Monday, February 25, 2008

Smoke If Ya Got 'Em.

Last Monday, the 18th, The New York Department of Health put a full page ad in the Times about smoking in the movies, directly stating that it is apparently the responsibility of movie studios to prevent kids from smoking. Strange, I thought it was to make entertaining movies. Ah well.

I've read through as much of the data as I can, and I must admit, it's hard to deny that much of the evidence is pretty compelling. Still, none of the research I saw answered one question, whether there was a direct causal link of any real strength. Especially of a sufficient strength to warrant flipping out to such a degree as a full-page Times ad. I frankly think this is all the classic old parents thinking new media is destroying the youth of American. Comics, television, movies, video games, it's all the same thing.

And much as then, many of these studies get close, but never close enough to saying that "we showed these kids this movie and they started smoking." They never find that smoking gun, and in that case, I always defer to the proclivities of the subject. The studies only ever ask whether the kids saw certain movies or not. I find it not only possible, but likely that kids with extant characteristics drove them to both watch movies with smoking, and then smoke, themselves.

And not even involved with the methodology, but the letter, which can be viewed here, said that movies are "the single most powerful pro-tobacco influence on children today." That's wrong even by their own website. Yes, according to there data it had a strong effect on children with non-smoking parents, but far and away, the strongest influence was the smoking habits of the parents. For the last three categories of viewing, the number of movies watched had zero effect on the smoking habits of the children.
In general, the letter makes sweeping declarations about the subject that are comically unwarranted by the research. Even the researchers themselves only use the data the say that "this finding suggests that the process which leads children to initiate smoking begins much earlier than adolescence. Viewing smoking in the movies may influence the decision to smoke in more than a third of children." May? That's the best you've got? May? I'm sorry, you better have something a whole shit-load better than 'may' before you start telling the movie industry to start integrating government-sponsored propaganda into its films. I think it's obvious that the greatest threat to children does not come from movies, but from poor, ignorant, or uninformed parents. I've got nothing against education campaigns to get people to quit, (as long as they actually work) but running around legislating everything we can is not freedom, it's not American, and it's not smart. You just end up with lots of poorly written laws, drawn in haste to get some politician onto a soapbox.

In the same issue, there was an Op-Ed piece, from one of the nameless Op-Ed department typewriter biscuits, about the "Global Threat" of tobacco. I knew I was going to dislike this article just from the title. Basic thrust, poor countries smoke a whole fuck-load, which is one order of magnitude greater than a shit-load, and the answer is government bans on the sale, advertisement, promotion, and big, scary pictures on the packages. As Dennis Leary once said, "It doesn't matter how big the warnings on the cigarettes are; you could have a black pack, with a skull and crossbones on the front, called TUMORS, and smokers would be around the block going, 'I can't wait to get my hands on these fucking things! I bet ya get a tumor as soon as you light up!'"

I find it very easy to believe the tobacco industry's claim of converting people from local brands. They don't need to recruit new people. The local culture is doing that all by itself. Even in Western countries, there's no need to recruit people. Just put your product up for sale, give it a cool name, and extant addicts will be happy to puff your particular brand. Japan, for example; 50% of men smoke. In China, it's even higher. In African countries, where the article specifically mentions, everyone already smokes! Now, the actual data is problematic to interpret because it says that less than a third of men actually smoke in Africa, but that includes people so poor that they can't afford cigarettes. Those that can afford appear to have a much higher incidence. I'm tired of the ridiculous vilification of the tobacco industry. They're a business, they make a product and they try to get people to want it. That's the way this works. If the government wants to stop things, stop people from wanting it. Don't blame the companies, and don't blame the governments of those pooooor, uneducated savages down in Africa. Us enlightened white people don't know everything.

Before you get into a tizzy, I'm against smoking. I hate it. Can't stand it. I've never smoked. It's my single biggest turn-off in women. I flat-out avoid smokers. BUT, and here's a big but, that's my choice. I do not feel the need to blame other people when somebody chooses to start smoking. I do not demand that I can eat or go anywhere free of someone else's smokes. If a restaurant wants to cater to smokers, more power to them. If they want my business, they'll simply have to cater to me, as well, in some way. But no, in this country we pass absurd laws telling people how to run their businesses. Oh, but it's for their own good. Right. No, it's for the good of the grand-standing politician who rode the controversy into another term.

I want to see smoking eradicated, and I think it will be. It's deadly, terrible, and smelly. But if someone chooses to smoke, then they should be allowed to. They have to freedom to light up, just as I have the freedom to get up, and leave. It's not that hard.

Friday, February 22, 2008

I Vacuum.

I got a pair of cleaning robots for Christmas: The iRobot Roomba 580 and the Scooba 380. They're the high-end variants of each model and after the last two months of pretty solid use, I must say, I'm pretty disappointed. I wasn't expecting the moon or anything, but the adventures I've had really don't justify the price.

The Roomba, for example, coming in at over $500, seems to have the dexterity and software complexity of robots I build back in high school with a TI-83. I'm not exaggerating. The vacuum turns on with this triumphant NES theme song, hums to life, and rockets away in search of a place to get stuck. It starts humping everything in sight, bashing into things, and wedging itself into nooks corners like some crazed hamster. It's suction power is such that any dirt that lies more than a femtometer beneath the surface of the carpet is well outside of the vacuume range. Hard floors work well, and large bits on the carpet surface are easily captured, but pet hair? HA!

You might as well try to clean up pet hair with hope. Now, assuming you have a room with almost nothing in it, and the dirt is fresh, the Roomba will get it. But if your house is the slightest bit lived-in, the vacuum will be utterly confounded by anything and everything you have. Bookbags, pets, shoes, magazines, carpets, chairs, bags, children, clothing, newspapers, wires, cords, and just about anything else you can think of will royally fuck with this robot's world.

Because of this, you cannot use the Roomba's most useful feather, namely, setting the timer to have it automatically clean at some set time. Because, if you should ever try this, you will be greeted every morning by your Roomba stuck in the ceiling fan. You would need to keep your house impeccably clean, just to make sure that the Roomba was able to clean it. And even then, it may decide that it just doesn't like your drapes and try to eat them. Or it will decide that it needs to be cleaned. Or it will just beep a lot and refuse to do anything because it has a cat stuck in its brush.

The Roomba 580, $500, does the same job as the basic Roomba 400, namely, a bad one. I expected very little from the basic Roomba which came free with the Scooba, and I got it. It does a decent job at cleaning up little messes. But for $500, I expected a lot more. I expected an LCD display to tell me things. I expected a vacuum which is able to suck more than just air. I expected a robot with enough sensors to adequately navigate an environment. I feel pretty confident that I could do a better job with a Lego Mindstorms kit, car battery, Hoover canister vac, and some RC car parts.

As it stands, I still vacuum once a day with the clunky Dyson. The Roomba, in all its technical glory, vacuums the tile floor in the kitchen. Which is then followed by the bigger disappointment, the Scooba. Also ringing in at $500, the Scooba does a fantastic job of getting everything very wet and then running out of battery. I won't deny that the water it sucks up is dirty, but the floor never looks any cleaner. It takes the dirty floor and makes the dirt shiny. And do you remember, when you were a kid, those battery powered cars (mine was a fire truck) that just drove in a straight line until it hit something, backed up, and went in another direction? They usually had that set of rotating wheels on the bottom. Well, the Scooba is one of those with a wet-vac attached. For $500. For $500 I could buy a Mexican to spray detergent everywhere and then suck it off the floor. It has no sensors, no advanced programming designed to develop a map of its environment, no interface with which to program it. Nothing. It just crashes around and gets stuck under the dish washer.

All of this seems created for people that have fake messes. You know those Swiffer mops and brooms. Yeah, for those messes. They're made for messes that people don't actually make. Like that puddle of grape juice on the otherwise glazen floor. Or those small plastic pellets that people in vacuum commercials always seem to be spilling. And they're always cleaned up by the mother who seems to be a state of bemused resignation that her children, husband, and pets are all retarded slobs. But, through the aid of these amazing products, she keeps the house so clean you could perform open heart surgery on the couch! These are not products for people who have actual messes. Mud tracked into the house? Get down on your knees and scrub. Pet hair? Get out the Hoover. An otherwise coruscating house and you want to pretend that you need stuff cleaned? IRobot has the answer!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Win Ben Stein's Stupidity

I once kind of respected Ben Stein as being a sort of quirky, c-list celebrity who knew a whole bunch of stuff. Now, well, now he's vaulted pretty far onto my shit list.

Ben Stein Wins Intelligent Design Money (Scientific American Blogs)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Well Sir, That Will be $55,535. Enjoy Your Mini Cooper!, a favorite read of mine, has an interesting short on how expensive one can get a car on a company's "Build Your Own" section of their website. A few standouts include a V6 Porsche Cayenne at nearly $165,000, a Porsche Boxter clocks in at $118,000, and a Smart FourTwo, one of the crappiest cars I have ever driven, at a hair under $29,000.

The rationale of these cars and whether they're worth it aside, it made me think about the disconnect between cars prices, inflation, our parents' generation, and the credit economy... I read into things.

It made me think about how car prices have increased so exorbitantly. Yes, I can see where much of the money goes, cars today are vastly superior to cars of thirty years ago, but I find it interesting and telling that car prices have increased so out of line with inflation. For example, a base Mustang in 1965 cost $2,368, which works out to about $15,000 grand in today's dollars. A base Mustang today costs $20,000. A five-thousand dollar difference is not insignificant. In fact, it's bloody huge.

I was also thinking as I looked at the listing for a BMW 1-Series costing nearly $60,000, or a Honda Accord at $38,000, that the disconnect between advertised prices and what the cars actually cost betrays the sort of financial gymnastics that accountants must play to get their cars advertised at the prices they need. It reminds me of an experience I had with my parents years ago. They wanted to buy a Hyundai Sonata. They saw a flier from a local Hyundai dealer advertising a price of, I think, $14,000 for new example of last year's model. After some talking, and revealing the flier, the man looked at us and said, flatly, "we can't sell you a car for that price. No one can."

After my mother stormed out, and ran, she had to use the bathroom, we were about to leave when the salesman chased after us and, well, we made the purchase. So happy ending. But the guy we were dealing with said that the advertisement was a lie, and frankly, so are all the other advertisements for every other dealer. They all lie. It's the only way they can sell cars. Dealers lie. Manufacturers lie. And can you imagine what dire straits the auto industry would be in if they hadn't invented leases? Thirty years ago, leases (almost) didn't exit. Now, a huge chunk of the American population rely on leases to just get around.

It's not that cars have outstripped inflation, it's that inflation numbers do not represent actual inflation. Inflation, much like car prices, is also a lie. It's a lie that has, as the economy has evolved over years, required ever-more complex bouts of gymnastics from economists to keep the economy on the perceived golden path of 2-3% inflation. Unfortunately, income has NOT kept up with inflation. Your parents earned more than you, on average, than you are earning. Which means the cheaper cars thirty years ago were more easily affordable on sheer income than the more expensive cars of today.

Basically, what this means is that people can't afford cars. Well, I should say that people can't afford the cars they want. They can afford the cars they don't want, like, say, the Honda Fit or Hyundai Elantra. Most people with average incomes can afford these cars. But what cars were selling like hotcakes over the last fifteen years? SUVs! Granted, as gas goes up they go down, but I'm talking about the last decade or so, not just the last three years. And of course, how could they buy all these expensive cars that no one can actually afford? Credit! Yes, credit.

The American economy is as insane as it is because of credit. Good, bad, we'll see what the ramifications of it are in a few years, but it cannot be argued that most of what we see are because of the credit economy. Starbucks, Audi, McMansions, and Coach Bags all exist on the credit economy. It's a strange thought, but much more than cars, we haven't been able to afford life for decades, and it's only getting worse.

I mentioned that inflation lies. Well, I seriously doubt there's an economics professor out there who would disagree with that (I say professor because professional economists also lie. Remember, they make money from your perceptions). Places like Wal*Mart have sent the prices of packaged food and televisions down. In the case of things that can be outsourced to China, the prices have plummeted. Just sit back and think about the immense processing capacity in your cell phone. It's all because of China.

But things we can't outsource have done nothing but go up. Cable service, for example, has increased immensely. Take a look at these diagrams lovingly stolen from The Mess That Greenspan Made.

Man does not live on clothing alone. That apparel category is nothing but clothing and jewelry. Nothing else. But "Other Goods and Services" is loaded to the gills with service and not goods. You can see these subcategories in detail below, at the Consumer Expenditure link. And, lookie lookie! That category is through the roof. Transportation follows the ups and downs of gasoline. Recreation goes up steadily. And housing... housing is a laughable number. It doesn't actually include house prices, instead it includes a statistic called "equivalent rent."

Equivalent rent is, roughly, the amount of money that it would cost to rent a place of similar amenities to a place you want to buy. For example, I want house A, and a mortgage would cost me $1,000 per month. Equivalent rent seems like it would say what kind of house could I rent for $1,000 per month, but it actually means that I could rent a house similar to house A for some amount of money. It is almost always lower than the cost of owning since ownership provides many bonuses not apparent in the numbers, and is thus worth it. But, as recently happened, if a housing market explodes, housing costs go way up, and since equivalent rents are lower than mortgage costs, and houses that were once available for rent instead go up for sale, the equivalent rent statistic becomes corrupted.

This happens because the equivalent rent statistic is heavily weighted towards other rental properties, and if those are all now for sale, and other houses that are being rented are being lived in by people terrified to give up their comparably low rate, there is NO WAY to determine an equivalent rent. House A would now cost $2,000 per month to own, but still appears as $1,000 per month comparable rent and inflation is unaffected. Equivalent rent can also be massaged based on who is doing the analyzing. Two financial firms can go into an area and run their "algorithms," and come up with wild divergent data. These data are almost always skewed towards some agenda. So on that chart, where the line says 'housing,'considering that housing costs nearly doubled in some areas of the country, increasing over 30% in good ol' RI, imagine it far and away on the top of the list.

To further illustrate the disconnect between reality and the easily digestible numbers we see on TV, look at the spending for recreation in 2005. Toys and televisions are plummeting thanks to those helpful, slanty-eyed slave workers over in the land of Pandas and rice, but most everything else is going way up. Data gathering for movie tickets didn't even begin and even that is a skewed number. Average movie ticket prices include everything down to 45th-run theaters. I instead go on data from my local megaplex. In 1998, I paid $5.25 to see Godzilla. And that had been a brand new $0.25 price increase. It now costs $10.25, with another $0.25 increase planned for the summer. That means from 1998 to now, a prime-time, megaplex ticket has seen a 100% increase. That's a shit-load of inflation and data that aren't included in the publicly available charts.

These data do not show the economy as progressing in a healthy way. They show two totally different sets of data that exist on the extremes of a spectrum. If anything, they show the economy as deteriorating. The public, joyfully encouraged to do this by the government and financial institutions, only pays attention to the happy average and is consequently oblivious to our sorry state. And how the hell did all of this happen? The credit economy and the desperate need for that $55,000 Mini Cooper.

Once you factor in the again-exploding credit card debt, it gets worse.

The average American household is carrying somewhere between $8000 and $10,000 in credit card debt alone. That doesn't even include other forms of debt like small loans and cars. Just plastic. $8,000. The only reason, the only reason your neighbors have that Mercedes is because of credit. If it wasn't for credit, you wouldn't even know what a BMW is. A BMW? A motorcycle? You want a motorcycle? Ohhh, they make cars, too?! We now live on credit. Nearly 50% of all households are spending more than they earn in a year.

I, for one, think we're crusin' for a bruisin'. The fact that are unable to afford life itself anymore means that the economy must suffer a correction. I don't know how bad it would be, but I suspect it would be bad. That's not to say we can't afford life, but we can't afford the life of an American. A Honda Civic, a TV, a computer, a night out once a week are all well within the means of most Americans. Too bad our economy is based on us spending far more than those seemingly simple things.

The credit economy is something our parents didn't have. They dreamed of owning a house. They dreamed of no debt and savings. Hell, that wasn't even our parents, that was our grandparents. The dreams of an ideal age, fresh out of winning the greatest war the world had seen, everyone could own a slice of paradise with some hard work. Where the hell did those dreams go? Washed away, I guess, by a torrent of easy credit, and $55,000 Minis.

Data and junk:
Consumer Expenditure Data (Bureau of Labor & Statistics)
Equivalent Rent Nonsense (The Mess That Greenspan Made)
Benign Inflation (The Mess That Greenspan Made)
The Truth About Credit Card Debt (Ms. Weston makes good points here, and I thought it important to include, but the problem is that the "most" she cites is only 55%, and the economy is heavily based on the remaining 45%. And, of course, credit card debt is the smallest part of the problem.)
Money 101: Controlling Debt

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I see a fundamental problem with artificial intelligence. I haven't read any other heavy criticisms of the idea that AI is possible, save for an issue of Skeptic Magazine. Still, after a great deal of thought and research, and including my own expertise in psychology and neurology, I seriously doubt we will ever achieve AI. At least not AI in the classic, sci-fi sense.

For that kind of AI, we need to be able to construct self-awareness from the outside in. Basically, we study the brain, we study how it works, learn the language of thought as we would a computer language, and than construct a program that is self-aware. I really doubt this is possible. because of the way in which intelligence arises. It doesn't arise from the outside in. A creature never came along (Unless you're a Catholic) and just imbued something with self-awareness. The revelation of self awareness comes from within, when the entity evolves into it.

I don't think there is any "language" of self awareness since no language is required. As neuroscience shows time and time again, the human brain can function with different layouts, sizes, and structure to identical ends. It's because each computer programs itself as it grows. It's because of that that I doubt we will ever be able to program something ourself.

What we could do is create a network of computers with similar basic programming to the primordial brain, and just watch and hope that some sort of consciousness arises within the system. I think this is a possibility. Granted, we don't have the technology to do it, but it's a possibility. Unfortunately, that doesn't fulfill the God desire: the desire to create actively, not passively. It's not AI per se.

In fact, it may be an artificial environment, a computer one, but the development of the intelligence would be very natural. One that follows the rules of the system laid down but otherwise meanders about its own path. And, again, in the end we would be unable to read the code that was created and "see" the intelligence since the code is only readable by the code. Any pattern works. Any code. Any compiler, as it were. It doesn't matter. The syntax and whatnot come from itself. One aware orgamism can be 99% different from another aware organism. The basic structure of our brains may be the same, but for all we know, every brain, in every person EVERWHERE "speaks" another programming language, since the logic to the whole mess only needs to make sense to itself.

I think the movie Bicentennial Man is a good representative of how AI may arise. We may create a system that is intended to be as close to human as possible, and during its development, that one-in-a-million developmental direction takes place and a robot becomes self-aware. But what kind of awareness would it be? How do we program a system of neurochemical awards? Could we create a robot that can get addicted to drugs? Our own consciousness stems from these basic concepts. We cannot create the gross elements of our behavior and build down. It is impossible.

Would our robot have the capacity to be happy? Or sad? Would it have ambition? These are a complex mixture of various elements of the brain that build up to form "I" and no computer could recreate that. For example, I want food. How could we program a computer to want food. We could program 'acquire food,' but there's a huge difference between a mere command and the word "want." How can we program want. It's something that doesn't exist from the outside-in.

That means the programming to seek out food must come from a basic level. This basic level is apparent with us, our ancient microbial ancestors that had some basic chemical process that made them travel towards food survived. This resulted in a more complex mechanism of having the means to travel towards food, still a basic chemical process, which went on and on. We "want" because it's a fundamental part of what we as human animals are. How are we to solve that? We would need to first solve the problem of programming fundamental parts. And, again, those parts cannot be created from the outside in.

As such, I don't think AI is an endeavor that even needs to be made. In fact, I think a quest for true AI is a waste. The Turing Test had it right. We should focus on AI only so far as it relates to interactions with humans for a purpose. For example, Rosie the Maid from The Jetsons doesn't need to be a cantankerous robot from the depths of Brooklyn, she only needs to be able to interact with her environment and achieve a simple set of tasks. That's achievable, hell, that's downright easy. But true AI, forget it.

More About Politics.

As the media circus surrounding the upcoming presidential election continues its upward rise, I grow ever-more-convinced of the rightness of my belief that politics is basically entertainment for the masses. Politics, all politics, has become a sort of American Idol for ugly megalomaniacs.

I've said before that I consider politics almost useless and politicians completely so. That isn't to say I don't take politics seriously, because I certainly do. Just not in a sort of popular way.

I also am finding that the degradation of politics is accelerating with the acceleration of new media. It's become a 24/7 riot of speeches, stumping, candidates going to the mattresses over things they seem to agree on, and supporters screaming at each other about topics about which they seem to understand very, very little.

This isn't going to turn into support for any candidate. It's more a musing on the collapse of political importance. It's hard to say, since I've only been alive for a slightly over a quarter century, but I think that politics has actually gotten less importance. I know it seems more important, but I suspect that is because of the coverage it gets and since representatives from other countries are, on television anyways, their politicians.

How sad that is. Wouldn't it be great if the face of France for American news wasn't some big-nosed, big-eared, big-foreheaded baby. Or think about America! How great it would have been if our representative to the world wasn't George Bush! How many other countries must feel the same?

Oh right, the collapse. It just seems to me that politics is actually having a decreasing roll to play in the world, regardless of the media. I think the media has more to do with the easy-digestibility of politics. It's very people-oriented. Morons can easily understand politics. Morons cannot easily understand science. In fact, recent events in the US such as the Dover Schools/Intelligent Design debacle highlight that science downright scares some people. Too bad that it's the future.

And that's incredibly bad. Not only should we never discount the power of stupid people in large groups, I read that on a t-shirt once, but we cannot afford to have an "intelligent elite." Other countries, maybe, but not the US. Or economy is rocketing towards a service/"idea" economy. Ideas from the intelligent elite being serviced by the idiotic masses? Economically, it seems feasibly, but that would reduce America self-serving nothingness on the global stage. Probably replaced by the European Union in importance.

Oh right, back to the collapse. Politics is easily digestible, so that's why so, SO many people jump on. They don't need to understand anything beyond desires, emotions, and whether they like someone or not. But as the circus grows, it all seems a bit... pointless. I'm quite sure this has been said before by some idiot in every generation, but I have the seismic shift in media that's happening to help my point.

Politics is becoming more important to more people, but because of that free-for-all, the people who actually matter are leaving it behind. They don't want to try and change the minds of a million, or a billion, twits. They just want to get shit done! And the more morons you have, the harder it is to get shit done. Hence the cliché of chefs ruining broth. Politics was a broth, and as it stands, we've got so many chefs we don't know what to do with them all.

I suspect that the people before me who have speculated the same were also correct. Like I've said, name a single great politician. That's hard enough. Then try naming five. And by great, I mean someone who has changed the world. Politics has never been terribly important. If it had been, we'd have more great politicians throughout history. It's science that changes things. Name a great scientist. Go ahead. Try to keep your list under a page. I dare you.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

I Thought The US Had a Patent on This Kind of Stuff.

Is this... correct? I mean, I just. This seems too off-the-wall to even be correct.

LONDON (AFP) - Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real.

The survey found that 47 percent thought the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart was a myth.

And 23 percent thought World War II prime minister Churchill was made up. The same percentage thought Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale did not actually exist.

Three percent thought Charles Dickens, one of Britain's most famous writers, is a work of fiction himself.

Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi and Battle of Waterloo victor the Duke of Wellington also appeared in the top 10 of people thought to be myths.

Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Holmes actually existed; 33 percent thought the same of W. E. Johns' fictional pilot and adventurer Biggles.

UKTV Gold television surveyed 3,000 people.

Come Together, Right Now, Under Me.

A recent article on Yahoo! from Reuters says that some people in the United States are feeling left out of the Jesus-soaked brawl that American politics has become. Really? Why specifically do you feel left out? Is it that politicians blather about their beliefs every chance they get? Or the fact that if you don't take Jesus as your savior then the southern part of the country thinks your an evil heathen? You along with gays and Mexicans. Skip down to the bottom of the article, where it says that Atheists and Evangelicals are the most likely groups to vote. The two extreme ends of the spectrum. Atheists are better, though. They vote so people will simply tolerate them. Evangelicals vote to make sure no one ever does.

Article lovingly stolen from Yahoo!-Reuters since they delete articles after a couple of weeks.

By Ed Stoddard Sun Feb 3, 8:48 AM ET

DALLAS (Reuters) - In a U.S. election campaign where presidential candidates from both major parties have talked openly about their Christian faith, some non-Christians feel shut out or turned off.

Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, religion plays a big and sometimes decisive role in politics in America, where levels of belief and regular worship are far higher than those in Europe.

"Non-Christians are concerned that they will be excluded from the process," said Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"I welcome faith values if they inspire candidates to do good things. But I worry if it is used as a litmus test to include someone in political participation."

About 75 percent of the U.S. population, long a melting pot of immigrants from around the world, identifies itself as Christian, according to several estimates.

That is a huge but divergent source of potential votes for Republican and Democratic candidates in their long contest for the nomination to run for the White House in the November election.

U.S. politicians are not shy of talking about their religion and regularly appear in church.

In recent decades, part of the American political drama has been scripted by the "religious right" -- mostly white evangelical Protestants united by strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage who have been a key base of support for the Republican Party.

Republican hopeful Mike Huckabee, who scooped up strong evangelical support but whose campaign is fading ahead of next Tuesday's nominating contests across the country, is a Baptist preacher who peppers his speeches with Biblical allusions.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon who was moved to address questions about his faith in a speech in December. John McCain has long sought to smooth relations after including leaders of the religious right among those he called "agents of intolerance" during his failed presidential bid in 2000.

The leading Democratic presidential contenders have also been open and candid about their faith.

That faith, and that of the Republican candidates, is Christian, although candidates have also spoken about the need for religious tolerance.

A false rumor that has circulated on the Internet about Democratic candidate Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, is that he is Muslim who has lied about his religion. The rumor appears to illustrate the importance some voters attach to a candidate being Christian.


Estimates of the numbers of non-Christians in America vary. Some put the percentage of atheists, agnostics or "unaffiliated" at between 15 and 18 percent of the population of 300 million.

Jews, Muslims, Hindus and people of other religions make up fewer than 10 percent of the population.

Standing in a Hindu temple in a Dallas suburb before statues of his religion's deities, Tejas Karve says he understands why the candidates stress their commitment to Christianity. But it does leave him with a sense of exclusion.

"I think it's geared more towards Christians because that's the majority. It's incomprehensible for them (Americans) to have a candidate who's not Christian," the 26-year-old pilot, who immigrated from India eight years ago, told Reuters.

"I do believe they leave (non-Christians) out to a point."

Political professions of faith leave some unmoved.

"Why is that relevant? Who cares? The great issue is where do we stand on Medicare and Social Security and immigration ... Why inject religiosity into that?" asked Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism.

"Are we (secular humanists and atheists) marginalized? No. Are we turned off? Yes!"

Atheists and agnostics have long been targets of the religious right who see moral decay in secularization.

Some critics say those without a religion were singled out in the speech by Romney in which he sought to ease concerns among Republican evangelicals about his Mormon faith.

He said "freedom requires religion" -- implying that it could not exist without it -- and criticized those who "seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God ... It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America -- the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

A Pew Research Center survey last year found that 63 percent of those polled said they would be "less likely" to support a presidential candidate who did not believe in God.

But those who say they are "unaffiliated" or atheist are very keen to cast their ballots. Pew data shows that 82 percent of them are very or somewhat likely to vote. At 90 percent, evangelicals are the only group more likely to vote.

(Editing by Frances Kerry)

(For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at

Maybe It Was a Cellphone Cam.

Sir Edmund Hillary died not too long ago. Lived a jolly good long life, as I'm sure he'd say, being British and all. But it reminded of something I had thought about long ago after looking at some photos of him on Everest. They seemed so modern. They're in color. They're pretty clear. While the materials of his clothing probably seem ancient by today's standards, they look pretty modern in the photo. It just looks so, so... today.

And that's my point. Over fifty years ago, a half century, and I can feel this connection with a time because the photos look so new. There's no clothing or cars to hilariously date it. In a way, my sense of past and present is based on what seems old or new. If the photo is in black & white, ah ha! That's old! If the photo is in color, oh, well it was just yesterday. Let's go back twenty five years, 1983. Holy shit! That was twenty five years?! Now that WAS just yesterday. We had computers, and video games, and heavy metal. We had Madonna, and pink Armani shirts, and the movie Wargames.

How will people twenty five years from now see the past. I just took some digital photos that are crisp, perfectly exposed, and vibrantly colorful. Ghostbusters seems like yesterday, how will today feel in another quarter century, and then, how will 1983 seem to them? Will it seem ancient? Will they look back on Billy Idol and rainbow socks as the quaint vagaries of a long-lost age?

Or will they lose a sense of what's old and what's new? Have we already? With bell bottoms, Star Wars, swing music, and James Dean eternal,will it always seem like yesterday? How do we, as a culture, anchor ourselves chronologically? I mean, the 1980's seems like yesterday. I'm a child of the 80's. I remember the toys, the shows, and the movies. But it's not just us. It's everyone. Everyone looks at the 80's as yesterday. I think it's because the 1980's saw the beginnings of everything by which we define the modern world. Computers, video games, special effects movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger, yuppies, affordable fashion, pop-music, global communication, and compact cars. It just seems so similar. Nothing disconnects us.

That's what I feel when I look at those photos of Hillary. I feel connected to a time when my mother was still shitting herself. It's weird. It seems like it should be so long ago. Like World War II seems forever ago, to me. I didn't live it, but there are tons of people who lived through it. Who fought in it. The war had computers, and bombs, and special scientific research. It was very modern. But still, even though it came less than a decade before Hillary, a time when they were still rebuilding, it seems forever ago.

Perhaps because it wasn't in color. Now everything is. It's a brave new world. A world of color.