Monthly Archives: August 2005

Thoughts on religious tax-exemption… with twist ending!

You know an article is flamebait when it begins with a sentence like, “Thank God for child-molesting priests, I always say.” That piece from last week’s East Bay Express seems to have been written as an entry in a hate mail collection competition. The topic: why we should collect property tax from churches.
Now, my gut response is generally that of course churches should be subject to the same taxes as other non-profit organizations. But while reading this article, a couple of caveats occurred to me. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea…
For one thing, this wouldn’t really be a tax on churches, but a tax on church parishioners passed on by collection plate and fundraiser. I seem to recall that church attendance decreases with increased socioeconomic status (if anyone has statistics supporting or rebutting this let me know), so this tax would be highly regressive. This alone might be reason to continue the tax-exempt status. Meanwhile, I would guess that most secular non-profits draw more donations from higher-income donors, so the same argument wouldn’t apply. [The relevant statistics for determining whether the tax is in fact regressive would be donations by socioeconomic status; if donation amounts increase faster with income than church attendance decreases, which is plausible, it might not be so bad. These statistics are probably harder to come by.]
Another factor is that churches will streamline operations so as to mitigate the amount of additional funding necessary. This will lead inevitably to the Wal-Martization of churches in the US, with smaller congregations either closing shop or being absorbed into increasingly large numbers of those scary megachurches that meet in sports stadiums with tacky laser shows and bad Christian rock. (I suppose “bad Christian rock” is redundant.)
So this atheist says: don’t tax the churches. However, I would like to request tax-exempt status for my own Cathedral of His Noodliness the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Backgrounds [Open Thread]

Another late open thread, it seems I’ve been spending my blogging energy on other topics. Generally I was pretty wiped out on Monday and early Tuesday following a busy weekend, but I seem to have recovered. It looks like I’m about to have another busy weekend, but at least this one will be spread out over three days.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Surprisingly, this movie was really very funny. It initially sounded like this would be another formula comedy in which the characters find themselves in increasingly wacky situations, and hilarity is supposed to ensue. This is indeed the structure of the movie, but most of the humor actually derives from the interactions between the characters, who are very well written and acted. The movie is surprisingly sympathetic and realistic in its depictions of shyness, which is only one of several factors contributing to the main character’s romantic difficulties. One of the central jokes is that the male supporting characters are just as dysfunctional in their relationships, even if they have more sexual success, and the mockery is hence pretty egalitarian. The major flaw in this movie comes from the sappier elements, which become more and more prominent towards the end, leading to a finale that played according to genre conventions—but the genre was romantic comedy, when I thought I was watching a sex farce. Maybe that was to attract a broader audience, I don’t know.
The Life and Times: Suburban Hymns: I get kind of a late 90’s alt-rock feel from this album. Lots of distortion and incomprehensible vocals. This is the kind of album that works well in the background, the tracks blend together and individual songs don’t call much attention to themselves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but makes it a bit frustrating to review when I’ve owned the CD for two weeks and still can’t tell the songs apart. Selecting somewhat randomly, I’m uploading “Coat of Arms”.
I need to get my hands on this track-by-track remix of Bloc Party’s debut album Silent Alarm. Check out that list of contributors…

Divine wrath, illustrated with cloud pictures

Via Pandagon: I pretty much expected something like this, although I had no idea it would be so over-the-top crazy:

The image of the hurricane above with its eye already ashore at 12:32 PM Monday, August 29 looks like a fetus (unborn human baby) facing to the left (west) in the womb, in the early weeks of gestation (approx. 6 weeks). Even the orange color of the image is reminiscent of a commonly used pro-life picture of early prenatal development (see sign with picture of 8-week pre-born human child below). In this picture, and in another picture in today’s on-line edition of USA Today*, this hurricane looks like an unborn human child.
Louisiana has 10 child-murder-by-abortion centers – FIVE are in New Orleans (‘Find an Abortion Clinic [sic]’)
Baby-murder state # 1 – California (125 abortion centers) – land of earthquakes, forest fires, and mudslides
Baby-murder state # 2 – New York (78 abortion centers) – 9-11 Ground Zero
Baby-murder state # 3 – Florida (73 abortion centers) – Hurricanes Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne in 2004; and now, Hurricane Katrina in 2005
God’s message: REPENT AMERICA !

If we still don’t get it, presumably God will make the next hurricane actually spell out the letters “REPENT AMERICA”. Kind of like really destructive skywriting. I can’t wait to see what these dudes say when the Big One wrecks San Francisco and/or Berkeley. Um, assuming I survive.

In which I decline a meme, verbosely.

There’s this meme going around where you go here, type the year of your high school graduation into the search box, and get the list of top 100 songs that year. Then you indicate the ones you liked and hated. Given music tastes of the other bloggers I read, this meme tends to devolve into a claim that the list in question is a milestone in unbelievably crappy music. My only participation here is to note that 1997 distinguishes itself with an especially bad top ten, and when #11 and #12 are included you pretty much have songs that are on heavy rotation in hell itself. After that the list is mostly just mediocre with some actual good songs mixed in.
Anyway, it seems like the three categories (liked/hated/don’t care) in most implementations of this meme are insufficient. Were I to mark up the entire list (which I’m not, because I’m lazy busy! At work!), I would use the following four classifications:

  1. Songs I haven’t heard, don’t care about, or don’t recognize from the title/artist.

  2. Songs I might have liked, except everyone was playing them my freshman year at college and I got really sick of them.
  3. Songs I dislike.
  4. Songs I hate with the intensity of a thousand burning suns. A single strikethrough line is insufficient for something like R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly;” I need something like a mushroom cloud I can superimpose on the list.

I can’t argue that 1997 was the worst year, as Scott Lemieux’s list from 1990 clearly trumps mine in awfulness. I did start to wonder if every year would, taken on its own, look especially bad, since we forget about all these mass-produced songs that are ubiquitous for a few months and then (thankfully) vanish forever. To prove this theory, I decided to look at a year from an era that supposedly produced a lot of great music: The Top 100 Songs of 1968.
Wow. Those… those are actually pretty good. Damn.

“Yawning gaps in basic knowledge”

See those dents in my desk? There’s one for every time I see the results of a survey like this:

Dr. Miller’s data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

Excuse me a minute… [bangs head on desk, labels new dent “2005”]
I should figure out what I, as a scientist, can/should be doing to improve basic science education. At least no one is trying to argue that science classes should “teach both sides” of the Earth-Sun orbit controversy… on the other hand, Biblical literalism demands a geocentric system just as much as it demands creationism, and the current Pope considers the Inquisition’s persecution of Galileo to have been “reasonable and just”, so maybe this is next once Intelligent Design gets established.

ID and Kuhn

The other day I saw a commenter at Brad DeLong’s blog assert that Intelligent Design was a scientific revolution of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn. Once I stopped laughing, I began to wonder whether this was a common belief among ID proponents.
I guess it is, since Matt Yglesias devotes a long post to rebutting this notion. I usually enjoy Yglesias’ more philosophy-oriented posts, and this one is particularly good. Key paragraph:

Similarly, the brute fact that ID has a lot of problems doesn’t refute it. The problem with ID is that, unlike real revolutionary science, it doesn’t lead to any normal science. There are no ID-based research programs. Nothing has never been accomplished by applying the ID paradigm to a question in biology. All ID’s scholarly (and “scholarly”) proponents do is try to offer half-assed refutations of Darwin. You can quote Kuhn all you like, but you’re not doing revolutionary science unless your purported revolution leads to some normal science. Intelligent design does not.

Coincidentally, I am eating their research subject as I post this.

In high school physics class we watched a video about Richard Feynman, and in one scene he talked about a problem that occurred to him while cooking dinner with a friend one evening. The problem: why do strands of dried spaghetti break into more than two pieces? He and his friend became utterly distracted from their dinner, instead spending the evening snapping spaghetti in half and trying to understand the process. They never solved the problem.
It was reported last week that the answer has been found. It turns out that the initial break in the spaghetti sends waves down the strand, and these waves increase the stress as they pass by, creating additional breaks.
Supposedly this is actually useful:

The team points out that the motivation for this research extends far beyond the kitchen. The brittle steel struts in skyscrapers, buildings and bridges can fragment by similar mechanisms, so this research can have practical implications in helping to make structures safer.
“The physical process of fragmentation is relevant to many areas of science and technology,” they declare.

The experimenters’ website is here (with video!). Their paper came out today in PRL; it can be found here.

That popping sound was my lingering respect for McCain finally evaporating.

Hey, remember in 2000 when John McCain said this:

We are the party of Ronald Reagan not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln not Bob Jones.

He’s changed his mind.

On Tuesday, though, he sided with the president on two issues that have made headlines recently: teaching intelligent design in schools and Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother who has come to personify the anti-war movement.
McCain told the Star that, like Bush, he believes “all points of view” should be available to students studying the origins of mankind.

I had thought that McCain was one of the better Republicans on science issues, but I guess he, too, has decided he wants to live in the 1800’s. To welcome you to Team Ignorance, your complimentary Leeches ‘N Bloodletting Home Medical Kit will be arriving shortly! (Via Pharyngula.)