Tuesday, April 29, 2008

America Won The Vietnam War...But Not In The Way We Thought We Would

The Vietnam War continues to hover over the American consciousness decades after it has ended. One reason is the war in Iraq, which has been going on for over five years now and which for some has parallels with the Vietnam War, and the other reason is that the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five and a half years.

As with the war in Iraq, there are generally two competing narratives concerning the war in Vietnam. One side argues that the war was unwinnable and that we should never have gotten involved there in the first place. The other side claims that America would have won a military victory in Vietnam if our efforts were not undermined by a biased media that misrepresented the war to the American people, and antiwar demonstrators who gave encouragement to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong.

This week's issue of The Economist contains a special report on Vietnam (subscription required). Upon reading it, I could not help but think how modern day Vietnam renders this debate moot. A few snippets from The Economist report below are rather telling.

On the economic front:

An agricultural miracle has turned a country of 85m once barely able to feed itself into one of the world's main providers of farm produce. Vietnam has also become a big exporter of clothes, shoes and furniture, soon to be joined by microchips when Intel opens its $1 billion factory near the capital, Hanoi. Imports of machinery are soaring. Exports plus imports equal 160% of GDP, making the economy one of the world's most open.

Vietnam's Communists conceded economic defeat 22 years ago, in the depths of a crisis, and brought in market-based reforms called doi moi (renewal), similar to those Deng Xiaoping had introduced in China a few years earlier. As in China, it took time for the effects to show up, but over the past few years economic liberalisation has been fostering rapid, poverty-reducing growth.

And in the foreign policy realm:

Vietnam has carefully rebuilt relations with both America and China. It is probably more enthusiastic about its friendship with America, which has more to offer it in terms of foreign investment and expertise. In November two American warships became the first to visit northern Vietnam in peacetime. Even before the restoration of relations Vietnam was co-operating with America in searching for the remains of soldiers missing in action.

Vietnam's overriding interest in its foreign relations has been to accelerate its economic development. The main point of having “friends everywhere” is to seek their investment and their technical help. Another goal is seeking and maintaining trade access for Vietnamese farm produce and manufactures. Vo Tri Thanh, a trade economist in Hanoi, argues that Vietnam could play a positive role in the Doha round of world trade talks as a fairly poor country that nevertheless strongly supports freer trade. In the absence of progress on the Doha round, Vietnam is seeking bilateral and regional trade deals. It has started talking to Japan about a free-trade agreement, and diplomats say there is a chance that the limited trade-liberalisation pacts struck with America could develop into a full-blown free-trade deal.

And to think that some Americans several decades ago believed that if we did not fight them in Saigon, we would have to fight them in San Diego!

No longer a source of refugees fleeing desperate poverty or a Marxist state seeking to export its revolution elsewhere (though some will dispute that that was ever a goal of the Vietnamese Communists in the first place), Vietnam is an increasingly prosperous country that is generally at peace with its neighbors. It has had diplomatic and trade relations with the United States for over a dozen years, during which time our greatest source of conflict has been over catfish. If a gung-ho supporter of American military intervention in Vietnam had fallen asleep in 1965 and woke up today, he might be forgiven for thinking that America had won the war in Vietnam. In other words, apart from still being politically a Communist one party state, Vietnam today probably looks pretty much like what supporters of the war had hoped it would turn out to be some forty years ago if things had turned out like they planned. As for whether or not our military involvement in Vietnam helped or hindered the present day state of affairs, that is a different academic debate.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Canyons of Mars

Pictured above is the Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars. As the NASA web site helpfully explains:

Valles Marineris, or Mariner Valley, is a vast canyon system that runs along the Martian equator just east of the Tharsis region. Valles Marineris is 4000 km (2500 mi) long and reaches depths of up to 7 km (4 mi)! For comparison, the Grand Canyon in Arizona is about 800 km (500 mi) long and 1.6 km (1 mi) deep. In fact, the extent of Valles Marineris is as long as the United States and it spans about 20 percent (1/5) of the entire distance around Mars! The canyon extends from the Noctis Labyrinthus region in the west to the chaotic terrain in the east. Most researchers agree that Valles Marineris is a large tectonic "crack" in the Martian crust, forming as the planet cooled, affected by the rising crust in the Tharsis region to the west, and subsequently widened by erosional forces. However, near the eastern flanks of the rift there appear to be some channels that may have been formed by water.

The reason this interests me from an atheist perspective is that creationist fundies insist that the Grand Canyon in the American Southwest had to be formed from the Great Flood described in the Book of Genesis.

A prominent expounder of this nonsense is Tom Vail of Canyon Ministries.

On his web site, he tells how he "left the corporate world behind and became a career rafting guide, leading trips through the Grand Canyon ever since." It was while leading one of these tour groups in 1994 that "Paula, a passenger on a trip shared Christ with me. A few months later, I received Christ as my Lord and Savior and Paula is now my wife. In 1997, the concept of Canyon Ministries was born and we ran our first Christ-centered rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. Since then, we have shared the Canyon from a Biblical perspective with hundreds of people. We have been selected by both Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research, as well as several other organizations, to provide charter services for their Grand Canyon tours and research trips."

Vail now claims "that the creation model of the Canyon made more sense, was easier to believe and answered more questions than the evolutionary model." He purports to show "how the effects of Noah’s Flood, not millions of years of erosion, carved the Canyon." His book, "Grand Canyon: A Different View" is apparently still for sale at gift shops in the park's bookstores, in spite of protests by geologists for the National Park Service, as well as others who complain that it amounts to a national park promoting the viewpoint of a specific religion.

I would be interested to hear how Vail and other young earth creationists would explain Valles Marineris. If a geological formation on Mars can be formed entirely through natural processes, then how can they be so cocksure that the same kind of forces were not responsible for creating the Grand Canyon on Earth? What alternatives are there? Was there a race of Martian Sodomites wiped out in a great deluge on Mars that the Bible does not tell us about?

What I find fascinating as we continue to explore the other planets of our solar system and the moons that orbit them is that our discoveries help to inform our understanding of our own planet's history. To the people who wrote the books that would eventually comprise what we know today as the Bible, the planets were nothing but points of light in the sky that were not fixed like the stars. The Biblical authors had no conception that these planets were bodies that orbited the sun and that most of them had moons of their own.

From Bible times to the present day, religious people tend to believe that volcanic eruptions represent some manifestation of an angry god's wrath, and yet the most volcanically active body in our solar system is Jupiter's moon Io. The last time I checked, Io was uninhabited, so there is nobody living there for god to be pissed off at. As we observe and study violent geological and meteorological phenomena on other worlds that also occur on Earth, it should become abundantly clear that these are forces that occur naturally rather than being signs of god's displeasure over gays or the teaching of evolution in our public schools.

Friday, April 25, 2008


I got my PADI Open Water Diver certification today.

My thanks goes out to Jose at Lauderdale Diver for helping me make it happen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Temporary Hiatus

There will be no new posts here at Exercise in Futility until Saturday evening at the earliest as I will be flying down to Fort Lauderdale tomorrow night. I will be doing the open water dive portion of the PADI Open Water Diver course. I did the pool dives and passed the written test, and the open water dives are all that are left to do so that I can get certified.

I will be doing two dives each on Thursday and Friday before flying back up to New York on Saturday afternoon. I'm a little nervous about it, because unlike a pool dive, this is going to be the real deal. I can't wait to get it over with.

Here's a short video that someone shot while diving in Fort Lauderdale.

Chat with y'all when I get back.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Center of Islamic Stupidity

By way of the BBC Online, here is the latest bit of lunacy from the learned minions of the Islamic world.

Muslim scientists and clerics have called for the adoption of Mecca time to replace GMT, arguing that the Saudi city is the true centre of the Earth.

A prominent cleric, Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawy, said modern science had at last provided evidence that Mecca was the true centre of the Earth; proof, he said, of the greatness of the Muslim "qibla" - the Arabic word for the direction Muslims turn to when they pray.

The claim by Sheikh al-Qaradawy that Mecca is the "true centre of the Earth" is ignorant and stupid on so many levels.

For starters, the Earth, as everyone but a Flat Earther knows, is a sphere. That means that no place on the surface of the sphere can be its center. In the case of planet Earth, its true center is the core deep beneath the surface. Below is a cutout of the interior of the planet for illustrative purposes.

Note that the city of Mecca appears nowhere in the Earth's inner core in the illustration above, though some of us might wish that it could be relocated there!

Now, perhaps the Sheikh meant that Mecca occupies a place on the surface that could be considered centrally located. Well, if Mecca was smack dab on the equator, making the city equally distant from both the North and South Poles, it might help his case. But alas, as the map below reveals, Mecca does not lie on the equator. In fact, the Muslim holy city is about as far from the equator as Miami is from New York, and lies on approximately the same line of latitude as the Florida Keys.

But wait, the Muslim clerics and scientists have one more trick up their sleeves.

The BBC article reports that "One geologist argued that unlike other longitudes, Mecca's was in perfect alignment to magnetic north."

Gee, maybe he has a point there. Not!

You see, as reported in this BBC article, magnetic north tends to have a habit of shifting its position, and that "it could end up in Siberia within 50 years." So, even if Mecca did align perfectly with magnetic north, it would not stay that way for very long.

So, unless I am missing some crucial piece of information, I fail to see how Mecca, let alone any place on the surface of the Earth, can be considered to be the Earth's center.

If this is the best that contemporary Muslim scientific thought has to offer, I for one am not impressed.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

How About Those Gasoline Prices?

Yesterday it cost me a whopping $40 to fill up the tank of my 2003 Buick Century. But as much as I griped about the $3.60 per gallon price I paid, I found some solace today when I noticed that the price per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline at the same Amoco station was now up to $3.65 per gallon. Super unleaded gasoline here on Long Island is on the cusp of $4.00 per gallon, which should happen any day now, and regular unleaded will likely cross that line soon afterwards. In a News 12 report on gasoline prices on Long Island, gas station owners fret that they do not have enough fours to put up on their price signs.

While gasoline prices have increased noticeably over the last several years, and have long since exceeded the $2.00 per gallon plateau, for the most part I was not affected by it. My wife and I pretty much drive local, to the train station, the supermarket, the mall, and so forth. But now the price per gallon has risen to a point that even if one fills their tank up just twice per month, it still takes a chunk out of the family budget. And if my wallet is taking a hit now, I can only imagine how drivers with SUVs and minivans are suffering.

Because those of us who live in suburban areas depend on our cars, we don't really have much choice but to put up with it. As
this blurb from the Department of Energy web site acknowledges, our options are rather limited:

Consumers have very little power as individuals but, if enough consumers give the same “market signal,” they can impact prices. First, when consumers buy gasoline at service stations in their areas with the lowest price, they take market share away from higher-priced stations; these stations may then eventually reduce their prices to be more competitive. The second way consumers impact the market is by reducing gasoline consumption. If enough people reduce driving or switch to more energy-efficient vehicles, gasoline demand would decline and prices would be dampened.

I am doing what I can to reduce my own gasoline consumption. I am fortunate enough in that my local supermarket is within walking distance, and I have a hand cart that can hold a decent amount of groceries in it. This morning, rather than drive the several miles to my daughter's doctor's office to pick up a copy of her vaccination record for her kindergarten enrollment, I rode my bicycle there. Tomorrow morning, I plan to ride my bicycle the several miles into Hicksville to return some videos to BlockBuster.

But in spite of my best efforts, I don't think that I can stretch a full tank of gas for much more than two weeks. And no matter how conscientious I try to be, circumstances can arise to thwart my intentions. For example, a couple of nights ago my mom called complaining that she was itching violently, probably as a result of an allergic reaction, and asked me to pick up some Benadryl for her. It was after nine o'clock on a school night, and my wife was at work, so I had to drive my children to my mom's place before driving to Walgreens in Hicksville to pick up the Benadryl. And I realize that as idealistic as I try to be about reducing my fuel consumption to such a degree, it will have absolutely no impact whatsoever. It might make a minor difference if everybody could do the same thing. But I recognize that for a lot of people in this country, it is not easy to do. People who live in rural areas can't be expected to ride bicycles five or ten miles each way when they run errands into town. Neither can persons with physical disabilities that make it impossible to exert themselves in such ways.

So, the sad fact of the matter is that there is not a hell of a lot we can do about the rise in the price of gasoline. And then there is the sober realization that it will get much worse. From the web site
Life After the Oil Crash comes these dire prognostications:

Oil is increasingly plentiful on the upslope of the bell curve, increasingly scarce and expensive on the down slope. The peak of the curve coincides with the point at which the endowment of oil has been 50 percent depleted. Once the peak is passed, oil production begins to go down while cost begins to go up.

In practical and considerably oversimplified terms, this means that if 2005 was the year of global Peak Oil, worldwide oil production in the year 2030 will be the same as it was in 1980. However, the world’s population in 2030 will be both much larger (approximately twice) and much more industrialized (oil-dependent) than it was in 1980. Consequently, worldwide demand for oil will outpace worldwide production of oil by a significant margin.

The issue is not one of "running out" so much as it is not having enough to keep our economy running. In this regard, the ramifications of Peak Oil for our civilization are similar to the ramifications of dehydration for the human body. The human body is 70 percent water. The body of a 200 pound man thus holds 140 pounds of water. Because water is so crucial to everything the human body does, the man doesn't need to lose all 140 pounds of water weight before collapsing due to dehydration. A loss of as little as 10-15 pounds of water may be enough to kill him.

In a similar sense, an oil based economy such as ours doesn't need to deplete its entire reserve of oil before it begins to collapse. A shortfall between demand and supply as little as 10 to 15 percent is enough to wholly shatter an oil-dependent economy and reduce its citizenry to poverty.

I am a generally optimistic person, but we could be in for some rough times ahead folks.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Friday Funnies - Mr. Pink

Here are two great scenes from Reservoir Dogs, both of which center on Steve Buscemi's character Mr. Pink. There are two things that Mr. Pink does not like, (1) tipping waitresses, and (2) being called Mr. Pink.

What also cracks me up is Harvey Keitel's bank robbing character arguing passionately in support of tipping waitresses. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's Not Just A Job, It's An Adventure

To the tune of the Army commercial "Be All That You Can Be":


The Catholic Church in America is facing a shortage of priests. Today's New York Times featured this article (subscription required) about the steep decline in men entering the priesthood. Half a century ago, at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, a city just north of the Bronx, "several hundred men at a time studied to be ordained as priests for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York," whereas now, "only 22 are enrolled."

The article quotes a Rev. Luke Sweeney, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of New York, who asks rhetorically, “How do we get the ‘cool’ factor back into the priesthood?

One of the ways the Diocese is trying to market the priesthood is through its recruitment web site, nypriest.com. Out of curiosity, I decided to give the site a quick perusal.

I started my inquiry by checking out the section appropriately titled "For Starters". From thence I clicked on the link for "What Is the Priesthood?" Well, maybe I am a little biased as an atheist, but I hardly think a picture of a bunch of guys doing this is the right way to stir up interest in a vocation as a priest.

Before one can seriously contemplate a career as a Roman Catholic priest, that person, excuse me, I meant that man, as women are not allowed to become priests, must ask himself, "Am I called?" The web site gives us a list of signs that indicate a man is ready to embark on a priestly calling.

One former high school teacher quoted in the New York Times article says, "You can stick your head in the sand, or you can do something to change it. What more heroic life is there than to touch these eternal mysteries?" Oh, I don't know, maybe a job as a New York City fireman, or a doctor with Doctors Without Borders?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Fit Over "Fitna"

I finally got around to watching Fitna a few minutes ago. I watched it at this link here.

Expecting that the movie was designed to inflame the sentiments of the viewer, I consciously watched Fitna with a dispassionate eye. The movie shows scenes of violence and atrocities, such as the hijacked airliners crashing into the Twin Towers and pictures of burned or beheaded bodies. The message was clear: the big, bad Muslims are out to get you! In fairness though, a Muslim could make a movie showing scenes of starving and dead Iraqi children while a split screen shows former Secretary of State Madeline Albright tell Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes that the death of some half million Iraqi childrens as a result of the sanctions on Iraq was "worth it" or show pictures of Iraqi civilians killed by American gunfire while showing the infamous Ann Coulter quote "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert their people to Christianity." Purveyors of propaganda are more interested in rousing emotions rather than getting people to think.

I came across a forum post by someone by the name of Raven Gale titled The Freedom To Provoke. I am not certain if Raven Gale is a Muslim, but he/she asks an important question and provides his/her own answer:

So why is there this persistence of creating provocation when the outcome of it is so obvious? There is clearly a more sinister reason than just to offend and provoke outrage in the Muslim community.

All these individuals and concerns have set out to start a “game” at the excuse of the freedom of speech, not realizing that Muslims are able to distinguish between those who wish to debate and those who wish to insult. Trying to camouflage insults under the guise of debate or freedom of speech fools nobody. The real idea is that the tension with Islamic nations should increase so that the international crisis deepens.

The natural reaction among Muslims to such blatant provocation sets the stage for violence and terror attacks. If and when a terror attack does occur, the cartoons and angry Muslims are going to blamed for being the cause, making the reason they were published in the first place, very clear. Europeans will then become increasingly polarized and hostility to Islam will grow making it easier for them to then target Islam in the name of “war against terror”.

So what remains for the Muslim world to decide is, whether they going to let themselves be provoked and trapped into this obvious conspiracy made up of dangerous rhetoric, making them seen like blood-thirsty barbarians? Or do they choose to formulize a strategy to curtail it.

Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician behind the film, is clearly concerned about the the threat that Muslim immigration poses for secular liberal democracy in Europe. If the Muslim population reaches a critical mass, then goodbye gay rights, abortion rights, and mixed gender schools and workplaces, so the concern goes. I agree that these concerns are valid to an extent, though I believe it is also a case that Europe, unlike the United States, has done a rather poor job of assimilating its Muslim immigrants. High levels of unemployment and social alienation leave a void that religious extremism seeks to fill. As this article (subscription required) from The Economist points out: "Yet amid all this hyperbole, two hard realities stand out. The first is the importance of jobs. In America, it is easy for a newcomer to get work and hard to claim welfare; in Europe the opposite is true. Deregulating labour markets is a less emotive subject than head-scarves or cartoons, but it matters far more."

There is also an irony that the Muslim influx into countries such as France and the United Kingdom predominantly hails from their former colonial possessions. French-Muslims tend to be of North African origin, while many Muslim immigrants in the UK are from Pakistan, which once formed part of British India. Of course, this does not mean that Western Europe is getting its just desserts. It does go to show though that when you send soldiers and civil servants to rule over a land thousands of miles away that it should not be surprising if one day the peoples of those lands will seek to go in the other direction.

As an American, Fitna does not get much of a rise out of me. Having seen the Twin Towers burning out of the window of my train on my commute to work on September 11, 2001, and having known a handful of the people who died there, I know full well the danger that militant extremism can pose. However, the nature of the threat to us here in the United States is far different from that of Western Europe. However much some Islamophobes here cry that Muslims seek to impose sharia law on us, there is absolutely no chance of this ever happening. What Islamic navy exists to transport legions of jihadist hordes to our shores? No, the threat to us is not an existential one. Rather it is the danger of seemingly random acts that inflict mass casualties, tremendous property damage, and injury to our economy.

While dealing with the terrorist threat is clearly a priority, Osama bin Laden and his followers cannot conquer us, they can merely hurt us. And it is not as if we do not have our share of homegrown religious nutcases to deal with.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Let Them Have It

I was reading Newsday this afternoon, and this article caught my attention.

A synagogue in Westhampton Beach on the east end of Long Island is seeking permission to construct an eruv.

Morris Tuchman, the synagogue's president, formally requested permission from the village last month to erect the eruv, which creates an area within which Orthodox Jews can push or carry things without breaking religious law that bans work on the Sabbath outside of one's home.

"We have more and more traditional families that have moved to Westhampton Beach," Schneier said. "According to Jewish law, one can carry items outdoors on the Sabbath only when the act occurs within a proper enclosure. We have a number of younger traditional families who are not able to wheel their babies to services on Saturday morning."

Of course, as an atheist, I think Sabbath laws are stupid. Imposing such onerous hardships on oneself to appease a non-existent deity is bizarre. However, judging from what I read in the article, it does not seem to be much in the way of an imposition on the town.

An eruv usually is made by putting wooden or plastic sticks on utility poles, sometimes with string or cord connecting the poles. In Westhampton Beach, however, thin plastic poles would be placed just beneath the lowest wire on existing utility poles at the boundaries of the eruv. The utility wires would constitute the symbolic fence.

The town will likely grant the request, and as irrational as it seems to me, I say, let them have it.

Strange Electrical Occurrence

In my bedroom, I have a small flat screen tv in one corner of the room, and a lamp in another corner of the room. They are plugged into different outlets. And yet sometimes, when the tv is off, if I turn the lamp on or off, it causes the tv to come on. Is it a sign from god, a prank played on me by a poltergeist, or is there a more mundane explanation?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Pet Peeve of the Day - April 1, 2008

As an atheist, want to know what really annoys me? Do you ever find yourself talking to somebody about a tragedy that befell someone somewhere in the world, and that person says "There but for the grace of God go I".

A former co-worker of mine was like that. He said it all the time. Mention a woman who died from cervical cancer, and he would say "There but for the grace of God go I." Really? It was cervical cancer you moron! Well, okay, he never actually said that in response to the news of a woman dying from cervical cancer, but he did say it a lot.

But what really pushed my button this morning was in reading the comments section to this article in Newsday about an 800 pound Mexican man who had an accident on the way to a date to celebrate his recent loss of 400 pounds.

So, what pearl of wisdom did one of the commenters in the forum offer? Yep, "but for the grace of God, there go I." Oh come on! As if it is only the intervention of a personal deity that prevents us all from weighing over a thousand pounds!

What really annoyed me when my former co-worker would utter that phrase was that it demonstrated such a passive and pessimistic view of life, as if none of us has any control over what course our life takes. And it is not just because I am an atheist that I hate the phrase. While I am not immune to moments of despair or sadness, overall I am an optimist. Eleven years ago I was not happy with where I was in my life, so I resolved to make positive changes. Consequently, the quality of my life greatly improved because of the actions I took and the choices I made. Grace of God indeed. Hmmph!

Osama bin Laden Renounces Islam

Exercise in Futility has learned that Osama bin Laden has renounced his Muslim faith and has embraced Buddhism. According to an unpublished report which I cannot reveal at this time, bin Laden has sought refuge in a Buddhist monastery somewhere in Nepal, where he has vowed to devote the remainder of his days to meditation and avoiding the distractions of the material world.

And I wish to convey a Happy April Fools Day to all Muslims out there, because it is okay to tell a little fib for the sake of humor once in a while!