Sunday, December 20, 2009

Some Last Words

Not from me of course. I'm sure I have many more words to come (the second half of 2009 not withstanding). The last words in question come from a subset of the population of Texas, namely those who were executed by the state.

I initially came across this while browsing through the Popular Items in Google Reader, and curious as to where it came from, followed the link and explored a bit, soon arriving at this page, which gives info on almost three decades of executees.

Going through such a collection may seem a bit grim or morbid, but also an interesting look into the state of mind of these people. The main thing that stands out amongst them all is the acceptance of imminent death. None I've read try and stop the execution, even those proclaiming their innocence. I'm not sure of how long before the execution they are told of the exact day that will be their last, the time on death row nonetheless gives plenty of time to come to terms with the idea. (While writing this I thought of perhaps a cruel way to schedule executions. Once the death sentence is confirmed, and all the appeals and such are done, apply some random chance (about 1 in 100 sounds like the right ball park. 1 in 10 is too low and 1 in 1000 is too high), and each day the prisoner either told "not today" or taken off to be executed. This could perhaps be calculated beforehand to aid in scheduling, so long as the actual day of execution is not communicated to the inmate)

Other themes that come through include remorse and denial, although these never come together. The remorseful seem genuine, and there's not much to be gained by them. The deniers are hard to judge just from the words, but knowing the statistics it seems likely that there were some innocent men in there.

I'm still not sure what exactly to make of the site. I'm pretty sure it's been put online purely as part of making public records more available, but such documents have more meaning than just that they exist. Capitol punishment is mostly something that happens in the distance, as an abstract thing. Few people see it as it happens, and fewer still would be there in circumstances of their choosing. So the chance to see that the people executed are real and to read their words brings it home that it is flesh and blood humans that are facing their end here, and that is something that should not be lost.

Monday, December 14, 2009

An Open and Shut Case

The religious types in Ashevile, North Carolina are raising a ruckus over a matter that they really can't expect to win. Recently an atheist (the horror) was elected to the Asheville city council, and people are claiming that he is barred from serving by the North Carolina constitution.

The specific section of the North Carolina constitution that they are referring to is Article 6, section 8 which is as follows:
The following persons shall be disqualified for office:
First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God.
Second, with respect to any office that is filled by election by the people, any person who is not qualified to vote in an election for that office.
Third, any person who has been adjudged guilty of treason or any other felony against this State or the United States, or any person who has been adjudged guilty of a felony in another state that also would be a felony if it had been committed in this State, or any person who has been adjudged guilty of corruption or malpractice in any office, or any person who has been removed by impeachment from any office, and who has not been restored to the rights of citizenship in the manner prescribed by law.
Naturally, it is the first of those conditions that is being cited in this case.

The answer to this claim that an atheist is ineligible to serve comes in two parts and comes straight from the grand old US constitution.

First we have Article VI, Section 3 that states
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
It is pretty clear that under this section that requiring people to believe in any god to be able to get a job in any level of government, elected or otherwise, is not on.

So now we have to ask, given directly contradicting clauses between the US and North Carolina constitutions, who wins. The answer is again in the US constitution. Article VI, Section 2 states
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
Clearly, this states that the US Constitution beats the North Carolina Constitution.

And so it is now, and has been for many years (decades even), clear that yes an atheist can be an elected official (regardless of what a pesky state constitution might say), and so all that is left is to say "Well done, Cecil Bothwell, and make sure you do a good job."

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Thought on Tony Abbot

"I don't claim to have immersed myself deeply in all of these documents," Mr Abbott told Lateline host Tony Jones.

"I'm a politician ... I think I am as well-versed on these matters as your average politician needs to be."

These quotes are from Tony Abbott talking about his knowledge of important reports regarding climate change.

My response to these statements is pretty much as follows. "You're not an average politician any more. You're the god damned leader of the opposition and you need to know this shit or else you'll just look like an god damned idiot. You can do better, you should do better, and we deserve better."

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Dead Authors Society

Recently I've read two books in series started by an author now dead. One lived up to my expectations while the other I doubt I'll bother to include in the canon of that series.

First is And Another Thing by Eoin Colfer. This is part six in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. I had not previously read any of Colfer's work, but have heard good things about the Artemis Fowl series, so I didn't go in entirely pessimistic, but I can't say I was expecting greatness. Which is just as well, because Adams set a high bar, and unfortunately Colfer didn't reach the bar. The introduction was promising, but Colfer couldn't work Adams' style, and the voice of the piece felt off. The guide entries in particular did not work as well they did for Douglas Adams. Overall I though it was a story that might work OK, but didn't fit the characters and the world that it was grafted onto.

The second book I found did a much better job of things. The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brian Sanderson (Sanderson's name is about a quarter the size of Jordan's on the cover, which is not to unfair since Jordan did manage to write the previous eleven books on his own before passing). Sanderson's style, while distinct from Jordan's is a good fit and does shore up some of the weaknesses that Jordan had, the big one being the at times horrendously slow pacing. In The Gathering Storm things are always moving along, and for the first time in many years, you begin to feel like you may actually see the end of the road. Numerous plot threads were tied up in this volume, some of which have been dangling since the early books. All in all it is a much more satisfying read than And Another Thing.

I don't know if there will be another Hitchhiker's sequel (I'm not sure I'd read it if there was), but there are two more Wheel of Time books to go (I've heard rumours of some prequels as well, but nothing is happening there until after the series is finished) and I will definitely be reading them (I started reading the series a decade ago, a decade after the first book was published) as I do want to see the end. I just hope Brian Sanderson can keep doing such a good job.

Von Daniken is Wrong

After having failed to pick up a book from the library I'd put on hold due to having had it sent to the wrong library, I had a look at the new books that they had on display and one caught my eye. The title "History is Wrong" sounded intriguing, although upon seeing that the author was Erich von Daniken my expectations changed a bit. I still borrowed the book, more to see how hard it would be to find holes in the arguments it presented than to find out what historical facts I might have been wrong about.

As it turned out, finding holes in the arguments presented was pretty easy. The hard part turned out to be finding the arguments. Wild claims, check. Connections from out of nowhere, check. Hypotheses galore. Arguments and evidence, I'm still looking.

The book covers a few different topics. The first is the story of Enoch (Adam's great great great great grandson in case you didn't know) and the apocryphal Book of Enoch. Von Daniken claims that the Book of Enoch tells a story of a primitive man visiting a spaceship and bringing back books of knowledge beyond his time (and allegedly ours). He suggests that the Voynich Manuscript is one of these, and that others might be hidden in the great pyramid and a massive cave complex in South America.

Next we get the story of the cave complex in South America. This cave complex was said to contain a library written on gold plates, thousands of golden animals, and was miles deep and spanned the continent, if not the earth. Von Daniken wrote about this in a book decades ago, and was generally criticized for his coverage of it. This is I think where the book gets its title, as this section is really nothing more than von Daniken trying to clear his name. This doesn't work however. First he admits that when he wrote the chapter on the caves, he had not seen the caves nor any of the artifacts from the cave. He had only spoken to the man who claimed to have found the caves and his lawyer. The only evidence the provided were some photos taken at a cave entrance, and a letter on some official looking letter head written to the Ecuadorian government claiming the treasures contained in the caves. Apparently this was enough to convince von Daniken, as he offered to assist in setting up expeditions and so forth with the pair. And when he was pressed for evidence and asked the pair for some, they become hostile and refused further contact. Somehow I wasn't too surprised. Today von Daniken pins his belief in the caves to a different man who has his information from another man who went into the caves that are at a different location and saw all the stuff, but didn't bring any back and died a decade ago. Also, the mormons are involved since they got their special knowledge

The final few chapters then provide a bit of info about the Nazca plains.

Ultimately it must be concluded that it is not history that is wrong, but Erich von Daniken. While many of his claims are way out there, he does make a few specific claims that are easily proven, he has not done so, which only raises the question "why not?".

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

What's so great about this picture

As part of my end of month internet splurge (I try and somewhat moderate my internet usage during the month, so at the end of the month whatever's left gets blown in an outrageous fashion) I've been uploading a bunch of photos up to my flickr account. This has led to a surge in people looking at my photos, which is kind of to be expected since flickr shows people random recently uploaded photos, and I have it set up so that a message goes up on facebook when I upload photos.

Looking at the stats flickr provides though shows one anomaly, this picture:200905178752
Yesterday it got 237 views. This blows away the next best photo which currently sits at around 85 views and is of what I would consider to be a much more popular subject. In fact this photo beats the next 4 photos combined when it comes to views.

So I have to wonder, what's so great about this picture? It's a fire place with a statue above it in Cardiff Castle. It's not significantly better than any of my other pictures, nor is it significantly noteworthy in terms of content or style.

Any ideas readers?