Monday, May 31, 2010

Book review: The Unlikely Disciple

Kevin Roose is the son of Quakers from Oberlin, Ohio, and was a student at Brown University when he decided to spend a semester at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. While his friends traveled to Europe for study abroad semesters, Roose decided try someplace more exotic still. He would go undercover at "America's Holiest University" and then write a book about it. So far outside his experience was the world of evangelical Protestantism, that his family and friends expressed the sort of fear you would expect if he were departing for Mogadishu.

Roose was well-advised to present himself as a newly-minted Christian, as evangelical culture was every bit as alien as he expected and it’s not easy to fake. Despite numerous faux pas, he managed to deflect suspicion just well enough to evade exposure. His unfamiliarity with the Bible not only threatened to give him away, but it made his Theology and Old Testament Studies classes surprisingly difficult.

Theology and Old Testament Studies had some genuine academic content, but other classes were pure religious, cultural, and political propaganda. His History of Life class was nothing but a recitation of Young Earth Creationism claims, delivered by a Dr. James Dekker who sported a white lab coat and pointedly announced, “I am a real scientist!” (Roose says that Dekker has done some work in neuroscience, but my Web of Science search didn’t turn up any hits for him) Exams include questions such as “True or False: Evolution can be proven using the scientific method.”*

The GNED II course was unvarnished indoctrination into the right wing political opinion. About this, Roose says, “At first, I couldn’t believe Liberty actually had a course that teaches students how to condemn homosexuals and combat feminism. GNED II is the class a liberal secularist would invent if he were trying to satirize a Liberty education. It’s as if Brown offered a course called Godless Hedonism 101: How to Smoke Pot, Cross-dress, and Lose Your Morals. But unlike that course, GNED II actually exists.”

Roose is closer to the mark here than he probably realizes. Many evangelicals do rather believe that secular university professors creates course content by thinking, "What would seduce students away from the Church? Let's teach that!" Just as many conservatives believe that Fox News is no more biased than the "mainstream media," they believe that relentless propaganda is merely a mirror image of secular education. This is, of course,yet another manifestation of the Paranoid Style.

"The Liberty Way" is all about rules**, covering everything a religious conservative worries about: no visitation to opposite sex dorms, no kissing, and no hugging for more than three seconds. Holding hands is okay, but alcohol and R-rated movies are forbidden. No shorts, no jeans with holes, for men no shirts without collars (you have to have a collar, so they can tell your hair isn’t long enough to touch it). Rooms are inspected three times a week and you cannot spend the night off campus without written permission. Reprimands, and even monetary fines, keep the miscreants in check. Roose gets fined for falling asleep during church.

It may sound like prison, but for devout students it's an effective path to true liberty (thus the school's name). It's the Fifth Freedom, the Freedom from Distraction - here in the cocoon, you can concentrate on God instead of sex and parties. That cocoon is so essential to maintaining the "Liberty Way" that some students rather dread the summer break, when they have to leave the cocoon and fend for themselves, with only God to help them. "I'm scare I won't be able to keep this up over the summer," one friend confides to him, afraid he won't be able to maintain his level of religious commitment when he's no longer subject to so much social control.

That inability to succeed with only God's help is a contradiction at the heart of evangelical religion that I've never been able to get over, and one that Liberty demonstrates in spades: faith is maintained almost entirely by social pressure, and very little by the power of God himself. Tell an evangelical minister that you don't need the church because you commune directly with God and his first order of business will be to convince you that your spiritual journey requires a professional navigator and that he's there to plot your course for you.

Nowhere is this more evident than with that intractable problem, masturbation (and its evil ally, pornography). There are counselors on campus to help students fight the temptation, and there are strategies for resisting temptation. Those strategies consist mainly of making sure you're never entirely alone and you might get found out if you misbehave. Turn your bed so that your computer screen faces the door, and leave that door open to all passersby. Some kids even go so far as to sign up with a service called X3Watch, which sends a copy of your browsing history to designated supervisors - their parents, maybe, or more often their pastor. It's not so much self-control as it is a commitment to eternal supervision.

That need for human surveillance strikes me as odd, because you're supposed to believe that God is watching you every minute. Somehow, the certainty of divine observation has almost no force at all compared to even a slight possibility that someone you know will see you misbehaving. The internet has exposed this dirty little secret: upstanding Christians, even many pastors, who would never risk being seen entering a porn shop can't keep their browsers off the porn sites. How deeply can even a pastor believe in an omnipresent God if God's presence has less influence over his behavior than the possibility that his wife or kids could come home at any moment?

As Roose self-reports, the bubble was so enveloping that he became partially assimilated himself. He experienced the contagion of religious ecstasy. He began to enjoy church for the camaraderie, as a gathering of his friends, but kept enough awareness to realize that the camaraderie was the bait and religion the hook. Come for the friendship, absorb the dogma. It's not that he started to believe in fundamentalist religion - but he began to forget how ludicrous it all is.

Roose writes surprisingly well (he was only 19 at the time) and, more importantly, learns genuine affection and respect for most of his dorm mates. In many respects, they’re not much different from other college students – except they may be even more sex-obsessed than kids who occasionally get a little action. Their attitudes toward religion, the Bible, and Jesus don’t offend him, but the relentless homophobia does. He finds himself quietly enraged at the way his dorm mates casually throw out the epithet “faggot.” But he also becomes numb to it, and worries that his outrage may be diminishing (Roose has gay relatives, so it's a particularly salient issue).

He finds some reassurance in his dormmates' reaction to Henry, an older student who is exceptionally homophobic and patriarchal. At one point Henry angrily announces, "If my wife ever cuts her hair, she'll learn about submission to her husband." Eventually, Henry acquires the delusion that the majority of his dormmates, and Roose in particular, are gay, and seems almost on the verge of violence. Roose is unsure what to make of Henry. On the one hand, it's a useful reminder that however unserious his friends might seem when they throw out the word "faggot," Christian homophobia is real, intense, and its effects on real people is no joke. On the other hand, no one likes Henry, because even at Liberty University, being a Christian is not as important as just not being an asshole. Dogma does not entirely override the instinct for human decency.

Roose has two reasons for being hopeful about the graduates of Liberty University. One is that he has met a few students who are open-minded, questioning, and critical of the regimentation they experienced at Liberty. He hopes that exposure to the wide world will undo some of the spell that Liberty has woven around them. Second, to be a legitimate university, Liberty has to hire faculty with Ph.D.'s, and some of these long to be doing the sort of work that a real university, not a brainwashing facility, does. They want to be real professors and in time they might gain some influence in that direction.

In short, Roose has faith in the temptations of conventionality in shaping religion and religious people. I'm not sure he knows enough religious history to appreciate how strong that tendency is, but it's a well-founded hope. As much as religious leaders like to imagine themselves standing up to the world, in the end they can only maintain their position by riding the cultural current. One of Roose's friends, who has given extra study to Jerry Falwell, concludes bitterly that while Falwell had toned down his racism in his latter years, he probably hadn't changed his attitudes - he just knew he couldn't remain respectable saying what he really believed.

But it cuts both ways. Religion will conform to the cultural norms it no longer has any hope of undoing. But his friends may also become more conventional, and less open-minded, as they leave youth and approach middle age. Much depends on what passes for conventionality in 10-15 years; let's hope it's a less fearful and authoritarian style than is conventional among the people who support Liberty University nowadays.

* Roose provides a sample quiz at his web site. I got a perfect score; how 'bout you?

** Apparently Liberty doesn't want just anyone to know what those rules are - you need a password just to read the Code of Conduct at their website!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday photo

Texas Madrone, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas. March 2003.

Here's a nice description of this beautiful tree. I was a bit surprised to discover that a Google Image search on "Texas Madrone" turns up the Flickr copy of this photograph on the first page (not that I would ever become vain about such a thing - certainly not).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

World's first mobile phone

This is remarkably cool: a demonstration of the world's first (AFAWK) mobile phone, in 1922:

I was surprised to see the fire hydrant mentioned as evidence of an American city. British cities don't/didn't have fire hydrants?


Monday, May 24, 2010

Mark Twain speaks!

Mark Twain's autobiography, which he instructed should remain unpublished until 100 years after his death, is coming out this fall! It should be worth the wait.

Why the long delay? Apparently, Twain spoke/wrote rather freely about certain people. Also, he knew some of his views would be unpopular:

"He had doubts about God, and in the autobiography, he questions the imperial mission of the US in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He's also critical of [Theodore] Roosevelt, and takes the view that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Twain also disliked sending Christian missionaries to Africa. He said they had enough business to be getting on with at home: with lynching going on in the South, he thought they should try to convert the heathens down there."

If he thought that the US of a hundred years later would agree with him, he badly miscalculated. If he thought we would need to hear this just as much now as in his day, he was remarkably prescient.

(Via Record and Archives in the News)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What I expect tonight from "Lost"

"I haz tide up the looz thredz"

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday photo

Mt. St. Helens, Washington. April 2000.

By now, you should have been reminded that Tuesday was the 30th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption, the best-studied volcanic eruption in history. If only the people of Pompeii had known what we know now, they ... probably would have died anyway. After all, you have to live somewhere. Still, this is an incredible natural laboratory for studying how volcanoes work.

It's also an incredible natural laboratory for understanding how nature responds to highly destructive events, the sort of laboratory Yellowstone became after its infamous forest fires eight years later. The gradual restoration after a scene of intense destruction is almost unbelievable - you really do have to observe it before you start believing. Even though you know that those beautiful mountains of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Ranier, and Mt. Hood have all done this before, it's easy to doubt that St. Helens will ever look so good again. Likewise, even though the mountain forests have done without Smokey Bear for eons and were beautiful when humans arrived, many Yellowstone-lovers couldn't come to grips with the undeniable fact that it's all happened before, will happen again, and the ugly phase isn't forever.

The laissez-faire approach to nature management hasn't been with us for very long, and has often been contested -- especially after 1988, when the National Park Service was reviled for fiddling while Yellowstone burned.* And the hands-off approach was certainly never the policy of the US Forest Service, which from the beginning has managed its forests for timber production. That's why I found my visit to Mt. St. Helens such an amusing surprise: the USFS had got religion, so to speak. The signs and exhibits explaining why nature should be allowed to take its course were relentless, and far more heavy-handed and didactic than anything I've ever seen from the NPS (and I've been in a lot of national parks). "More Catholic than the Pope," as the saying goes. Here I was, a true believer already, and I felt like a few dozen propaganda-bludgers had been let loose on me. Ah, they're so earnest when they're new to the faith.

Here's a time lapse video showing how much vegetation has returned in the last 30 years. Especially watch how the huge mudflow in the upper left disappears from view:

* To be fair, the NPS abandoned that policy in mid-summer, before the peak fire season even arrived, and fought the fires aggressively. Also to be fair, the Silver Gate and Cooke City people were angry because the fires threatened their towns. A 1989 review of the natural fire regime policy resulted in only one criticism - the NPS needed to allow a larger buffer zone near the borders and be more cautious about protecting the gateway communities.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Expert statistician

From an Amazon review of The Unlikely Disciple, an account of a student who spent an undercover semester at Liberty University*:

He finds "research" that backs up his incredible claims against Christianity (saying that 51% of the people in America have never met an evangelical Christian, which ignores the dozens of other polls that show the opposite)

Y'know, I could almost believe them both ....

* I plan to post a review of the book this weekend

Secret Secret Service Museum

Secret Service guards its museum closely

It is not listed in visitor guides, and if any camera-toting tourists in shorts and sneakers should show up, they wouldn't get past the front door or the reception desk behind the bullet-proof glass.

This is the headquarters of the Secret Service, the federal law enforcement agency charged with protecting the life of the president and battling financial fraud.

Where the author says "archivist," he probably means "curator." There's a difference.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Can you own your creative process?

This is cute: Paramount Pictures is now claiming the copyright to video they didn't produce. A guy came across the shooting of Transformers 3 and used his iPhone to record a few minutes of the action. When he posted it to YouTube, Paramaount issued a takedown notice, claiming violation of copyright. Here are a few seconds of the video:

My question, were I a lawyer, would be: "Exactly what is Paramount claiming to have copyrighted?" It can't be the video, because they didn't create it. It can't be the Transformers 3 movie, because Mr. Brown hasn't reproduced any of their film. It can't be the story, because (even granting the dubious premise that Transformers 3 will have a plot) this video hardly reveals the story (we do learn that an automobile will be tossed in the air - in other spoilers, Bruce Willis will fire a gun during Die Hard 37).

If you are creating a copyrightable work, can you really claim copyright over every activity related to its production? If someone were to post a detailed, written description of what he'd seen from his window, would Paramount be able to claim a copyright over that description? That seems far-fetched, as it's obviously fair use commentary or reporting. It seems like the same sort of situation, when you produce a video description of the creative act - which is not a reproduction of the artistic work itself. If you don't want anyone to learn anything ahead of time, you might try to film on a closed location. But this copyright claim looks rather dubious and I'm glad the creator is resisting the takedown notice.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sexy illusion

This is the most unusual visual illusion I've ever seen, because it is reportedly age-sensitive. Children see dolphins; I don't.

Healthy music

At History News Network, Iliana AlanĂ­s notes this about the Texas SBOE's new education curriculum:

Not even music was immune to the chopping block. The Board removed hip-hop and Tejano music and replaced them with country music, justifying it as the genre for family values.

I'm guessing they had David Allan Coe in mind.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday photo

Clouds, Grand Canyon National Park. February 1989.

The Grand Canyon is not a glacial artifact, but if it were, it might have looked like this once upon a time. Maybe not so fluffy, but there would have been ice and snow piled thousands of feet deep high. But there has never been a glacier in the Grand Canyon, either in the deep past or when I lived there. What we're looking at here is a low bank of clouds.

This particular event was caused by a temperature inversion, when the air near the surface - normally warmer than the air above it - cools down until it's colder than the layer above. When that happens, the higher and warmer air acts like a lid, preventing the surface air from rising and remixing as it normally would. Here, that warm layer lay below the rim of the canyon, leaving the clouds nowhere to go. From above, you could easily imagine that the clouds filled the canyon all the way from the bottom, that wasn't the case: it only took a short hike down the trail to come out into clear air again.

Temperature inversions in populated areas can pose a serious health hazard, as they trap air pollutants near the ground. They frequently occur in the winter, when the long nights allow greater cooling, and in the mid-20th Century, when every home ran its own coal furnace, the effects could be horrific. In 1952, an inversion settled over London for five days, trapping their smog at ground level. When it finally lifted, as many as four thousand people had died, most of them probably with preexisting respiratory problems.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hawaii says "get lost" to birthers

Here's a cute line from Joseph Farah at WorldNetDaily, who says he "would like to see Barack Obama's actual, long-form birth certificate as the first step toward determining if he is constitutionally eligible to serve as president. "

The first step? Not only is the official state record, attested by the State Health Director and the registrar of vital statistics, not sufficient to establish Obama's nativity, but even that fabled long-form birth certificate would still not settle the issue! I have no idea what further evidence Farah would require; he probably doesn't know, either, but figures he's bright enough to think up something quickly. It's a Sisyphean task, anyway. Presenting evidence to a birther is like speaking louder when someone doesn't understand English.

So, I'm completely sympathetic to the poor employees of the Hawaii Health Department who have to deal with persistent requests for Obama's birth certificate. Hawaii has just passed a special law that allows those harassed civil servants to ignore any repeat requests for the birth certificate and my first impulse was to agree. After all, the birther movement is a grade-A piece of lunacy and doesn't deserve a soft answer, especially when the soft answer only increases the wrath.

But on second thought, no, Hawaii should not have done this. Getting 10-20 emails a week is annoying, to be sure, but that level of inquiry shouldn't impede the real work all that much. Can't it be treated like a FAQ? Set up a web page with a canned response and respond to each email by pasting in the link. Surely that's as quick as searching through your email to confirm that you've heard from this particular nut before, isn't it?

The slippery slope argument may be overdrawn. This is a truly unusual case, over a fully-answered issue, and the level of stupidity far beyond the normal level of background stupid. Still ... these folks do elect their own and I hate to see the precedent established, allowing public records requirements to be ignored when you get frustrated with a particular issue. The wingnuts might not hesitate to copy this as soon as they have power and have something to hide. I hate to give them that much of an opening. Hawaii should suck it up and find the least cumbersome way of dealing with the birthers, without compromising their public records laws.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

What you should be reading

Btw, if you're not following the adventures of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace at 2D Goggles, then why the hell not?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday photo

Rainbow, Park County, Wyoming. July 2004

There's a thunderstorm rolling through southeast Michigan this morning, so I thought I'd offer up a rainbow. We won't see one in Michigan today, as Midwestern clouds tend to fill the skies for hundreds of miles without a gap. Western skies have more breaks in the clouds and they get rewarded with more frequent rainbows.

In Sunday School, I was taught that the rainbow is God's promise never again to destroy the world through a global flood. In Wyoming, it can also be taken as a taunt that you're lucky to be getting any rain at all.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why should God listen?

The indispensable Fred Clark (slactivist) draws from the book of Isaiah to comment on the National Day of Prayer. A sample:

Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;


Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.


If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

I can remember a time when Christians would have taken a verse like this seriously. Not that we all practiced it, of course, but we would have felt the prick of conviction* that we were falling so far short of God's standards. Today's evangelicals would just get pissed off that you were twisting God's word to say something He clearly couldn't mean.

Conviction, n. - that nagging sense of guilt and shame you feel when God brings your sins to your attention and doesn't let you play the usual game of making flimsy excuses and changing the subject. Although I no longer count myself a Christian, it's still a useful concept.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

California in text

Here's an interesting map that illustrates a bit of gestalt psychology in its portrayal of California:

The image is created of text, with the name of the each county repeated within its boundaries to create the image. Each letter is colored to represent the land type at its location, and the letters are spaced closely together to represent high elevation and more widely to represent lower elevations. The brain easily picks out these patterns and has no trouble spotting the wide spacing as the low central valley area, the brown deserts, and the wavy "Ocean."

Here's a link to a larger image (warning: large PDF). You can see some other interesting maps at the Bizarre Map Challenge Awards List.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Safety first

While setting up my little netbook this morning, I carefully arranged the power cord to avoid tipping over a nearby coffee cup, whereupon my coworker assured me that the cup was empty. My observation is that the rule regarding coffee cups should be the same as for guns: always assume they are loaded.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The joys of teaching

My brother posts at Positive Liberty:

Best line so far from final exams. Question: Who votes? Best part of the answer:

Eventually all black males were allowed [to vote] but if they were not free I believe they needed owners permission.

I swear that’s not how that lecture went.

Probably necessary, but not sufficient, not by a long sight.