those are all made here in Canada, so that has the doubly attractive (for the Liberal Party) effect of buttering up several Canadian industries. And just before a winter election, what a damn coincidence! Of course, it'll drive up the prices of all those things in Canada, at least a little bit, but what the hell.

I suggest we hit them with something better. We should orgainze a boycott, one not linked to the goverment. Pick a firm that deals with both Canadian and US lumber firms and stop shopping there. Even if they only lose twenty or thirty per cent of their business, it will be a good reason for them to put some pressure on the US goverment, and buy us a few senators to end this mess.

Home Depot, anyone?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Get the target in the Google bombsights

The target is a vast, sprawling edifice, shoddily built and ugly as sin. Its creators have attempted to camouflage the many flaws with a bright palete of paints and shiny, distracting doodads. But they cannot conceal the gaping holes. Yes, it's our old friend, Intelligent Design.

There's a campaign right now on among we godless evolutionists to link the words Intelligent Design to the National Center for Science Education (in the States) explanation of why ID isn't so intelligent after all. If there are enough links between Intelligent Design and the article, Google will move that link to the top of its list when someone googles the term. And hopefully, that will give better information to the genuinely curious than they are likely to get if the term leads them to the Discovery Institute, or some similar bunch of frauds.

As of this writing, websites advocating ID seem to be in the top two, followed by a couple of skeptical sites. The NCSE page is number nine.

Click the link. Release the bomb.

Intelligent Design

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Bush Hates Science

Not that I'm surprised by this, but George W. Bush announced earlier this week that he supports the teaching of intelligent design in schools. Public schools that is, not private ones.

Let me make this clear up front: I support the absolute human right of people to fill their own heads, or the heads of their young, impressionable children, with whatever Dark Ages crap they wish. I will, in fact, rush to defend the right to believe in/worship flying saucers, crystals, Odin, pyramids or a giant teapot. Deep personal stupidity is a right. As long as you are not harming children, physically or through psychological torment, the state has absolutely no right to stop you.

But if you're starting the class in teapot worship, which holds that all life was poured out of the great primordial pot by the Great Tea Maker, that is in some conflict with science. You cannot demand equal time for teapot worship at the local elementary school, because you don't believe in the scientifically arrived at theories on how the universe began.

Bush appears to disagree, as in this story, which I have copied from the excellent and outraged Panda's Thumb:

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - President Bush waded into the debate over evolution and “intelligent design” Monday, saying schools should teach both theories on the creation and complexity of life.


Bush compared the current debate to earlier disputes over “creationism,” a related view that adheres more closely to biblical explanations. As governor of Texas, Bush said students should be exposed to both creationism and evolution.

On Monday the president said he favors the same approach for intelligent design “so people can understand what the debate is about.”

It's nice that Bush has cleared up some of the confusion right up front by mentioning creationism. Intelligent design is not scientific. It is not, and never has been, a science. It's partisans typically attack the existing body of biological knowledge, looking for gaps, then assert that whatever has not yet been explained is inexplicable. This feature, they assert, could not have arisen by mere chance! It must have been designed! It is irreducibly complex!

Intelligent design hasn't even been around that long, but many of the irreducibly complex structures it first attacked have, in fact, been explained by science, either in whole or in part. There is much that has not been explained, but we won't find out anything by throwing up our hands and saying, "Well, don't know how that little flagellum got there, must have been The Teapot."

Let us also be clear that ID is a religiously inspired viewpoint. It is inseparable from the broader creationist movement which feels that the Christian God actually made the Earth, and human beings specifically. There is no way to whitewash over the fact that intelligent design is not possible without a designer. Considering the movement's ties to Christianity, there is no doubt about which designer most of ID's adherents favour.

Even if you cut away all of that, and accept that ID's proponents really have no specific designer in mind, this idea still conflicts with some religious views, which do not assert that the world was created or is maintained by a higher power.

Bush has therefore advocated a violation of the US Constitution, which mandates that the government shall endorse no one religion. He has given his open approval to Judeo-Christian beliefs, above and over any others (say, teapot worship).

I don't know what this will mean, in the long term, for the culture war which still rages in the United States, but I'm very glad right now to be a Canadian. Here, the culture war is essentially over, the left won, and the mopping up stages are now in progress. In our last election, the Conservative Party's Stephen Harper had to assert, repeatedly, that he would not reopen the abortion debate. And he still lost.

But we are overshadowed by our neighbour to the south. They have been staggering to the right for some years now, and if the radical Republican grip on power continues, it could have serious repercussions, not just for Americans, but for the world. We don't want another Dark Age, but that's no guarantee that we won't get one.

If the west abandons science - and this is, and always has been a possibility, ever since the early days of the Royal Society - we are doomed. Our descendents could find themselves shivering in the dark, supplicating the unseen for warmth. We are far from this yet, and science still has powerful defenders. I've just been listening to Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World on tape, a fabulous defense of science and the power of experimentation to explain the world. But reason will always have to struggle with the demons of our credulity, of our need to believe in unreason. We must inoculate ourselves against this tendency every day of our lives.

Now, the most powerful individual in the world has said that no such inoculation is necessary. Unreason and reason are equal and should both be considered as explanations for how the world works. Both should receive the support of governments. The innoculation metaphor is apt. If Bush told people that innoculations against disease deserved equal time with prayer to prevent sickness, the rates of illness and death would skyrocket. Rates of ignorance may see a corresponding rise.

The west, the world, may turn away from science, and we may be watching the first days of that era. Do not let this happen.

Learn. Doubt. Rejoice in the things that you do not know, but that you can know, through reason and experimentation.

To take the language of the other side, choose the light, and turn away from the darkness.