Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sci-fi writers join war on terror

Clockwise from top left, Jerry Pournelle, Arlan Andrews, Greg Bear, Larry Niven and Sage Walker

Looking to prevent the next terrorist attack, the Homeland Security Department is tapping into the wild imaginations of a group of self-described "deviant" thinkers: science-fiction writers. "We spend our entire careers living in the future," says author Arlan Andrews, one of a handful of writers the government brought to Washington this month to attend a Homeland Security conference on science and technology.

Those responsible for keeping the nation safe from devastating attacks realize that in addition to border agents, police and airport screeners, they "need people to think of crazy ideas," Andrews says.

The writers make up a group called Sigma, which Andrews put together 15 years ago to advise government officials. The last time the group gathered was in the late 1990s, when members met with government scientists to discuss what a post-nuclear age might look like, says group member Greg Bear. He has written 30 sci-fi books, including the best seller Darwin's Radio.

Now, the Homeland Security Department is calling on the group to help with the government's latest top mission of combating terrorism.

... The group's motto is "Science Fiction in the National Interest."

...Pournelle and others say that science-fiction writers have spent their lives studying the kinds of technologies and scenarios Homeland Security officials have been tackling since the department began operating in 2003.

"We talk to a lot of strange people and read a lot of weird things," Bear says.

... The 9/11 Commission called the 2001 terrorist attacks a result of the government's "failure of imagination." For this group, Walker says, there's no such thing as an "unthinkable scenario."

Why offer their ideas to the government instead of private companies that pay big bucks?

"To save civilization," Ringworld author Larry Niven says. "We do it in fiction. Why wouldn't we want to do it in fact?"

You'll have to excuse me if I feel that this meeting of the minds may be a little dubious. Larry Niven is my favorite sci-fi author and I'm a big fan of Jerry Pournelle, but methinks that this is just the government massaging a few egos (which many authors have particularly large ones of) to try and get pop-culture to rubber stamp their empire-making. After all, we already have 24 serving that purpose ... working viewers into a frenzy and making them fear that there is a terrorist around every corner.

Terrorism is not going to be what ruins our society. Arrogance, imperialism and fascism will be. If they are genuinely trying to get some input to help predict what society we are creating with our decisions, then more power to them. But call me skeptical. Foresight, imagination and planning have never been the strong suits of this government.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed

I saw a very well-made show on the History Channel tonight, Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed, that examined the mythology of the Star Wars series of films. It explained how Lucas drew from classic archetypes of history, mythology, religion and literature to create characters and situations that just about everyone can see and connect with. He made these references general enough that people from vastly different stations and cultures could see things that they identify with. These connections are explained not by Lucas himself or even anyone from the film but rather from historians, experts in mythology, politicians and other directors. The directors predictably included Kevin Smith -- someone who has not had a film that did not have a Star Wars reference in it. Peter Jackson, Joss Whedon (Serenity, Buffy) and J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) also made appearances. But, people like Camille Paglia and Stephen Colbert also explained the influences of the film and how it influenced others.

One of the politicians that were interviewed was Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, a self-proclaimed expert in history, somehow always seems to forget a vast majority of it, overstates his influence in it, and funnels everything through the narrow prism of the Cold War and Ronald Reagan. In three different segments, he was interviewed and the things that he gleaned from Star Wars were that good and evil are clear-cut, that the Jedi Order represented Jesuits and that the Dark Side obviously represented Russia. Quite the broad view you have there, Newt.

But even his inclusion did not detract from the program. It just confirms that there is something in the stories for everyone.

Parallels were made to Nazi Germany, to Homer's Oddyssey, to Hamlet, to the Greeks and Romans, to Lord of the Rings, to King Arthur, to Paradise Lost, etc. Classic concepts of "mentor", "nemesis", "sins of the father", etc. were explained. All very interesting stuff. By drawing on mythology of the past and introducing it in an interesting and new setting, Star Wars is creating it's own new mythology.

Even if you only like Star Wars a little, I recommend checking out this program. It provides a new frame of reference in which to re-watch the Star Wars films.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

To honor those who serve while condemning the mission that put them in harm's way -- a delicate balance. One which James at Genius of Insanity has tastefully done:

Memorial Day 2007

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Opinions and Tats in the Workplace

I've been think pretty hard about getting a tattoo lately. I don't know if it's because of seeing Laura's great work (Tattoo Rd 2), because of early onset of a mid-life crisis, or just because. I've always wanted to get a tattoo but didn't want to slap just anything on my body. I'd prefer something philosophy, ecological, or human rights related. I've love to hear any great suggestions that you guys have.

It will most likely be on the upper arm or shoulder. I'd love to extend beyond that but I have to break in the wife gradually. She's not exactly thrilled by me even thinking about my first tattoo.

I'm not worried about the tattoo from a work standpoint at all. The only jobs that I've ever held were at extremely laid back places or self-employed. My tattoos would never be visible during work, but even if they were or if my client knew about my tattoo, I wouldn't let that be a deterrent. Anyone that judges me (or anyone) in that manner, I would not be afraid to lose. What should the role of tattoos be in the workplace? I read a fairly interesting piece in our local paper (re-printed from a national article: Tattoos Help Redefine 'Business Casual'). It tells how many jobs are becoming more lenient towards tattoos (and piercing), most notably academics, while others are being forced to revise their office codes to address them. I'm kinda curious to hear Laura's views and stories of her tattoos in the workplace.

I have three ear piercings and a nipple ring. At the last job that I had, I wore earrings to work but while I've been self-employed, I've chosen not to. Am I kissing the ass of "the man" or just making a conscious decision to be realistic and to cater to the sensibilities of my clientele? Is it subverting part of one's self or is it a smart business decision ... or both?

And is this only about physical manifestations of our personalities? Many of us will not bring up our political or religious feelings in a work environment. Personally, I don't feel that it is suppressing part of myself. I just don't feel that those are appropriate places to talk about those things. Actually, I will rarely bring up those subjects even in social settings unless directly asked about them. Obviously it's not because I don't have strong opinions, it's just that the people that look like the biggest asses are those that are all too free with dispensing of unprovoked wisdom.

"'Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt." -- Abraham Lincoln

Concerning religion, I think a few of my clients would be surprised (and probably shocked) to know the truth. I've actually designed a website for one church, worked on a class presentation for a Christian school, and have done all kinds of computer work for a third church. Is it my responsibility to tell them of my religious views (or any views, for that matter)? Should my views really matter? My personal views have no bearing on how hard I will work for that client. I will do the job to the best of my ability and to their specifications. After all, they're not asking my to convert or to proselytize.

Regardless of whether it is a work or social settings, if I'm directly asked about anything - religious, political, etc. - I will give my honest opinion. There is a difference between not divulging information (that should not have any bearing on my ability to do a job) and bald-face lying.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Movie Reviews

Spiderman 3 -- Too long, too many villains, too devoid of heart. I believe there was too much action at the expense of any kind of cogent story. The strength of Sam Raimi's first two Spidey's was the expert handling of the humanness of the Peter Parker/Spiderman character. In Spiderman 3, it is botched so badly that when Tobey Maguire's character breaks down emotionally, you just don't buy it. I think Tobey Maguire is a good actor and I've liked most of his movies, but when his lip starts to quiver, my tendency was to laugh.

I know movies based on comic heroes are obviously going to be a little cartoonish, but Raimi took a step towards camp with this one and that is where the original Batman movies doomed themselves. Probably the only highlights of the movie are in some of the supporting roles. Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron Howard) is cute as a button as a competing love interest and Thomas Haden Church turns in his normal solid performance as the Sandman.

I did find interesting the fairly obvious religious imagery of Spiderman 3. Themes of pride, vengeance, forgiveness, sacrifice, etc. are splattered throughout the movie. Visual cues of crosses and the church where Spiderman removes his black suit drive the point home even more. I'm not necessarily criticizing the fact that there is this religious imagery, I just think it was done in a rather ham-fisted manner. If you really need to see a comic book movie, check out the first two Spideys and Batman Returns, but skip Spiderman 3. Grade: C


On Sadie's tip, we checked out The Education of Shelby Knox. I had heard Shelby speak before on Al Franken's radio show a few years back and I knew of her pursuits but I hadn't watched the movie yet. Shelby's a very socially conscious high schooler from a conservative Christian family in Lubbock, Texas. Her crusade is to get more comprehensive sex education into the notoriously backward Texas schools. Abstinence-only education is prevalent in this area where it is assumed that if you even mention condoms to young people, they will go out and have sex on the spot. The problem is, in this area, they are doing it anyway. Rates of teen pregnancy and STD's are higher in Texas than in areas with more encompassing sex education. The movie follows Shelby for two years as she works through a local youth group to petition school boards and the public in general to change the system. She fights the school board, local religious leaders, local government, other students in her group, and even her family a little bit. It's a very good story and shows that if you care enough about anything, it doesn't matter where you are or what type of background you have, you can make a difference. Grade: B+


Pursuit of Happyness -- Another very good acting job from Will Smith in a serious role that documents the life of Chris Gardner: "In 1981, Chris Gardner was a struggling salesman in little needed medical bone density scanners while his wife toiled in double shifts to support the family including their young son, Christopher. In the face of this difficult life, Chris has the desperate inspiration to try for a stockbroker internship where one in twenty has a chance of a lucrative full time career. Even when his wife leaves him because of this choice, Chris clings to this dream with his son even when the odds become more daunting by the day. Together, father and son struggle through homelessness, jail time, tax seizure and the overall punishing despair in a quest that would make Gardner a respected millionaire."(from IMDb)

It would be hard to question the determination of Gardner or to doubt the obvious love that he had for his son, so I won't try. Smith brings an earnestness to the role that has the viewer definitely rooting for him.

Laura did a nice review of the film quite awhile ago: Pursuit of Happyness

I agree with all her points. No real problems with the film itself but more with how conservative pundits tend to glorify the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" stories to push an agenda that says we should do away with all social services. I watched an interview on Glenn Beck's show with Chris Gardner where Beck tried to do just that. With Beck and O'Reilly and the like, guests are just a means of them reinforcing the opinions that they have already formed. If the facts from the guests don't jibe with that, they'll just steamroll right on past that.

A second issue I would have is that the movie elevates the profession of stock broker to being a noble pursuit. I respect that Gardner found something that he was good at, did it honestly and provided for his family. But, inherently, the profession is not an honest one. You ultimately have to convince people to invest in things that they didn't originally want to invest in. And you have to use dubious information and half-truths to do it. You are, in effect, a glorified car salesman.

But, you can't change the actual facts of Gardner's life and what his job was has nothing to do with the acting or directing or look of the movie ... all of which are very good. I recommend the movie. Grade: B

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sum 41 -- "We're All to Blame"

Political song of the day:

Take everything left from me

How can we still succeed, taking what we don't need?
Telling lies, alibis, selling all the hate that we breed.

Supersize our tragedies! (You can't define me or justify greed)
Bought in the land of the free! (Land! Free!)

And we're all to blame,
We've gone too far,
From pride to shame,
We're trying so hard,
We're dying in vain,
We're hopelessly blissful and blind
To all we are,
We want it all with no sacrifice!

Realize we spend our lives living in a culture of fear.
Stand to salute; say thanks to the man of the year.

How did we all come to this? (You can't define me or justify greed)
This greed that we just can't resist! (Resist!)

And we're all to blame,
We've gone too far,
From pride to shame,
We're trying so hard,
We're dying in vain,
We're hopelessly blissful and blind
To all we are,
We want it all.
Everyone wants it all with no sacrifice!

Tell me now, what have we done? We don't know.
I can't allow what has begun to tear me down,
Believe me now, we have no choice left with our
Backs against the wall!

And now we're all to blame,
We've gone too far,
From pride to shame,
We're hopelessly blissful and blind
When all we need
Is something true
To believe,
Don't we all?
Everyone, everyone,
We will fall.

'Cause we're all to blame
We've gone too far,
From pride to shame,
We're trying so hard,
We're dying in vain,
We want it all,
Everyone, don't we all?

Sunday, May 20, 2007


This is admittedly a bit nerdy and probably the only person who will find it mildly interesting is CK because of his shared affinity of books, but I found this cool site today called LibraryThing. It's a site that allows you to catalog all your books online, share it and view other people's shared libraries. Since I'd just recently bought another bookcase, I was looking for a way to keep track of the books that I had and to make it easier to separate them by categories. Searching around, I came upon it, immediately registered and I have been adding books to the collection all night. It makes it very easy by allowing you to search by ISBN #, author, title, etc. and it will fill in all the extra info. Evidently, LibraryThing's been around for a few years and is the most popular site of it's type, but I had not heard of it before. The site is free for up to 200 books. Above that is a $10 a year or $25 lifetime membership.

Here's my shared library. I'm just getting started with the adding of my books.

dbackdad's library

"When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -- Desiderious Erasmus

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." -- Ray Bradbury

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Going Green - Update

  • ## With us being out of the house continuously from about 7:45 am to 5 pm each day (and with daytime outside temps hitting triple digits), we're now turning the thermostat up to 86 during the day. The A/C hardly comes on during the day and it's fairly easy to get it down in temp when we get home.

  • ## We made our first grocery shopping trip in which we exclusively used our canvas bags (instead of plastic). We've had about 4 or 5 of them for awhile but we always forget about taking them. The clerks at Fry's looked at us kinda funny but obliged by bagging the groceries in them. If we were at Sprouts, it wouldn't have been odd ... but at Fry's, I'm sure we were probably the first customers that had asked for that. Of course, they could have been looking at us funny because we looked like stereotypical liberals with me in my Rage shirt and the wife in her Amnesty International one. Oh well.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jerry Falwell

I wasn't going to write about religion for awhile. I had a little bit of God-lash. But, see what happens, as I try to pull away, it pulls me back in. The Rev. Jerry Falwell died today. This could be a perfect opportunity for me to be gracious, take the high road and to look back on his life and recount the positive influence he had on America and Christianity. But that would also be a lie. I would not wish anyone ill and I genuinely feel for his family, but let's not kid anyone about the destructive influence he has had on American politics and religion. Without even resorting to exaggeration or other people's words, we can do that. We can do it with his words:

"Christians, like slaves and soldiers, ask no questions"

"Billy Graham is the chief servant of Satan in America"

"The idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country"

"Textbooks are Soviet propaganda"

"Homosexuality is Satan's diabolical attack upon the family that will not only have a corrupting influence upon our next generation, but it will also bring down the wrath of God upon America."

(re: 9/11 attacks) "...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen."

"If you're not a born-again Christian, you're a failure as a human being."

"[homosexuals are] brute beasts...part of a vile and satanic system [that] will be utterly annihilated, and there will be a celebration in heaven."

"I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!"

"The Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible,without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc.."

"AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharoah's chariotters."

If you'd like a slightly less sarcastic recap of Falwell's life, please check out JA's post: Jerry Falwell Has Died

Falwell and his ilk have a dangerous influence on every aspect of this country's politics. Unfortunately, that influence does not die with him:

Bush met with Dobson and conservative Christian leaders ...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The God Delusion - Passage #4 (final one)

Consolation (from chapter 10 of the God Delusion by Richard Dawkins)

It is time to face up to the important role that God plays in consoling us; and the humanitarian challenge, if he does not exist, to put something in his place. Many people who concede that God probably doesn't exist, and that he is not necessary for morality, still come back with what they often regard as a trump card: the alleged psychological or emotional need for a god. If you take religion away, people truculently ask, what are you going to put in its place: What have you to offer the dying patients, the weeping bereaved, the lonely Eleanor Rigbys for whom God is their only friend?

The first thing to say in response to this is something that should need no saying. Religion's power to console doesn't make it true. Even if we make a huge concession; even if it were conclusively demonstrated that belief in God's existence is completely essential to human psychological and emotional well-being; even if all atheists were despairing neurotics driven to suicide by relentless cosmic angst - none of this would contribute the tiniest jog or tittle of evidence that religious belief is true. It might be evidence in favour of the desirability of convincing yourself that God exists, even if he doesn't. As I've already mentioned, Dennett, in Breaking the Spell, makes the distinction between belief in God and belief in belief: the belief that it is desirable to believe, even if the belief itself is false: 'Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief' (Mark 9:24). The faithful are encouraged to profess belief, whether they are convinced by it or not. Maybe if you repeat something often enough, you will succeed in convincing yourself of its truth. I think we know people who enjoy the idea of religious faith, and resent attacks on it, while reluctantly admitting that they don't have it themselves.

Since reading of Dennett's distinction, I have found occasion to use it again and again. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the majority of atheists I know disguise their atheism behind a pious facade. They do not believe in anything supernatural themselves but retain a vague soft spot for irrational belief ...

Some things I take from this:
Religion's power to console doesn't make it true - It may be an important side benefit but there are many other things that offer similar consolation, most notably family and friendship. But, ultimately, it doesn't really change whether you believe in something or not. It just makes you feel better.

Secondly, there are many more atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc. out there than we know. Some hide it because of fear of the consequences of revealing it. Others, as this passage relates, hide it because they truly enjoy the pageantry and benefits of believing. And that is fine. To each his own. We all have to arrive at some kind of truth by whatever path we choose. But, hopefully, we can all be secure enough in our faith or lack of faith to profess it.

This is my last passage from Dawkins' book. As you can probably gather, I did like it. A lot of the arguments are not new, but he does a good job of bringing together all the varied justifications for and against faith and analyzes each well. Thanks to all of you for playing along and provide valuable input and comments. For each of you, there are some lovely parting gifts -- salvation, eternal damnation, wisdom -- take your pick. For me, the "despairing neurotic driven to suicide by relentless cosmic angst", I'll just plod on and try to keep learning. But not this weekend. For the next few days, my only goal is to catch a few fish and have a few beers. It's off to Kaibab Lake ('05, '06) again. Everyone have a good weekend and chat back at you on Sunday.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The God Delusion - Passage #3

Why Am I Hostile Towards Religion? (chapter 8 by Richard Dawkins)

Despite my dislike of gladiatorial contests, I seem somehow to have acquired a reputation for pugnacity toward religion. Colleagues who agree that there is no God, who agree that we do not need religion to be moral, and agree that we can explain the roots of religion and of morality in non-religious terms, nevertheless come back at me in gentle puzzlement. Why are you so hostile? What is actually wrong with religion? Does it really do so much harm that we should actively fight against it? Why not live and let live, as one does with Taurus and Scorpio, crystal energy and ley lines? Isn't it all just harmless nonsense?

I might retort that such hostility as I or other atheists occasionally voice toward religion is limited to words. I am not going to bomb anybody, behead them, stone them, burn them at the stake, crucify them, or fly planes into their skyscrapers, just because of a theological disagreement. But my interlocutor usually doesn’t leave it at that. He may go on to say something like this: "Doesn’t your hostility mark you out as a fundamentalist atheist, just as fundamentalist in your own way as the wingnuts of the Bible Belt in theirs?" I need to dispose of this accusation of fundamentalism, for it is distressingly common.

Holy Books vs. Evidence (Fundamentalism and the subversion of science)

Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, any reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn’t happen with holy books.

Philosophers, especially amateurs with a little philosophical learning, and even more especially those infected with "cultural relativism," may raise a tiresome red herring at this point a scientist’s belief in evidence is itself a matter of fundamentalist faith. I have dealt with this elsewhere, and will only briefly repeat myself here. All of us believe in evidence in our own lives, whatever we may profess with our amateur philosophical hats on.


I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere. We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that.

It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion. I may well appear passionate when I defend evolution against a fundamentalist creationist, but this is not because of a rival fundamentalism of my own. It is because the evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed that my opponent can’t see it--or, more usually, refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book. My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The truths of evolution, along with many other scientific truths, are so engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed out on all that! Of course that makes me passionate. How could it not? But my belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.

Are criticisms of some as being "fundamentalist" atheists valid? I don't believe so if there are situations that could occur which you agree would change your mind. I don't believe there are similar situations for fundamentalists in the religious sense.

Do Christians consider the Bible to be "evidence" - equivalent to scientific evidence? I believe some do. But so do Mormons (Book of Mormon) and Scientologists (L. Ron Hubbard's writings) of their particular "bibles". Why is one more valid than the others if they were written by the hands of men?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The God Delusion - Passage #2

The Worship of Gaps (from Chapter 4 by Richard Dawkins)

Searching for particular examples of irreducible complexity is a fundamentally unscientific way to proceed: a special case of arguing from present ignorance. It appeals to the same faulty logic as "the God of the Gaps' strategy condemned by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Creationists eagerly seek a gap in present-day knowledge or understanding. If an apparent gap is found, it is assumed that God, by default, must fill it. What worries thoughtful theologians such as Bonhoeffer is that gaps shrink as science advances, and God is threatened with eventually having nothing to do and nowhere to hide. What worries scientists is something else. It is an essential part of the scientific enterprise to admit ignorance, even to exult in ignorance as a challenge to future conquests. As my friend Matt Ridley has written, 'Most scientists are bored by what they have already discovered. It is ignorance that drives them on.' Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: it gives them something to do. More generally ... one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.

Admissions of ignorance and temporary mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore unfortunate, to say the least, that the main strategy of creation propagandists is the negative one of seeking out gaps in scientific knowledge and claiming to fill them with 'intelligent design' by default. The following is hypothetical by entirely typical. A creationist speaking: 'The elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog is irreducibly complex. No part of it would do any good at all until the whole was assembled. Bet you can't think of a way in which the weasel frog's elbow could have evolved by slow gradual degrees.' If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, the creationist draws a default conclusion: 'Right then, the alternative theory, "intelligent design", wins by default.' Notice the biased logic: if theory A fails in some particular, theory B must be right. Needless to say, the argument is not applied the other way around. We are encouraged to leap to the default theory without even looking to see whether it fails in the very same particular as the theory it is alleged to replace. Intelligent design - ID - is grated a Get Out Of Jail Free card, a charmed immunity to the rigorous demands made of evolution.

But my present point is that the creationist ploy undermines the scientist's natural - indeed necessary - rejoicing in (temporary) uncertainty. For purely political reasons, today's scientist might hesitate before saying: "Hm, interesting point. I wonder how the weasel frog's ancestors did evolve their elbow joint. I'm not a specialist in weasel frogs, I'll have to go to the University Library and take a look. Might make an interesting project for a graduate student.' The moment a scientist said something like that - and long before the student began the project - the default conclusion would become a headline in a creationist pamphlet: "weasel frog could have been designed by God.'

There is, then, an unfortunate hook-up between science's methodological need to seek out areas of ignorance in order to target research, and ID's need to seek out ares of ignorance in order to claim victory by default. It is precisely the fact that ID has no evidence of its own, but thrives like a weed in gaps left by scientific knowledge, that sits uneasily with science's need to identify and proclaim the very same gaps as a prelude to researching them ...

Are a belief in God and a belief in science reconcilable? Does the advancement of one, by it's very nature, slowly pick away at the other? Some Christians seems to be comfortable with science from the point of the Big Bang on. But even in that case, aren't they still just filling in the gaps? Just because we don't currently have the ability to fully understand or visualize the creation of our universe (or even if there are multiple universes) doesn't mean that we won't some day. And at that point, what will Christians do?

One of his statements that I find particularly interesting:

"Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a different reason: it gives them something to do. More generally ... one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding."

If there was a God, would he want us to not seek out answers to everything within our interests and abilities? After all, wouldn't that be how he made us?

Monday, May 07, 2007

The God Delusion - Passage #1

The issue of undeserved respect (The God Delusion - Chapter 1 by Richard Dawkins):

It is possible that religious readers will be offended by what I have to say, and will find in these pages insufficient respect for their own particular beliefs (if not the beliefs that others treasure). It would be a shame if such offence prevented them from reading on, so I want to sort it out here, at the outset. A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the non-religious included – is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made in Cambridge shortly before his death, that I never tire of sharing his words:
  • "Religion . . . has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, 'Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? – because you're not!' If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says 'I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday', you say, 'I respect that'.

    Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe . . . no, that's holy? . . . We are used to not challenging religious
    ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why
    those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be."

People should obviously feel free to believe in whatever they choose. But should belief in certain things be off limits to criticism?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Sci-Fi 25

There's an interesting top 25 list that I saw on Entertainment Weekly's site:

The Sci-Fi 25 -- which included what they consider the best (or most influential) sci-fi of TV and film for the last 25 years.

There are some notable omissions (in my eyes): V for Vendetta, Twelve Monkeys, Fifth Element

and some questionable inclusions: V, Galaxy Quest, Quantum Leap

but, overall, the list is pretty good. Some of my favorites: Blade Runner, X-Files, Dr. Who, The Matrix, Children of Men, Serenity/Firefly

Saturday, May 05, 2007


I've been looking for a way to transition into a review of Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, which I just finished. It's much too ambitious and encompassing of a book to try and summarize or trivialize with a one page review. So, I thought I'd tackle it a little different. Instead of doing a review per se, I'm instead going to post one passage a day from his book for about the next 4 or 5 days (starting Monday) and will give my thoughts on that particular point and hope you guys do the same. I did like the book and believe he is a talented (and funny) writer. I don't think it should only be read by atheists. I think Christians could get a lot from it also. Despite the controversial title, I don't believe it is meant to be overly confrontational or disrespectful, just thought-provoking.

But before I did that, I wanted to set the scene a little bit and let you know where my head was at prior to reading the book. Before the last year or two, I had always considered myself an agnostic or a skeptic. I was led to believe that considering oneself an "atheist" required the same level of fundamentalism as some religions. I truly did (and do) not believe in God but thought to call myself an atheist would mean I had to know there was not a God. As a logical and scientific person, I could not know this absolutely. Of course, I don't know there is no Santa Claus either but everything I am would indicate to me that there is not. They are both convenient and comforting constructs of our brains to allow us to grasp the complex world in which we live. Personally, it is more comforting for me to believe that I am not a puppet.

The dictionary definition of atheist -- "One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods" -- is one I'm not afraid to claim. Through most of the blogs I link to on my site, I've learned a lot from those that consider themselves atheists. They are anything but fundamentalist or dogmatic and I would be proud to consider myself an atheist in the manner in which they do. What I had previously considered myself, an agnostic, -- "one who believes it impossible to know anything about God or about the creation of the universe" -- seems kinda pussy in comparison now. I don't know there is not a God but I don't believe there is one. I believe no knowledge is beyond our reach whether it is about God or the origins of the universe. Just because we don't understand it now doesn't mean we won't at a future time. I'm open to the possibility that there may be a God. But you have to prove it to me. I don't take anything on faith.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what we call ourselves, but what we do and believe. I was hunting around online the other day researching one of my other posts. I was looking for a proper description of the word "skeptic". To be honest, I wasn't completed positive on the official definition of it.

I found an article on Free Inquiry that talks about someone who considers himself a skeptic. And it is through his description that I found something fairly closely descriptive of myself. For the complete article:

Musings of a Closet Skeptic: Opening the door a little wider to share some thoughts by Arthur L. Kohl

The following are what the author considers the main beliefs of a skeptic:
Of course, even a skeptic must have some beliefs that can act as a framework for evaluating his or her own and others’ ideas. These are some of the key beliefs and assumptions of my philosophy:

1. The universe actually exists. This is an important assumption. If it is all a dream, all bets are off with regard to any attempt to understand it. Furthermore, there is a unified reality; what is true for me is also true for you.

2. There are natural laws that govern all physical processes, and there is only one set of these laws, not one for science and one for religion. Several, such as the first and second laws of thermodynamics and the law of gravity, are well established, although, of course, they are always subject to modification as our understanding of the universe expands. A very important function of science is to verify and upgrade the known laws and develop new ones as required to explain new observations.

3. As far as I know, the theory of evolution has not yet acquired the status of a natural law; however, I am quite convinced of its validity. Certainly changes do occur in successive generations of living organisms. There is ample evidence that this has happened in the recent past in isolated communities, and it appears to be happening now to produce insecticide-resistant pests and bactericide-resistant bacteria. It is inconceivable to me that changes that result in a survival advantage would not eventually become the dominant form.

4. If two statements are mutually contradictory, they cannot both be correct. This may seem obvious, but is often ignored, particularly by those religious believers who would like to display their tolerance of other religions by stating that every religion represents the truth for its adherents. Unfortunately, in many cases this is not possible, e.g. either Jesus Christ was the divine son of God or he was not. In a logical world, both positions cannot be true. Orthodox believers tend to be more in tune with the law of contradictions by stating that their belief system represents the only real truth while all others are false. Unfortunately, the laws of probability are against them; e.g., if there are ten equally plausible religions, there is, at best, only a 10 percent probability that any one of them is exactly correct. Of course, there is a very real possibility that none of them is.

5. For every effect there is a cause. No exceptions to this law of cause and effect have been observed to date. However, it is not clear how this law could have operated in the very beginning. Assigning creation to a supernatural being avoids the need to face this extremely difficult question. In fact, a strict interpretation of this law leads to the conclusion that the universe has no beginning, because before the beginning there would be nothing, and absolute nothingness could hardly generate a cause for anything. Of course, even if a God is assumed to be the creator, a true skeptic would want to know what caused God to exist.

6. The laws of probability are alive and well. How often do we hear that some observed occurrence must be supernatural because the odds of it being pure coincidence are extremely low? (e.g. one house left standing when all others in the area are demolished by a hurricane, or one cancer patient recovering after the doctor says the case is terminal). In fact, even if the probability is only one in a million, these odds indicate that one house (or patient) will be spared out of every million affected, and no supernatural intervention is needed. One probability law that is particularly difficult to accept is that the dice (or coins, etc.) have no memory. It is hard to believe that, after one hundred rolls of the dice with no 7 appearing, the odds of getting 7 on the next roll are no better (or worse) than before.

7. Honesty is the best policy. This is not a law of nature or logic, but it is a belief that leads to the conclusion that it is O.K. to admit that you do not know (or understand) something. The apparent human need to know the cause of all observed phenomena has probably been a major factor in the development of religions and other belief systems. Throughout history and in various societies, stories have been made up to explain the unknown. Many of these are highly imaginative and fanciful, but become a liability when people refuse to give them up in the face of well-substantiated explanations, or refuse to admit that, in all honesty, they do not know the answer.

8. The brain is not a perfect computer. It has many weaknesses, including a tendency to fill in the blanks in order to generate a complete picture or story from a sketchy one and a strong resistance to giving up beliefs even when presented with irrefutable evidence of their inaccuracy. Furthermore, it is very susceptible to suggestion and is subject to the influence of illogical emotions. Of course, it has many wondrous attributes including the ability to examine its own weaknesses.

The following are what he considers non-laws. The first is a point that CK, to his credit, makes frequently.
Just as the laws of nature, logic, and probability provide a reasonable basis for skeptical analysis, it is important to note that some other commonly accepted perceptions are not covered by known laws. For example:

1. Although every occurrence must have a cause, it is not required to have a meaning. This is difficult to accept, because most of us would like to believe that everything that occurs does have a meaning or at least a purpose. It may be a relief not to have to worry about the meaning of life, but it is very disconcerting to think that there may actually not be one. Of course, we cannot say that there is no meaning, only that there is no current law of nature that requires one.

2. There may not be justice. Again, most of us would like to believe that misdeeds are eventually punished in this world or somewhere else, and that good deeds are rewarded. Unfortunately there is no natural law that requires this to be true, and there is a vast amount of evidence indicating that, in this world at least, true justice is quite rare.

And he closes with:
Being a skeptic is not being negative. It is being absolutely honest and willing to face the hard facts. It is a willingness to accept new concepts that are adequately proven even when they require the abandonment of old beliefs, and, of course it is a willingness to admit it when we do not know or understand something.

If the characteristic of accepting unproven beliefs is genetic, it must have been an important survival tool, because so many people have it. Certainly more people believe in some kind of religion than in none at all. In fact, I would not be surprised if more people believe in astrology than do not. If most people are believers in unproven dogmas, then believing can be considered to be normal and being skeptical not normal, which probably explains any tendency of skeptics to remain in the closet. (Who wants to be considered abnormal?)

As pointed out earlier, one of my conclusions is that it is O.K. to admit that you do not know something. However this does not prevent one from being awestruck by the vastness and complexity of the universe. A skeptic may forgo the security of a firm belief system, but enjoys the privileges of questioning accepted concepts, and changing his theories to fit the latest factual information. He can always hope to add some small increment of understanding to the fund of human knowledge.

That's not far off from my beliefs. I think the author of the article considers himself more of an agnostic than anything, but, again, it's just semantics. I'm reluctant to use that term any more, in large part, because of some of the points that Dawkins makes in his book. But we'll attack that later.

"The existence of a world without God seems to me less absurd than the presence of a God, existing in all his perfection, creating an imperfect man in order to make him run the risk of Hell." -- Armand Salacrou, "Certitudes et incertitudes," 1943

Friday, May 04, 2007

Weaning Off Oil

Cartoon of the Day, from Center for American Progress

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Suns Win!!

Stoudemire, Marion combine for 53 points as Suns KO Lakers

I was lucky enough to be able to get a ticket for tonight's clinching game against the Lakers. It was exciting throughout even though the Suns never trailed. The Lakers got it close a few times because Kobe and Odom played pretty well. But after consecutive ally-oops from Nash to Marion in the 2nd half, the outcome was pretty much decided. Next up, San Antonio.