December 13, 2008

Cthulhu's Bar and Grill for the Holidays

Just in time for the holidays, I'm happy to announce the grand opening of Cthulhu's Bar & Grill! It's a one-stop shop for vaguely Cthulhu-related t-shirts and chachkes and such.

Nothing says winter quite like a green, octopus-headed cocktail waitress. Face it.

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December 10, 2008

A Different Kind of White House in Marianna, FL

When I lived in Florida, I went to a town called Marianna a few times. My most recent trip there was just this past September when I returned to the state to collect beetle specimens. Marianna has a dark past in a number of ways and is, to this day, a bit out of step with modern thinking. Every so often, something beyond distasteful bubbles out of the place. The following, a story that sounds like the backdrop for a horror movie, is one of them.

'White House Boys' win inquiry of reform school graves

By Rich Phillips

Four men, now in their 60s, met over the Internet, shared stories about the darkest days of their pasts and spurred an investigation into 32 graves at a reform school.

Roger Kiser, Michael McCarthy, Bryant Middleton and Dick Colon talked about whippings and beatings and other boys who disappeared. They discussed the 32 crosses marking the graves of persons unknown on the grounds of the former Florida Industrial School for Boys.

They called their group the White House Boys, taking the name from the single story concrete building where, they say, boys were beaten and tortured decades ago.

The White House Boys believe that delinquents and orphans sent to the concrete White House were killed and their remains buried to cover up the brutality.

This week, the four called on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to investigate. Crist agreed and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to search for remains, identify them and determine whether any crimes were committed.

The department agreed to look into the mystery of the 32 crosses on the grounds of what is now known as the Dozier School, in Marianna, just south of the Alabama state line...

...A guard confronted the other boy and began to treat him roughly, Middleton said.

"He dragged him to the administration building, and I never saw him again. He never came back to work or to the cottage," Middleton said. "He literally disappeared off the face of the Earth..."

Colon said he remembers entering the laundry one day, and his life has never been the same.

Inside a large tumble dryer was a black teen.

The White House boys, who are all white, said black kids at the school were beaten even more savagely than white kids...
While it's worth keeping in mind that these are only allegations and the 32 anonymous metal crosses may or may not turn out to mark graves where human remains were interred, episodes like this weren't unknown from the time and geography.

If it turns out to be true, it's still unlikely that anyone will ever face charges for the murders. It's been 50 years or more; most if not all of the alleged culprits are likely dead themselves by now. Even if they weren't, I would imagine it would be nearly impossible to tie any surviving employees to a particular crime by now in a conclusive manner.

The image of a teenager in a dryer and the story of one inmate who simply disappeared... someone needs to interview the four survivors mentioned in the story for a horror movie. What a nightmare.

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Greater Worcester Humanists Meeting: Big News

Last night, LL and I went to the Greater Worcester Humanists holiday pot luck and yankee swap. There was a big announcement to start things off. Our chapter's president, David Niose, has been named president of the American Humanist Association. He'll begin serving his two-year term in January, moving up from his current position as treasurer of the organization.

It was also reported that due to the ongoing growth and success of we Greater Worcester Humanists, Cambridge-based Humanist Association of Massachusetts will be changing its name to Greater Boston Humanists to better convey their geographic extent. Big news; GWH is on the map all over the country.

The yankee swap was a hoot. The gifts ranged from the intellectual to the mundane to the hilarious. The most-swapped-for items were a Top 10 reasons why beer is better than Jesus pint glass and the Evolving Darwin play set. LL picked this one from the present pile but it got swapped away for a set of antlers. I was luckier; I traded a Disappearing Civil Liberties mug for a Holy Toast! Virgin Mary bread stamper. I can't wait to try it out.

The present I brought was an assortment of three books: Gould's The Panda's Thumb, Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things, and The Good Spell Book: Love Charms, Magical Cures, and Other Practical Sorcery. What good is Shermer's book without some weird beliefs as a companion volume, after all? As luck would have it, the person who wound up with the books was a woman whom I think was at least in her early 80's. I told her that I hoped the love spells would work for her. If she shows up at the next meeting with a 20 year-old boy toy, we'll all know why.

Since the Evolving Darwin Play Set seems to be the hot Humanist toy this year, I thought it would be only fair to "teach the controversy." I've thus intelligently designed an analogous toy for Creationists, the Creationist Darwin Play Set. Here's my prototype:

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December 09, 2008

Larry Craig: Another Appeal Denied

I noted yesterday that the appeal by former Florida state representative Bob Allen had been denied. While Allen's pretty well known in some circles, few cases of conservative politicians soliciting sex in men's bathrooms had garnered as much interest as that of Idaho Senator Larry Craig (R). As you may recall, Craig entered a guilty plea after his infamous "wide stance" solicitation in a bathroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and then said that he'd resign only to later not only fail to step down but to file an appeal seeking to retract his guilty plea.

A decision has just come down in the last couple of hours and, like Bob Allen, Larry Craig's appeal has also been denied. The full decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals has been released, but the gist of it is that Craig's guilty plea will stand because he lacks any legal basis on which to retract it. Or, if you prefer your legalese undiluted:

To be valid, a guilty plea must be "accurate, voluntary and intelligent." State v. Ecker, 524 N.W.2d 712, 716 (Minn. 1994). For a plea to be accurate, it must be supported by a proper factual basis. Id. Appellant argues that the plea was not accurate because it lacked a full record of supporting facts.

Appellant did not appear in person when his plea was filed, but a guilty plea is not invalid merely because it is entered in writing. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 15.03, subd. 2...

But, because appellant did not appear, the written plea petition was the only account given to the district court of appellant's version of the offense. The relevant paragraph of the petition states:

"I am pleading guilty to the charge of Disorderly Conduct as alleged because on June 11, 2007, within the property or jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, Hennepin County, specifically in the restroom of the North Star Crossing in the Lindbergh Terminal, I did the following: Engaged in conduct which I knew or should have known tended to arouse alarm or resentment or [sic] others, which conduct was physical (versus verbal) in nature."

...Appellant argues that because the paragraph lacks a description of the alleged conduct it fails to provide an adequate factual basis.

Appellant's argument is unsupported by the record. A verbatim record was required to be made of the August 8, 2007 proceeding at which appellant's petition to plead guilty was filed and he was sentenced. See Minn. R. Crim. P. 27.03, subd. 6(A) (requiring verbatim record of sentencing proceedings). A defendant is responsible for providing a record adequate for appellate review, including a transcript if necessary. See State v. Anderson, 351 N.W.2d 1, 2 (Minn. 1984) (holding claim of trial error could not be reviewed without transcript). Appellant did not order a transcript of the August 8, 2007 proceeding...


And it goes on from there, as legalese does, to set out why Craig's appeal simply doesn't hold water.

Larry Craig is still guilty by his own admission. More importantly than the legal offense he committed, though, is his hypocrisy in the whole matter, one that he maintains to this day. Craig, like Bob Allen, could remedy this by simply coming out of the closet and explaining his errors while maintaining that gay men can legitimately hold conservative political views and ideas that don't extend to curtailing the rights of other gay men in order to bolster their standing amongst the homophobic segments of society. He could point out that he served as a Senator in ways that otherwise represented his constituency and that his homosexuality, like all homosexuality, is at most a coincidence that, absent social stigmatization, has zero bearing on the fitness of an individual to serve in office, vote, serve in the military, or otherwise enjoy the rights and fulfill the responsibilities incumbent upon all of us as members of American society, no matter whom we might prefer to twiddle our dangly bits now and again.

Will he continue in his hypocrisy, though? I'd bet on it.

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Obama Lights Up: Ruminations from a Fellow Addict

Will the stunning revelations never cease? When pressed during an interview with Tom Brokaw, Barack Obama waffled a bit before admitting that he hasn't been entirely successful in kicking his nicotine addiction. He still lights up from time to time, but he's promised that he won't do it in the White House.

During his interview with NBC News' Tom Brokaw over the weekend, President-elect Barack Obama acknowledged that he has had some trouble kicking his smoking habit but promised that the White House would remain a smoke-free zone.

"There are times where I've fallen off the wagon," Mr. Obama said when asked if he had stopped smoking...


Let's get the obvious out of the way. Smoking is bad. Kids, don't try this at home. Everybody tells you this stuff, so why should I repeat it? In most ways, this item is a non-story. The last eight years of radical misgovernment have left many aspects of our nation's well-being in smoking ruins. A smoking Executive? If he can pull America out of its historical nosedive and make repairs to our economy, infrastructure, international relations and commitment to education, I don't care if Obama likes to pound nails up his nose while singing the theme song from Bonanza at 3:00 in the morning in drag. Really, really bad drag. Get over yourselves, snap snap.

So while I'll readily admit that a smoking president might not be the greatest thing in the world, it's far from the worst. I say this as a smoker myself, and one who, like Obama, has made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to kick the habit. In light of that, my first bit of advice to the President-Elect, were he listening, would be to stay away from Chantix. It did weird things to me when I tried it, and I got my hands on a prescription the week after it went on the market. Chantix impaired my memory and caused me to have multiple episodes of sleep paralysis that left me an utter wreck after about two months on the stuff. We can't risk having that in a president. All things considered, he's better off sneaking out to the Rose Garden for the occasional smokebreak... and so are we if he stays away from varenicline.

So, even though I am painfully aware of how addictive cigarettes are and have a pretty thorough understanding of how and why they're so bad for you, I'm going to play the optimist here and speak about the upside of this nasty habit. Yes, there is one and no, it's not worth the health consequences and no, this isn't an endorsement of inhaling particulate matter. Still, the guy already smokes. Let's think about the lung being half-full for a moment.

In one way, I've benefited from being a smoker. Because we smokers are banned from indulging our habit indoors in the workplace (and rightfully so), we have to step away from whatever else we're doing every so often in order to pump a little sweet, sweet nicocrackatein into our bodies in order to be able to maintain our concentration and evenness of mood. It's boring to do that by ourselves, so smokers naturally form little cliques that take breaks together. From experience, I can say that these little sessions have allowed me the opportunity to learn about all sorts of things — useful things — from other smoking colleagues. This is as true now that I am studying biology as it was when I was a headhunter. It's hard to get time from people to simply learn from them what they know; everyone's days are pretty full. Those smokebreaks make it happen. I've learned about everything from inside information regarding the executive teams at high-tech startups to the problems with designing primers for insect mitochondrial genes from fellow junkies.

Might Obama reap the same sort of benefit from amongst the negative consequences of his unhealthful indulgence? He might. You know, he might not be the only world leader, or staffer employed by a world leader, who smokes. He might not be alone out there on the White House steps puffing away in the dead of winter. Who knows what breakthroughs might come when he's joined out there by some government official from another country? What inside knowledge might he gain from sharing a few tar-tawnied moments with a staffer traveling with the Prime Minister of Brunei? Scorn if you must, but these smoke session are intimate in a way that the inside of an office or conference room can never hope to be. You're removed from that environment. You're outside. Maybe you're cold and feeling a little alienated. It's natural that such a situation breeds candor amongst those involved. Obama's health might suffer just a little, but we as a nation might just come out ahead because of it.

I have another common trait I share with Obama, or at least I like to think so. Both he and I are highly educated and possessed of a level of intelligence markedly higher than the outgoing president. The latter is, in and of itself, not saying very much, I know. Still, from my own experience I can state that my own awareness of both the costs of smoking and my inability (so far) to quit is a rather humbling thing. It reminds me of my own frailties and it probably does the same for Obama. Such weaknesses are intrinsically humiliating things to anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness, and Obama's waffling in the interview likely demonstrates that he has experienced a similar awareness and its consequent humbling effect. I've long maintained that anyone narcissistic enough to think they ought to be president probably shouldn't be elected, so it's a hopeful sign that Obama gets this periodic thump upside his head with the two-by-four of an unresolved character flaw. He's aware that he's not perfect, that he can do wrong by himself. He's not likely to wave that silly banner of divine right and council like some Chief Executives we know. I'm aware that plenty of people will disagree with this notion that I prefer my humans both flawed and aware of their flaws. Lots of folks think that a president should be a spiritual leader of some sort, a shining paragon of white knight rectitude. Me, I like to see that the guy knows there are some chinks in the armor. It's hard to be humble when one thinks of themselves as perfected. Besides, as embarrassing a habit as smoking is, is it really any more humiliating than

I think not.

Now, look, the fact that Obama is going to sneak off for a cigarette when the pressure is on every so often is not something to be celebrated. Still, presidents have done a lot worse in recent memory. I'll take smoke-n-choke over shock-n-awe any day of the week.

So, Mr. President-Elect, smoke 'em if you got 'em until you don't need to get 'em anymore. From one smokin' schmuck to another, you have my sympathy on this. It must hurt to have the press and the naysayers jabbing their fingers into this bullet wound in your self-image. I'm sure Michelle gives you as much grief over the habit as LL gives me; I also can't smoke in my home or in my office and I'm quite acquainted with the winter winds of New England as one result. Still, maybe you can leverage this for our benefit somehow. Whatever it takes. If I'm ever in DC and see you out having a dose of the bad stuff, I'd love to come and join in your act of enlightened self-destruction. I've got a few thoughts on research funding, and so do you. We can talk about it while we die just a little.

See? Smokers' optimism.

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December 08, 2008

Bob Allen Update: Gay Conservative Racist's Appeal Denied

It's been more than a year since we caught up with Bob Allen. You might remember old "Twenty Dollar Bob." He used to be a Florida state representative and outspoken right-wing voice in the state. Then he got busted.

On July 11, 2007, Allen was arrested in a men's bathroom for soliciting an undercover cop for sex. During his interrogation, Allen came up with a rather creative excuse for his... errr... activities:

Audiotape of a July 11 police-station conversation between Allen and Titusville Assistant Chief John Lau reveals Allen's excuse for discussing sex with an undercover officer at a park men's room.

He felt intimidated by the "stocky black guy" in the restroom (whom he didn't know was an officer) and several other "stocky black guys" sitting in the park (also, apparently, plain-clothes officers) and thought he was about to be robbed, Allen said. The officer first mentioned oral sex for money, and Allen simply went along with discussing the transaction to avoid becoming a "statistic," he said...

At one point, Allen asked [arresting officer] Kavanaugh: "You're not a cop, are you?" Kavanaugh replied, "Nah. If I was a cop, why would I be hanging around here?"
Allen's "I'm so scared of black men that I offer them money to allow me to perform oral sex on them" defense didn't work out very well (big surprise!). On November 10, 2007, Allen was convicted by a jury of solicitation and sentenced to six months' probation.

Today comes word that Bob Allen's latest appeal has been denied. Frankly, I don't think Bob Allen has any appeal to much of anyone these days, so denying it seems a bit redundant.

Bob really ought to come out of the closet about now and just admit to himself and everyone else that he's gay. The racism thing could definitely use some working on, but if he's honest about both things then he'll be the better man for it. Besides, it's not like there's much risk of anyone thinking less of him than they already do. Apologizing and remedying the hypocrisy can only do good.

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Refrigerator Door: My Niece Mails Me a Masterpiece

My niece is a consummate artist, and her talents extend far beyond hand-turkeys. She mailed me a drawing that arrived today, and it's a masterpiece!

As I am not myself an artist nor even an art critic, I don't know what it all means. Still... look at that composition! Those confident lines! That bold use of color palette! I'm telling you, the kid is the next Picasso.

Thoughtful child that she is, she also sent a note along with her artwork that undoubtedly would explain to me what it's all about. If only I were smart enough to understand...

That, I'm sure, makes it all crystal-clear.

On most days, I regret retrieving the mail. Aside from the occasional DVD from Netflix, mail is never good news. I live on email, so whatever comes in the post is either a bill or junk. It's a nice surprise to get something like this in that otherwise bleak box!

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PCR: Please Chug Rapidly

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The South Park Paradox: God vs. Santa

A holiday seasoned press release appears in today's endless stream of EurekAlerts. You have to read it all the way to the end to get to the punchline, though. I'll summarize a bit to save time.

Researchers ran across a study about children of ages 7-13's belief in Santa Claus in 1896. That same study was repeated in 1979. The study was conducted again in 2000. The trend found was that more parents thought it a good idea to perpetuate the Santa Claus myth in 2000 than in the previous years. 54% did so in 1896, and that had risen to 80% in the 2000 sudy. Children were more likely to figure out on their own that Santa is fictional in more recent times than they used to be; only 25% of parents finally broke the news of Santa's non-existence to their children in 1896. That number had reached 40% by 1979.

So 75% of 7-13 year olds in 1896, and 60% of those in 1979, figured it out on their own or found out from another child who had somehow learned the truth. The conclusion: kids are pretty good at looking at a story, looking at the real world, and figuring out which one they should believe over the other when the facts don't add up.

The punchline?

...If children attribute the same supernatural powers to Santa as they do to God, why do they stop believing in Santa, but continue their belief in God?


I don't know if the press release had intended to be funny, but I couldn't help a little chuckle of my own.

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Free Science Publication: Evolution Education and Outreach

The latest issue (Volume 1, Issue 4) of the publication Evolution: Education and Outreach has been made available free of charge to anyone who wants it. This link will take you to the main page, at which point you'll be able to navigate through the table of contents.

This issue is devoted entirely to that favorite Creationist shibboleth, the evolution of the eye. Much good stuff awaits those who seize the opportunity to download, download, download.

A hyphal tip to Genomicron for news of this great freebie.

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