Fluid priorities

I moved into my new apartment in August. Stats for my current kitchen:

9 varieties of beer glass
5 corkscrews
5 coffee brewers
4 cocktail shakers
2 citrus zesters
2 muddlers
1 bitters-and-rum blowtorch

In contrast:

2 pots/pans
1 pot/pan that I’ve actually used

God damn. I’m 25. I should know how to handle solid foods by now.

Anyway, researching my options and coming across this column by Mark Morford about choosing the right cookware was like stepping into my own indecisive head.


Two kinds of belief

Writing in the L. A. Times earlier this month, Lee Siegel concludes an op/ed about militant atheists with harsh, misguided criticism:

When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination…

The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means. You take a gamble on the existence of these inestimable things. For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can’t be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved.

Ugh. It’s a pernicious myth that because atheists insist on being scientifically rigorous in their beliefs about the world that they must be equally austere in their relations with the world. This is nonsense.

The distinction isn’t difficult. Orson Scott Card put it well in Children of the Mind, the muddled fourth book in the Ender series. In the scene, Andrew is asking his wife if they can join a Christian order together. She says no with good reason:

“You don’t believe in God, how’s that for starters?”

“I certainly do too believe in God,” said Ender, annoyed.

“Oh, you’re willing to concede God’s existence, but that’s not what I meant. I mean believe in him the way a mother means it when she says to her son, I believe in you. She’s not saying that she believes that he exists — what is that worth? — she’s saying he believes in his future, she trusts that he’ll do all the good that is in him to do. She puts her future in his hands, that’s how she believes in him. You don’t believe in Christ that way, Andrew. You still believe in yourself. In other people.

Technically speaking, atheism concerns itself only with belief in God’s existence. The rest — faith in other people, artistic inspiration, personal feelings of transcendence, a sense of awe — is totally up for grabs.

I’m not going to let Siegel off the hook for this; he is, after all, making an obvious error. But his confusion does bring to mind Sam Harris’ recent essay on atheists’ image problem:

As “atheists” we give others, and even ourselves, the sense that we are well on our way toward purging the universe of mystery. As advocates of reason, we know that mystery is going to be with us for a very long time. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that mystery is ineradicable from our circumstance, because however much we know, it seems like there will always be brute facts that we cannot account for but which we must rely upon to explain everything else. This may be a problem for epistemology but it is not a problem for human life and for human solidarity. It does not rob our lives of meaning. And it is not a barrier to human happiness.

We are faced, however, with the challenge of communicating this view to others. We are faced with the monumental task of persuading a myth-infatuated world that love and curiosity are sufficient, and that we need not console or frighten ourselves or our children with Iron Age fairy tales.

Unfortunately, some of our most vocal advocates are among the least effective at this challenging task.

[Via Joanna.]

Atheists and libertarians, same boat
Trust me, I’m an atheist


Putt-putt, drink-drink

At Agoraphilia, Glen Whitman wonders why bowling is more popular for dates than mini golf. The obvious answer is that bowling alleys serve alcohol, but that just brings up another question: why don’t mini golf courses have bars? I like his answer:

Drunken players tend to take longer to finish, thereby delaying other customers. In a bowling alley, this effect is very limited – you usually only get ten frames, you only get two shots per frame, and you can only delay people whose games have not yet begun. But in a mini golf course, slow play can affect every player behind you on the course. And while there is allegedly some limitation on the number of swings (6 swings max, I believe), players sometimes flout this rule, and in any case 6 swings can take twice as long as 3 (the usual par).

With most inter-customer externalities, the natural solution is to “tax” the players who create it. This could be accomplished by simply charging more per drink. But if the required tax is especially large – as it might be in this case, given how many other players are affected by any one player’s slowness – then the total price could be higher than most players are willing to pay. And with few enough buyers, it’s just not worthwhile to incur the fixed costs of setting up bars, acquiring liquor licenses, and so on. Boozehounds will just have to wait ’til the nineteenth hole.

I suspect another factor is that bowling alleys have broader appeal. Families can bring kids to bowl while not interacting much with drunken revelers in lanes nearby, whereas on the mini golf course there will be lots of interaction between holes. Bowling alleys can also bring in business on slower nights with league competition, something that I haven’t seen with mini golf. Though given the sudden rise of adult kickball leagues, this could happen.

Anyway, the real point of this post is to mention that by next summer DC hipsters will be able to enjoy their mini golf, drinks, and acute sense of irony all under one roof. That’s when the H Street Country Club is due to open:

According to [developer Joe] Englert, H Street Country Club will be replete with “a lot of wood benches that resemble a locker room” and “a lot of plaid.” The food will be all-American, no-frills “picnic” fare, and the holes will be littered with D.C. memorabilia celebrating go-go greats and bands like Fugazi. “The Positive Force hole is really amazing,” he raves, adding that his eight-year-old daughter has been one of the course’s chief designers.

The article also mentions that city regulations are, unsurprisingly, one obstacle to the venture:

The only question is whether Englert will need a special set of permits to make his mini-golf dreams a reality. For example, says attorney Michael Fonseca, Englert might have to get a mechanical amusement license, which, “in the old days,” regulated video games and pinball machines. In D.C., everything from Pac Man to pool tables warrants a special license, he says.

Fred Moosally, general counsel for the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, says there’s no precedent for establishments serving up booze and golf balls. “We don’t have any miniature golf bars,” he says.


Groveling for right to a light

DC has granted its first exemption to the smoking ban:

The D.C. government has granted its first exemption to the smoking ban for a bar in Cleveland Park. Owners of the cigar bar Aroma say they had a 20 percent drop in business within six months after the city passed a smoking ban for all bars and restaurants last January. That makes the bar eligible to apply for an exemption.

Curt Large, of the bar’s parent company Bedrock Management, says Aroma had to go through a rigorous process. Owners had to submit sales and tax records and prove the fall in revenues wasn’t caused by a sudden increase in prices or fewer operating hours.

Nice to see the government only forced Aroma to endure six months of depressed sales before deciding that, hey, maybe a cigar bar should be allowed to let its patrons smoke.

In another news, I need to check out Aroma post haste!


Watching the tobacco watchdogs

Physician Michael Siegel runs perhaps the single most interesting tobacco blog on the web. A researcher who favors significant controls on tobacco, he’s nonetheless become a staunch critic of the pseudo-science promoted by many in the contemporary movement. A recent post explains how public health advocates have been getting away with statistical murder now that tobacco companies have abdicated their adversarial role:

I remember, back before 2001, that whenever we wanted to make a public statement, we would quake in our boots over what the tobacco industry’s reaction might be. We pored over every word of every statement we made because we were scared. We were scared of being nailed by the tobacco industry. The industry was watching every word we said and they would nail us to a tree if we took any mis-steps. So we were exceedingly careful.

Around the year 2000 or so, coinciding with the change in the public position of the tobacco companies over the health effects of smoking, the implementation of the Master Settlement Agreement, the Engle decision and the tobacco industry’s attempt to portray itself to the jury in a new light, the dissolution of the Tobacco Institute, and the attempt of the tobacco industry to create a new public image in light of damaging publicity from lawsuits, it appears to me that the industry made a decision to lay off its constant vigilance over the communications of anti-smoking groups…

And it has truly become a free-for-all for anti-smoking organizations.

Imagine this: the anti-smoking groups can actually claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure is enough to cause hardening of the arteries. They can actually claim that 30 minutes of secondhand smoke exposure increases your risk of a fatal heart attack to the same level as that of an active smoker. They can actually claim that 2 hours of secondhand smoke increases your risk of sudden death from a cardiac arrhythmia.

Read the whole thing at The Rest of the Story.


Eat a ‘roo to cool the planet

A sustainability center in Australia suggests the country could reduce carbon emissions by switching from beef to kangaroo meat:

“Beef consumption is chosen in this measure because it is responsible for the biggest share of livestock-related methane emissions,” it says. “This measure could be reduced by shifting to kangaroo meat and/or lower-meat diets.”

Not that I need another reason to try kangaroo, or “australus” as it may temptingly be called on menus. Alas, shipping it from Down Under to DC probably undoes the carbon savings.

[Via WorldChanging.]


SCHIP and “the” tobacco tax

Tomorrow Congress is set to hold its override vote on Bush’s SCHIP veto. Most of the debate has been focused on the program itself and the terrible PR Republicans have deployed in fighting it. The funding of the expansion with higher tobacco taxes has received less comment. The Post is an exception today with an editorial on “The Tobacco Tax:”

For every 10 percent increase in tobacco prices, the number of adult smokers drops by 1.5 percent and overall consumption drops 2 percent. Young smokers are much more responsive to price increases than adults, so higher tobacco taxes are particularly effective in preventing youths from moving beyond experimentation to habitual smoking. Pregnant women are similarly affected; a 10 percent price increase produces a 5 to 7 percent reduction in smoking.

This may not be a surprising analysis, but it does come from a somewhat surprising source: the President’s Cancer Panel, which endorsed, in its most recent report, an increase in the federal excise tax on tobacco. President Bush has done the opposite; he vetoed an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) that would be funded by a 61-cents-a-pack increase in the tobacco tax, to $1 per pack. The tax hasn’t been increased in nearly a decade.

The problem, aside from the dubious premise that we ought to be manipulating people’s consumption choices through taxation, is that there is no “the tobacco tax.” In addition to the cigarette tax increase, the bill also includes a massive increase in cigar taxes. Cigars are currently taxed at five cents a piece; the proposal before Congress will hike this up to a new rate capped at $3 per cigar. That’s an increase of 6,000 percent! (Believe it or not, the original Senate bill capped at an absolutely insane $10 a stick.)

It’s understandable why The Post would only mention cigarettes and ignore cigars, cigarette smokers being just about the easiest minority to pick on in American politics. But the cigar tax could be devastating to an industry made up of small businessmen and artisinal producers. It will certainly reduce sales and probably induce some smokers to switch to pipe tobacco, an item that offers much less profit to sellers. (It too will be taxed more, but pipe tobacco has a very low price per use.) If passed this bill will be a major hit to tobacco store owners and anyone working in the industry abroad.

From a public health point of view, cigars are much less damaging than cigarettes. They are smoked less often, by fewer people, by adults, and generally not inhaled into the lungs. Good cigars are also completely natural, free of the chemical additives found in cigarettes. While by no means a risk-free habit, there’s no justification for taxing them into oblivion. And of course the best reason not to tax them: relaxing with a well-made cigar and a good friend is one of the finest enjoyments life has to offer.

(As a side note, one unintended consequence of the tax will be a likely increase in smuggling and mail ordering from outside the US. And if one’s going to buy cigars on the black market, why not buy Cubans?)

Regardless of how one feels about SCHIP, the proposed tobacco taxes are a lousy way to fund it. If supporters think it’s a worthy program, they ought to be willing to pay out of general revenues rather than foisting the costs onto smokers and setting fire to the benign business of high-end tobacco products.

For more information, follow the story at No More Tobacco Taxes or The Stogie Guys.

[Update: Safe for now! Thanks, Mike!]


A note on ads

Speaking of disgusting creatures, I apologize for the giant close-ups of presidential candidates that have been appearing in the sidebar ads. Newsmax.com has been hereby blocked from advertising on this site.

Remember, though, I can blacklist sites, but I don’t otherwise filter what Google throws up there. Given the long electoral season, there will likely be more ugly mugs sneaking through until election day.


Camel crickets invade DC

The Washington Post ran an article today on these guys, some particularly “sketchy” insects known as camel crickets:

Sketchy bug

I had the bad luck to be rudely awakened by one of these guys in my bed on my first night sleeping in my previous apartment. The article captures their weirdness well. They don’t just look ugly; their tendency to jump far and erratically adds a whole new level of creepiness to these buggers, especially when they’re invading your bedroom.

Fortunately I only saw one other indoors for the rest of the year I spent in that apartment, but they were numerous outside it. One of them caught me by surprise making its home beneath my bike seat. As if I needed another reason to be glad to have moved, the Post story on how the drought is sending these crickets into houses in search of moisture has neatly provided it.

Even so, I think camel crickets pale in comparison to the weird centipedes I’ve often come across in Virginia. When will the paper cover that menace?

[Photo from the Flickr stream of AlbinoFlea.]


Atheism roundtable

Given recent blogging, I’m looking forward to this AFF event:

On Wednesday, October 24, AFF will host a roundtable on atheism. Though historically disorganized and decreasingly popular on the national political scene, fundamentalist Christianity has retained enough force to attract a powerful new salvo of criticism. Some charge that what Andrew Sullivan calls ‘Christianism’ has collapsed the wall between faith and government, harming both. Others seek to do away with religion entirely. Figures arrayed across both science and the humanities, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have published a wave of bestsellers making the atheist pitch to the masses. But instead of surrender, this diligent barrage has prompted an equally diligent counterattack. With western civilization at yet another moment of apparent peril, internecine cultural conflict could needlessly provoke another paralyzing crisis. To the contrary, such conflict may prove precisely the west’s enduring strength. Regardless, when cultural combatants go on offense, we judge them on the merits in those terms. How does what Peter Berkowitz calls the New New Atheism fare in that regard — harshly dogmatic or valuably reasonable?

Joining us to discuss these issues are Ross Douthat of the Atlantic Monthly, Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute, Michael Brendan Dougherty of The American Conservative, and Keith Pavlischek of Ethics and Public Policy Center. James Poulos will moderate. The event will take place at the Fund for American Studies, 1706 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, near Dupont Circle. Drinks at 6:30; Roundtable begins at 7:00. Roundtables are free for members, $5 for non-members. So join today! Please RSVP to Kathleen O’Hearn at kathleen@americasfuture.org.