Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pentagon Terror Plot Foiled

Feds: Mass. Man Planned To Blow Up Pentagon - Comcast 9/28/11

More homegrown plots of terror from Islamic extremists. Luckily this one was foiled, but it goes to show how these guys are lurking around each corner, trying to bully and strike fear into the hearts of Americans. What this idiot doesn't understand, is that he is more free to practice his own interpretation of his religion here than anywhere else in the world. He is a U.S. citizen and schooled at Northeastern University. I still am baffled how people can get so fooled and blinded by their religion to think that destroying landmarks and killing innocent people can possibly further their cause in any productive way. It is insanity.

According to a federal affidavit, Ferdaus said he wanted to deal a psychological blow to Americans, the "enemies of Allah," by hitting the Pentagon, which he called "head and heart of the snake."
In a conversation with a federal informant, Ferdaus allegedly explained how in ancient times, God uses natural disasters to punish evil civilizations, and he would use them today. "For us, we've gotta do that," he said, according to the affidavit. "Allah has given us the privilege ... he punishes them by our hand. We're the ones."

When Hate Meets Reason

Very telling. The reason we have bad legislators in this country is because we have ill-informed voters. Speaks volumes as to where some parts of this country are right now. Wow. Get educated on the issues and be informed when you choose the people who enact legislation on our behalf, otherwise you allow people with misinformation and bigotry to run the show. 

In case you were curious who Forrester referenced as his source Frank Turek, here is a lively debate Turek and Christopher Hitchens took part in at VCU a while back.

Part of a Whole

“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” -Albert Einstein

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Gods Are the Dreams of Men

Apostasy Around the Watchtower

War of Words Breaks Out Among Jehovah's Witnesses - The Independent 9/27/11

Interesting to see how different religions treat those who ask questions, and especially those who leave their respective churches. Apostasy is looked down upon by every major religion and has some very serious consequences from death and jail to being ostracized and shunned by friends and family. All for coming to one's senses. In the July issue of The Watchtower, the Jehovah's Witness' magazine, this is what they had to say on apostasy:

* Taken from 'Will you heed Jehovah's warnings?' The Watchtower, 15 July 2011
"Jehovah, the Great Physician, tells us to avoid contact with them. We know what he means, but are we determined to heed his warning in all respects? What is involved in avoiding false teachers? We do not receive them into our homes or greet them. We also refuse to read their literature, watch television programmes that feature them, examine their websites, or add our comments to their blogs. Why do we take such a firm stand?
"Because of love. We love 'the God of truth', so we are not interested in twisted teachings that contradict his Word of truth."

Not real friendly, is it?

Jehovah's Witnesses - Wikipedia

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fooled By Pseudoscience

Why Evangelicals Are Fooled Into Accepting Pseudoscience - Huffington Post 9/23/11

Great article here that really exposes  some of the issues we rationalists are trying to deal with here in America. There is a base of people, a fair amount, that has trouble discerning what actual, real, solid evidence is. Of course part of the reason is they have been brought up in that culture so it just seems natural to want to oppose something that may not sit well with them personally. Anything that may take away from their secure feeling about the universe is immediately dismissed as evil and false and with the help of like-minded religious leaders, these points get hammered home so the blind public has no idea what is real truth from what is not. We must make a concerted effort to raise our children in a way that helps them understand scientific inquiry from pseudoscience, help them learn critical thinking. Teach them to know how to accept information as evidence opposed to information obtained through revelation (personal or second-hand), accepting information because of family or cultural tradition or accepting information just because it was given by some authority. Science literacy is critical not just to understanding truth from non-truth in a personal way. As a collective, it drives the future of innovation and economic progress as a whole and plays an integral part in how we make our public and foreign policy moving forward.

"In our new book, "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age," historian Randall Stephens and I look at the widespread and disturbing inability of American evangelicals to distinguish between real knowledge claims, rooted in serious research and endorsed by credible knowledge communities, and pseudo-claims made by unqualified groups and leaders that offer "faith-friendly" alternatives. Across the board we find evangelical Christians attracted to indefensible views in many areas: American history (the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation), sexual orientation (you can "pray away the gay"), climate change (not happening), evolution (never happened), cosmology (Big Bang is a big joke) and even biblical studies (the bible tells us what is about to happen in the Middle East).
The tragedy is that nothing within the faith commitments of evangelicals requires the adoption of these various knowledge-denying views. There are authentic and contributing evangelical Christians within every knowledge community. Francis Collins, for example, is a committed evangelical Christian and an important leader in the scientific community. He is also an outspoken critic of Intelligent Design and has written widely on the reconciliation of his faith and his science."

I found this great letter written by Richard Dawkins to his then 10 year old daughter on this very subject.  I have often wondered how I would approach teaching my children in a way that keeps them open-minded yet exposes them to areas of potential fallacy without going overboard. When they are old enough to make their own decisions, you want them to be capable of knowing how to discern fact from non-fact, how to process information: what to hang on to as important and what to dismiss as pseudoscience or unreliable because of lack of supporting evidence.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Did We Once Have a 5th Gas Giant Planet?

Missing Planet Explains Solar System's Structure - New Scientist 9/22/11

After running thousands of computer model simulations of the creation and history of the solar system, it is becoming apparent to researchers that the best way to explain the current locations and orbits of the planets is to start with 5 gaseous giant planets instead of the four we know and love: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Very interesting findings and definitely gives us something to think about. We could have lost our very own orphan planet, something I wrote about the other day as astronomers have finally started to detect exoplanets without stars around them, victims of cosmic pinball that got jettisoned from their solar systems in a gravity tug of war. I don't know if there is any way to actually confirm that this is indeed what happened, but maybe we can think of some fun names in honor of our potentially missing "9th" planet... Suggestions?

'Miracle Babies'

'Miracle Babies' Pastor To Be Extradited To Kenya - BBC News 9/20/11

You know, I really am starting to dislike having to share all of these fraudulent criminal activities by so called "holy people" but it seems to be an epidemic of sorts around the globe. These religious leaders are put in a position of power and absolute trust since they are god's personal messengers and they use this advantage to prey on people and take advantage of situations for personal gain. Here is a story of a pastor who claimed to pray miracle babies into people's lives who couldn't conceive but would go to kenya and abduct children to give to these poor souls. Truly awful. While it's true, there are plenty of pastors "doing the right thing" you might say (we will ignore the preaching of lies and bigotry from the pulpit in this example), but man the percentages keep going down with all of these scandals. One after the next. It seems only a matter of time before everything comes out. How these people think they can get away with it must show just how big their egos really are. And what do you know, he seems to have a big bank account as well. Curious.

Did I Leave the Iron On? There's An App For That

Technologist Wins 'Genius' Award For Sensor Tech - MSNBC 9/20/11

This guy is going to make tons of money. A clever idea and technology to really make people understand where their energy is going and how it is being used. Shwetak Patel has come up with an ingenious way to recognize certain electronic components and mechanical devices in our households by the signatures they give when they pull energy (electricity or water usage). This, in turn, allows the user to monitor which devices are using energy and how much. This will also allow manufacturers to refine their products even more by knowing exactly the energy uses during which cycles and utility companies can get a better handle on the types of usage and when their customers are pulling energy. Really cool. I can see this being an App on your phone where you can see if you left the iron on that morning. cool.

Interactive Periodic Table of the Elements

The Elements Revealed: An Interactive Periodic Table - Scientific American 10/10/11

Neat little interactive chart on the elements... What's most astounding is now we know how these elements came to be, how they were formed in which quantities and how they are dispersed throughout the universe. We also see the correlation between the elements in the universe and the elements that comprise you and me. It's all the same stuff. The iron in our blood is the same iron in meteorites that fall to earth. The oxygen and hydrogen and carbon we're made of was forged in the nuclear furnaces of stars that went supernova. How awesome!

Abundance of the Chemical Elements - Wikipedia

See What Your Brain Sees

Now Showing: Movie Clips From Your Mind - Discovery News 9/22/11

Totally cool and really freaky that scientists are now able to discern enough information from your brain during an fMRI scan that they can start to piece together images of movie clips that you watch in very eery detail. This is an amazing breakthrough and can lead to some very interesting uses, like possibly recording dreams to see what the heck that was before it vanished from your memory shortly after you woke up this morning. It could also be used, in theory, to record first person memories and experiences as they happen and as they are being perceived by the brain. Obviously the details would have to be worked out and the clarity is not quite there, but totally fascinating nonetheless!

Study subjects were shown movie trailers like this one on the left and scientists
reconstructed the images from brain scans on the right

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Coolness of Atheism

Church of England Battling 'Coolness of Atheism': Archbishop - National Post 9/20/11

Interesting read here, except Archbishop Rowan Williams misses the point entirely. It's not that it's a cool position or a trendy position, it's a rejection of folly of false doctrine, it's a rejection of faith in a non-real, ambiguous, all-knowing all-powerful deity that can see your thoughts and thinks you are born a filthy sinner. It's a rejection of mental slavery. Free thought, free inquiry, using facts and information to discern our place in the universe as opposed to reading and interpreting vague scripture passages written 2000-2500 years ago by barbaric nomads who had no culture or technology. There is nothing cool about it in that sense. It is a very real rejection of the oppressive nature of organized religion. That's all. Free your mind and be open to what you learn about nature and it will change your life in the most amazing way. Be free of superstitious bondage and be good for goodness sake instead of fear from eternal damnation. Stop judging people who are different than you and learn about what makes them unique. Figure out ways to get along and coexist with others who think differently than you do. That's all this is. It's not a trend, it is the true reality of our existence that is beginning to make sense to people and they realize they don't need organized religion in their lives anymore. It is an unnecessary false security that some people finally realize they can do better without. If you think that's cool great, but the prosperity of the human race depends upon informed citizenry and that's what I am striving for.

Archbishop of Canterbury - Wikipedia

Church of England - Wikipedia

Evangelical Zionists Meddling Peace Process

Evangelicals Call Christian Zionist Uncritical Support for Israel Appalling and Intolerable - Religion Dispatches 9/20/11

A very wordy title for a very charged article. Amazingly, some on the evangelical right are calling for a temperance to the unbridled support for Israel. This Zionist movement is really causing a lot of issues with the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Evidenced by today's speech to the U.N. by president Obama. He really is walking a fine line calling for a Palestinian State without neglecting our obligations to ally Israel and its stability in the region. What everybody in the room doesn't want to talk about is the real reason the Republicans are so in bed with the Israelis. It is this christian belief that once all the jews can return to their homeland and be converted to christianity, jesus christ can return and redeem them all and destroy this world in fire and brimstone.

This is what is driving our foreign policy folks. Trying to balance a just and equal peace negotiation on one side with loons who are only pro Israel for their own christian views on the other side. And Israel is eating this right up, they are taking advantage of all the love from the U.S. evangelicals to engage in very sneaky construction projects over the borders and drag out this process so when it comes time to negotiate land deals, they will have already occupied a good chunk. Israel has a right to be concerned over its precarious position in the middle east and its security from islamic forces, but this constant meddling and dickering and procrastination is trying the nerves of the whole world and people are getting absolutely fed up with it. This is an issue that should have been resolved years and years ago and it continues to be the biggest headache for the middle east and for us because we can't seem to let go of our first love. It's time we acted like adults, worked out a deal of compromise and move on. Palestine has a right to statehood and sovereignty and to exist, just like Israel does. This delaying is only restraining the good people of Palestine from getting started on building their nation and improving their own lives. This is absurd and it needs to come to a T soon.

A good start is for us to reject the ungrounded influence of the christian evangelicals who only see it from a religious point of view, an end times point of view, an apocalyptic point of view and that is just as scary as any islamist extremist trying to solve this complex issue. It should be solved from a humanist point of view, a societal point of view. For the betterment of the human race, for all people involved ,not just one side or the other. Its time these zionists listen to the words of some of their brethren from this article and take a step back to realize what is at stake here. The stability of this region is at a tipping point and it can either get really good or really chaotic from here. The world is watching.

Orphan Planets

Billions of Dark Planets Roam the Milky Way - The Daily Galaxy 9/20/11

Astronomers have finally detected large exoplanets that orbit no particular stars. This was something we expected to find but until has been too difficult to detect in interstellar space. It has long been thought that after the big bang and the creation of galaxies, large and small planets alike were playing cosmic pinball amidst the immense gravitational forces as material coalesced. Many planets were destroyed in the process, some were caught in orbits around nearby stars and many were thought to have been flung into the abyss of space in between star systems to float for ages, dark and alone. In fact, many astronomers feel there are more of these orphan planets than there are regular planets around stars in our galaxy. They are just much more difficult to detect since there is no gravitational wobble or light dimming associated with a parent star (how most planets are currently being detected). Unfortunately, the story doesn't go into detail as to how these planets were detected. I would be interested to know the method for determining these bodies.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I Have Faith In My Fellow Man

Study: Blacks and Whites Intermarrying More in the U.S. - Healthland 9/19/11

Unemployment and Religion: Their Faith Affects How Americans View Jobs Crisis, Survey Says - Huffington Post 9/20/11

A Rough Decade For American Congregations - CNN 9/20/11

Atheism On the Upswing in America - The Washington Post 9/20/11

Some very telling polls have come out recently giving a little insight into what is happening in the country. First and most noticeable is we are becoming a more tolerant nation. Tolerant across the board socially, from race to religion to orientation. We have elected a black president, DADT was repealed this morning and many states are now passing marriage equality bills. Interracial marriage is increasing as well. Something that in the 1950s and 1960s would have gotten the same reaction that gay marriage has been getting recently. This is now a social norm of sorts and eventually, so too will be marriage equality. It will be a non-issue, except only the most fervent hateful minorities. While I must admit there is still a hesitancy towards people who practice islam, it is only out of ignorance and fear and something I feel over time will become less toxic a subject to talk about. As we continue to stir the world's melting pot, people from all walks of life are coming here looking for that great hope, those special freedoms, a prosperous life for their families, all the stuff that makes us different from each other also makes us as a nation unique and special. That in a place like this, people can actually get along. What a story to tell the rest of the world! If you come here to participate in this great societal experiment and work hard for that American dream and respect others trying to do the same, we will create a truly progressive and prosperous society for the betterment of us all.

As for the government issue, I'm not exactly sure how too much government became a religious argument. People need a government that works for them. Obviously the road has been tough these last 10 years with all the polarization happening with both parties, but let us never forget why government is so important. A representative government elected by the people and accountable to the people is a luxury in this world. We can see how dictatorships can deprive a country of its wealth, artistically, intellectually, societally and otherwise (see: middle east). Government makes collective ventures possible, for example: NASA, the interstate highway system, national parks, infrastructure and more. Government makes sure what you eat and what medicine you take is healthy. Government makes sure big business doesn't walk all over the common man with emphasis on blocking monopolies, protecting workers rights, and regulating products so they don't destroy this fragile environment for the future and that products do what they claim they will do. Government sure comes in handy with disaster relief. As we can all attest to this year with hurricanes, droughts, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, wildfires, oil spills. It sure is nice to have a collected effort to help those areas most affected by disasters. This can only be accomplished on a national level. Government also protects us from people who wish to harm us. Osama Bin Laden? He would never have been caught. Not to mention all the other perks that come with big government like mail service, a strong military, social security and medicare for when you retire. People seem all too excited to reduce taxes, but never fully understand what taxes actually represent. Taxes are paid for those special services rendered to you that can't be done any other way. Taxes allow for all that to happen. They allow for all those protections, those perks, those freedoms. We should all be quick to sign up for that. Let's not be hasty with knee-jerk reactions and actually try to compromise on a solution that works for all people involved.

In the other polls, atheism is on the rise in America while congregations are decreasing in size. While I am excited at the news, what's really important to me is that people start to ask questions on topics that regularly go undiscussed. People go to church because that's what they've always done. They never, or rarely, stop to ask why. What am I saying when I recite these prayers? What is the church's position on these topics? Do I actually believe what I am professing? It seems to me, more people are rejecting religious theocracy for something else, not necessarily atheism. Something lighter on the scale. From being spiritual, to skeptical, to agnostic, to not worrying about it at all, the trend is away from the organized religion. Away from the church, the mosque, the temple. Religions no longer offer the most accurate explanations of why we are here and how we got here in the first place. People look at religions and they see rigidity in the face of an ever-expansive wealth of knowledge about the cosmos. They look at religions and see the hatred spewed from the pulpits about people different from them and about other religious ideology being of satan. They see corruption and criminal activity in their highest offices and positions of esteem. They look at religions and see something that is not in synch with their own beliefs, their own morals and it is starting to show in attendance numbers. It is a wonderful thing to see... people thinking for themselves. People looking at evidence and judging for themselves how it should affect their daily lives and the way they interact with other people.

People can really suck at times... a lot. And there are times when I start to lose faith in the human species to pull out of this malaise, but I see polls like these and I am encouraged that maybe we are getting somewhere finally after-all. Maybe we won't destroy ourselves with petty differences. Maybe we are the ones who will get our shit together after all and spread life around the universe. We have learned a lot on our human journey and there is still a long way to go before we get there, but we are definitely getting there I think.

People are wasteful, they waste all the food.
People are hateful, and people are rude. 
But God I love some people sometimes, because people are very very special. 
And people are impatient, they dont know how to wait.
And people are selfish, people are prone to hate.
But God I love some people sometimes, because people are the greatest thing to happen.
I said God I love some people sometimes, because people are the greatest thing to happen.
And People are people, regardless of skin.
And people are people, regardless of creed.
People are people regardless of gender, people are people regardless of anything.
I said People are people regardless of gender, people are people regardless of anything.
And people are my religion, because I believe in them.
People are my enemies and people are my friends.
I have faith in my fellow man, and I only hope that he has faith in me.
I said I have faith in my fellow man, and I only hope that he has faith in me.

Primordial Black Holes

Are Primordial Black Holes the Source of the Universe's Dark Matter? - The Daily Galaxy 9/20/11

Dark Matter, that most elusive piece of the cosmic puzzle. We feel and see its gravitational effects, but no one has been able to detect it directly. Is it a force from a parallel universe pushing up against our own? Is is made of some fundamental particle that we can't yet find? Is it something we can't even begin to fathom? Some scientists have come up with a way to try to detect it. The theory goes that shortly after the big bang, these primordial black holes were created and still exist, floating through space in an around galaxies (as that's where we detect the largest portions of dark matter). Primordial black holes would have a much more concentrated "dark mass" associated with them and thus would be easier to detect than regular dark matter. Scientists propose that these wandering primordial black holes of dark matter weave around galaxies and sometimes pass through stars. Since they do no absorb or emit light, the only thing that we could see is a sort of ripple effect in the star, like a wave on water, that would indicate something of high mass has passed through it. Very interesting theory. Seems a little far-fetched to me, but then again so is just about everything else we have discovered about the universe so far. It will be interesting to see if they get any evidence for it.

Primordial Black Hole - Wikipedia

Psychic Scandal Sounds All Too Familiar

Psychic Sally Morgan Hears Voices From the Other Side - The Guardian 9/20/11

When will people learn? To be honest, I don't feel bad for any of the people who got hosed by this. They should know better. No one can possibly know any of this information without being tipped off. Sally Morgan reminds me of that Peter Popov scandal from the 80's I posted about a while back (unfortunately even after going bankrupt, he is back at it deceiving the feeble-minded again and making big money). Someone meets and greets with people in the lobby beforehand or passes out prayer cards. This information is then relayed to the "psychic" or "preacher" subtly from henchmen over an earpiece and the audience is marveled at how much this person can possibly know and fork over their donations and tithes. They must be special! They must be a conduit to the heavens! No. They are tricksters, all of them. Swindlers who are just trying to get your money and you fall victim repeatedly. Shameful but not unexpected.

Curacao Space Tourism

Curacao Takes Another Step Toward Space Tourism - Cosmic Log 9/19/11

Cosmic Log comes in with some interesting space flight updates. Curacao and XCOR Aerospace have come to an agreement to sell flights into space for well-financed consumers. One seat to the edge of outer space is anticipated to sell for $95,000 and flights will go in and out of the island of Curacao.

In other news, NASA is moving along with its commercialization of low orbit space flight. It is continuing to massage deals with Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. to make certain milestones in production and testing so NASA can spend all of its efforts on deep space exploration(where all the coolest stuff happens).

So much for the U.S. space program coming to an end with the shuttle, right? NASA is making some pretty clever moves to cut costs for the mundane space station and low orbit stuff to really get some ideas cranking on Mars programs and other deep space targets. Exciting!

Gamers Solve Scientific Problems

Gamers Solve AIDS-Related Enzyme Puzzle, Helping Scientists Search For Novel Drugs - Popular Science 9/20/11

Really cool story here about scientists researching cures for AIDS-like diseases with the help of video game users. Apparently these gamers solved a ten-year mystery of how a specific enzyme is structured in a matter of weeks. This finding will have definite implications on understanding how these viruses attack the body using these enzymes and scientists can now begin formulating specific defenses for it. This is another example or a burgeoning trend towards "crowdsourcing", using large groups of people to process and understand data, to use reasoning and spatial recognition to solve issues that are still too complex for computers to tackle. To do it in a way that video game nuts can use their very specialized skills to work for a humanitarian-type solution is the coolest part. I hope to see more of this type of research in the future because of the amount of time to find a solution can be dramatically reduced by utilizing powerful networks already available. Very cool.

“The critical role of Foldit players in the solution of the (enzyme) structure shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems,” the authors write.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Making Inorganic Matter Come To Life

Another Great TED talk... 

Ancient Pines Indicate Global Warming

In Ancient Pines, A Startling Shift in Tree Rings - NY Times 9/19/11

Great story here about bristlecone pines in Nevada. 50 years ago Donald Curry unexpectedly discovered the oldest living thing ever found, a tree he got his tree-borer stuck was found to be 5,000 years old! Unfortunately, the tree didn't survive the accident, but this same ancient forest is giving clues to modern climate change. These trees have been around so long that scientists can really talk in geologic time scales and see the effect of climate change in the habitat (manmade or natural). What they've found is a huge increase in growth of these trees as a direct result of increased global temperature. In fact, the trees rate of change has increased more dramatically in these last 50 years than at any other 50-year period in the last 3,700 years. This dramatic change has led these bristlecone pines to be labeled as an "indicator species" for climate change and can offer scientists another avenue to study the global effects of climate change directly.

“The accelerated growth is suggestive of an environmental change unprecedented in millennia,”

Flyby Earth

See what it's like to fly over the Earth as an astronaut in the space station! Amazing 60 second snapshot of the world as we know it, from a perspective seldom seen. The bright city lights almost make it look volcanic and the lightning displays are pretty awesome. You really get a sense of how fragile our thin little atmosphere is from this angle. Beautiful!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Foo Fighters Silence Westboro Baptist Church

Foo Fighters: Westboro Baptist Church Counter-Protest With 'Keep It Clean' (Hot Buns) - Huffington Post 9/18/11

I've never been a huge an of the Foo Fighters over the years. They definitely have had a few good songs and seem to put on a good show, but this is a pretty awesome show of patriotism. The infamous Westboro Baptist Cult was on hand to protest the group's concert in Kansas City, MO, but the Foo Fighters stole the spotlight by showing up on the back of a flat-bed truck hours before their show to counter-protest the anti-gay hate group with a song of solidarity, of acceptance. The band and their fans quickly drowned out the hateful slurs tossed by the church's minions and put them in their place. Dave Grohl, lead singer, spoke words that should ring true to all Americans,

"God Bless America! It takes all kinds; I don't care if you're black or white or purple or green, whether you're Pennsylvanian or Transylvanian, Lady Gaga or Lady Antebellum. Men loving women and women loving men and men loving men and women loving women -- you all know we like to watch that. But what I'd like to say is, God Bless America, y'all!"

Well done, Foo Fighters. Hats of to you for a classy act and a fucking awesome statement.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ricky Gervais Reads the Bible

Simply Brilliant...

Pakistani Atheists & Agnostics

Being Pakistani and Atheist a Dangerous Combo, But Some Ready To Brave It - Pakistan Today 9/18/11

Very moving article about a handful of brave skeptics in Pakistan, where apostasy and even blasphemy have the most severe punishments. It's so refreshing to see these people stand up for their right to believe or not believe what they wish. In a weird way, their stories are not that dissimilar from stories here in the U.S. of the family life and friendships that can be affected when one "comes out". However, in a country based on Sharia Law there are far more dangers from government authorities and angry mobs and that makes their stories that much more compelling and incredible. Sometimes, we don't realize how good we actually have it here in the U.S. to be able to practice or not practice whatever faith we so desire without fear. It is my personal wish that every society can and should have those same freedoms. It is a basic human right to have freedom of thought and freedom of speech without the fear of retribution or persecution. Please visit the Pakistani Atheist & Agnostics website and show your support for these modern heroes of civil society!

Pakistani Atheists & Agnostics Website

Friday, September 16, 2011

Oceans on Pluto?

Pluto's Icy Exterior May Conceal An Ocean - New Scientist 9/16/11

Didn't see this one coming. Scientists from the University of California announce some stunning new calculations that show an ocean under the surface may be a possibility. Apparently radioactive decay of potassium in the core of the dwarf planet may create enough heat to harbor liquid oceans. NASA's New Horizons Probe may give us some more details when it does a fly-by in 2015. Until then, we will speculate and dream of the possibilities. Pluto may have some spunk after all!

The Praise of Folly - Desiderius Erasmus

Human Folly - The New Humanist Sept/Oct 2011

Fantastic article and history lesson as well! It recounts the affair 500 years ago when Desiderius Erasmus, a catholic priest but considered a christian humanist, wrote a new book, The Moriae Encomium (The Praise of Folly). This is one of the first written accounts of literature speaking out against religious authority. It was done in the form of a speech by Folly, the protagonist, but really pushed some boundaries of thought that would have be deemed heresy on the spot if he were to have written in from his perspective. Instead we get some very cunning material and the groundwork for what became the rational humanist movement (atheism) started dialogue for religious tolerance as discussion will lead us all to the eventual truth. Some great quotes from the article:

Folly begins the religious section of her speech by celebrating the virtues of illusion, for which she alone is responsible. Consider all the Christians who seek “comfort in soothing self-delusions about fictitious pardons for their sins”, she says. Could they believe they were going to be pardoned without the illusion provided by Folly? No. How miserable their lives would be! And what if a philosopher were to convince believers that religion is nothing but nonsense? Would they be happy in that knowledge? Of course not, she says: “to lack all wisdom is so very agreeable that mortals will pray to be delivered from anything rather than from folly.”
the reader has already been exposed to a raucous volley of demystification, and that demystification continues as we encounter a statement of flat-out anti-theism. Here, Christians are dismissed as fools who “throw away their possessions, ignore injuries, allow themselves to be deceived, make no distinction between friend and foe, shudder at the thought of pleasure, find satisfaction in fasts, vigils, tears, and labors, shrink from life, desire death above all else.” It is as if Christopher Hitchens has stepped on to the page.
Erasmus would have been dismayed, for each of these developments showed systems of religious belief that were giving ground to reason, were being eroded by rationalism. Luther would have shared his distress. But he would not have been surprised. For him, the confluence of religion and reason was bound to lead to either atheism or heresy. As he wrote in the De servo arbitrio – his response to Erasmus’s De libero arbitrio – in 1525: “if you respect and follow the judgement of human reason, you are bound to say either that there is no God or that God is unjust.” Yet Erasmus remained convinced that it was possible to unite the rational claims of classical philosophy with the divine claims of Christianity, and possible to do so without outraging either. The rational, secular, “heretical” channels into which his ideas would flow suggest that Luther might not have been wrong.

This was also around the time of the protestant reformation from the catholic church and Erasmus and Martin Luther had some interesting theological exchanges. Erasmus was a firm believer that humans have free will and therefore are punished or rewarded according to the decisions they make in life. Luther believed that there was no free will. That man was destined to be sinful from origin and that humans are incapable of reforming and bound for eternity in hell without Jesus. Erasmus was critical of the church but thought that it could be reformed from within. Luther, obviously led the protestant reformation and schism from the catholic church. Here is more information on the subject:

The Praise of Folly (Moriae Encomium) - Desiderius Erasmus 1509

The Praise of Folly - Wikipedia

De Libero Arbitrio Diatribe Sive Collatio (Discourses of Free Will), Desiderius Erasmus 1524 letter to Martin Luther- Wikipedia

De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will), Martin Luther 1525 response to Erasmus - Wikipedia

Desiderius Erasmus - Wikipedia

Martin Luther - Wikipedia

Protestant Reformation - Wikipedia

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kepler Finds Tatooine

Real-Life 'Star Wars' Planet Seen

Another really cool discovery by the Kepler telescope. Announced today, a planet, just like Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine, orbits a pair of stars! A double sunset was something for the imagination in 1977 but is now confirmed out in the galaxy. Binary star systems for a long time were considered too unstable to support planets, but here we are. This leaves the doors open for many more possible planets than we had previously thought, much less moons. Well done Kepler, and keep the discoveries coming as we are amazed every time we find something new!

My 2 Suns: Bounty of New Exoplanet Discoveries Includes a World Orbiting a Binary Star

Am I Not A Perfect God?

Wow, very moving & intense video here. Puts a little perspective on things, doesn't it?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bishop Edir "Eddie Money" Macedo

Brazil Charges Church Leaders With Embezzling Millions From Poor

Doesn't anyone else find it ironic that church leaders are always wealthy? Where do you think your donations and tithes go every week? They don't go straight to god. The temptation to grab some of that money so that you can live a better lifestyle is too much, even for those who claim to be the most religious and righteous of us all. While these are just charges at this point, the allegations are pretty severe. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is believed to have embezzled around $300 million to offshore accounts. Bishop Edir Macedo and his cronies apparently preach a type of prosperity theology where if you give a lot, it will be returned to you ten-fold in the end by god. Sure, for them. Not for the donating members. So sad. This is the reason I never give money to churches. You can never trust someone who claims to know information that no one can possibly know. It is my firm belief that if you wish to help the church out, donate your time and your services. Just because someone claims to be holy doesn't mean they won't take you for a ride. Instead, donate your money to causes you know are beneficial to society or to someone who really needs it. I wish this story was the exception, but unfortunately the trend with these mega churches weighs on the side of scandals like this one. What a fraud.

Limiting Prejudice

Talk is Cheap When It Comes To Religious Freedom

Very interesting article here about people's perception of other religions and their amount of contact with people of other religions. Very plainly, people who have more contact with others of different beliefs are generally more apt to have more positive feelings of their belief system, while the opposite is true. People with limited contact of other religions will tend to have a much more negative feeling and fear of other beliefs. In my opinion, this is a clear warning that we must have an open dialogue involving everyone if we are ever going to get along. This ignorance and fear of others is detrimental to society and can lead to some very serious consequences. Some people are so orthodox in their views that they are unwilling to change or compromise or even be accepting of other beliefs, but those of us who want to see the human race make it have an obligation to reach out to others and get to know their point of view and share ours and be open-minded and non-judgmental. We all come from different backgrounds and have been indoctrinated into one belief system or another or none at all and while it is my firm belief that current religions are based on mythology and not grounded in facts, I certainly respect others freedom to believe what they wish as long as it doesn't tread on my freedom to not believe it. It is important to be open-minded about others and come to the dialogue table and we will find we aren't that different from each other after all.

Some interesting findings:

Even if you do not start out loving them, getting to know your neighbor goes a long way to limiting prejudice, research has found.
The University of Munster study indicated that having personal contact with Muslims was strongly related to favorable attitudes toward Islam in every country. For example, in the former West Germany, 38 percent of respondents who reported a lot of contact with Muslims reported very positive attitudes; only 1 percent of respondents who had no contact held very positive attitudes toward Muslims.
In the 2002-2003 Religion and Diversity Survey, 90 percent of respondents said they would welcome Christians becoming a stronger presence in the United States, but less than six in 10 said they would be as supportive of Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims.
Yet when people met across faith lines, the experiences were mostly positive, according to the U.S. survey. About two-thirds of respondents said their contacts with Muslims were mostly pleasant; 6 percent said they were mostly unpleasant. Three-quarters said their contacts with Buddhists were mostly pleasant, with 3 percent saying they were mostly unpleasant.
The problem is contact is still limited. In the Religion and Diversity Survey, less than a quarter of respondents said they have had more than a little contact with Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims.
In the European study, less than 10 percent of the respondents said they had a lot of contact with Muslims. As a seeming consequence, the study showed what comes to many of their minds when they think of Islam are discrimination against women, fanaticism and, somewhat ironically, narrow-mindedness. What does not come to their minds are notions of Muslims as peaceful and tolerant.
Repression based on ignorance is a universal barrier to freedom.

Amish Safety Dance

Amish Men Ordered To Jail After Refusing To Pay Fines

Another example of some crazy religious belief that impacts the lives and safety of other people. Amish men are refusing to attach orange safety triangles to their buggies so that motorists can see them on the shared roadways. Apparently this bright color is against their religion and these men are sticking to their guns, refusing to put the safety sign on and then refusing to pay the fines. 8 men in all will be jailed for 3-10 days for their actions. There comes a time when silly superstitions need to be superseded by common sense laws that apply to everyone, in this case the safety of others and of themselves. I recall a story I read just a few days ago about a buggy that was hit by an SUV where several children were killed. I'm not saying that there won't be any accidents, and the fault could always be the driver of the automobile, but wouldn't you want that extra precaution anyways? Wouldn't you want to be sure you were seen on the roads, especially in the dusk and dawn hours where it can be hard to see? What's more important to you? The color of the safety sign (your impetus for this religious belief) or the life of your child?

Two Amish Children Killed, Four Injured, After Their Pony Cart Was Struck By An SUV

Amish - Wikipedia

SETI Aims for Super-Earths

Alien-Hunters Add Newfound Super-Earths To Their List

As the logical next step to finding all of these "super-earths" around the galaxy, SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) is firing up its array of radio telescopes and will be pointing them directly at these most likely candidates for intelligent life and alien radio signals. SETI had been shut down due to a lack of funding, but some apparent donors swooped in to save the day and SETI is now back on its feet with a much more focused approach to listening than in previous years. These astronomers seem awfully optimistic that they will hear signals from other beings out there in 15-20 years. How can they possibly arrive at that number? Well, in the 1960's Frank Drake had put forth an equation estimating the number of intelligent species on planets capable of sending signals. The equation was based on factors like the number of stars in the galaxy and the number of planets and planets in habitable zones along with some very foggy factors like the probability of life arising on planets and the probability of life becoming intelligent and the probability that any such civilization is still surviving at the time we notice them. So, that 15-20 year estimate should be taken with a grain of salt. But these guys need to be optimistic about this work or no one would want to do it, so hats off to them and I hope they do find something interesting. The fact that we are now able to discern rocky earth-sized planets in habitable zones around sun-like stars offers some real hard targets to begin the search for other life. This is the best we can do at the moment since we can't just get in a spaceship and go there to check it out in person.

Drake Equation - Wikipedia

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kosher Social Media - FaceGlat

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish 'Facebook' Separates the Sexes

A new social media website launched for the ultra-orthodox jewish community this year. FaceGlat is a way for more modest members of the jewish community to connect online without being exposed to sexually suggestive photographs and advertisements and other "offensive" material. They are even working on a program that can identify and remove photographs showing too much skin. It is a segregated website, with one section for male and another for female members. I have a couple of thoughts on this, the first is that this community has a history of segregating women (remember the photo of the bin laden mission situation room where hilary clinton was removed?) and preventing people from getting valuable information about the real world and this seems to be a continuation of this school of thought. This will really have a detrimental effect in the long run as we modernize around them and move forward as a society. The second thought is that, maybe this actually will be a gateway for this ultra-orthodox community to become more interactive with the real world. Maybe this is an avenue for them to reach out and see that gender equality is important ad sexuality is nothing to be so afraid of. This may encourage people to use the internet who never thought to use it before this. Could be interesting.

What do you think?

Probe the Pope

Sex Abuse Victims Ask International Criminal Court To Prosecute Pope

Finally there will be some heat placed on the pope and his highest ranking officials for the systematic rape and child sex abuse over the last thirty some years. I am not terribly confident anything will come of this, but having the ICC at least investigate for crimes against humanity would be a huge blow to the stigma surrounding the infallibility of these people. The vatican seems to have to answer to no one in this world and it is quite obvious that they are incapable of policing themselves when they can't understand that crimes of most despicable kind are being committed right under their noses and they do nothing. This has become a world problem and one best suited to be tackled by the ICC if it has any shot at all.

Saturn Moons Pose For Family Portrait

Saturnian Moons Merge Into a Quintet

Amazing photo taken from the Cassini Probe of some of Saturn's moons lining up for a family photo. Saturn isn't pictured, but it's beautiful rings frame this shot nicely.

from left: Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea on the right edge

Trained To Kill Cancer

Dying Man Has a New Lease On Life After His Immune System is Trained to Kill Cancer

Another breakthrough in the fight against cancer. After VERY preliminary trials, doctors have found another way to re-engineer cells to become cancer-fighting agents with what looks like some pretty good success. Doctors remove a type of white blood cell from the body and modified them with HIV-1 virus (which has been stripped of its deadly attributes). This modified cell is now embodied with the HIV's ability to recognize the cancer cells in the body, attack them, multiply and then have a portion live on in the body for future reference. There are some side effects as the body is under attack like severe flu-like symptoms and other more serious potential issues like extremely low blood pressure, kidney problems and certainly potential hazards involving the HIV-1 virus if it hasn't been sufficiently decoded among other issues. But from the first few cases, it seems like a miracle procedure and has a huge potential to affect so many lives in the coming years.

The Human Spark - Brain Matters

Watched this last night on PBS. Alan Alda searching for what gives humans that spark that other animal species don't seem to have... fascinating and worth watching!

PBS - The Human Spark: Brain Matters

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Pale Blue Dot On Twitter

Now, you can follow The Pale Blue Dot on Twitter!


Jesus Juke

Via Urban Dictionary:

Jesus Juke - When some Christian brings jesus into an argument or conversation out of nowhere. Usually creating another religious argument within the original argument or conversation.

You just Jesus juked me, bro!

My mother was always Jesus juking us around the house growing up and even now when we visit. It's like you walk around on eggshells trying not to get blindsided by some word that would trigger it. You'd be having a nice conversation about something normal and then WHAM! Right out of nowhere she would drop that jesus juke on you and make the whole thing just so awkward and contentious. It was always a rally killer for fun family gatherings and dinners out at a restaurant and would embarrass you in front of your friends or even worse, she might just Jesus juke your friends when they came over. Then there is the stranger Jesus juke, which is even more weird. You're out running an errand and you get stuck in this weird conversation with the person in line next to you that you had no intention of ever being a part of and you're stuck there because you need your fritos. Not only content in public places, now you can also be Jesus juked on the web, on your facebook page or twitter feed! There is nothing like an awkward Jesus juke!

What are some of your favorite Jesus Jukes? - The Jesus Juke

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11/01 10th Anniversary

As the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on this great nation has come today, I took some time to reflect on my own life and how I have changed in the last ten years. One day I will write a post about what that particular day was like for me, but for now I want to focus on how I've grown as an individual since then.

As a young kid, I always felt there was something wrong with religion. I could never quite place a finger on it and was certainly afraid to mention it in the household I grew up in. But from an early age, I saw how bitter differences in religious dogma and theology can lead to ugly disagreements with people. My father was a good catholic man and my mother had been catholic but converted to an evangelical when I was around 6. This caused much tension in our home, especially every sunday as the children were torn as to which parent to go to church with and who would suffer the serious dinner table discussions on sermons and passages and symbols. My parents loved each other very much and still do and I am forever grateful for their bond that gave us a relatively stable home, but religion was always the 900 pound gorilla in the room. When I went off to college I was finally free to find my own way of living without the oppressive guilt and judgement of my actions as viewed by my parents. I was able to put religion on the back shelf of my mind for a few years while I figured out who I was and who I wanted to become in life.

9/11/01 hit when I was 21 and just finishing the college chapter in my life and it immediately brought the religion issue right back to the forefront as we as a nation found out who attacked us and why. Only this time it was from an extreme version of Islam instead of two versions of Christianity. Over the last ten years I have slowly researched religions in general and have put much thought into how certain beliefs, faith-based beliefs, can lead to such hatred and violence toward others who don't think the same way. I found this to be a common theme for the 3 major world religions. As I researched the histories of these faiths I started to see the horrors played out all over the world (and especially in the middle east) as wars and genocide and evil, vile acts were committed against those with different faiths or none at all. In fact, wars over religious ideology have been going on for millennia and have accounted for some of the worst our species has ever done on this planet to each other. All this done in the name of their god.

This understanding has led me inexorably to the launching of this blog. Where I can share my research and thoughts with the rest of the world in an effort to help free the minds of those who are locked into their own little worlds and who fail to realize that the enormity of life on this planet far exceeds that which can be read from any holy book. Spirituality can be a wonderful thing if harnessed for the good of mankind and this planet and this universe. It's only when spirituality loses itself in religious ideology and dogma that it can become a weapon of evil under the guise of holiness. No one person or group can ever understand the will of their god or of this universe. This should be the first warning sign as people with power will tend to use it for their own gains. Anyone who claims to know the will of god and uses that claim to force something onto someone else is performing the most heinous of acts towards their fellow man and towards civilization. It's when this rhetoric gets ramped up a notch that it can become violent and, in this technological age, civilization-destroying. But in all honesty, it is not that far a stretch between the two and only takes a few misguided people to destroy the lives of millions.

I hope that for all who read this blog, that my posts do offer some fresh ideas and thoughts to put organized religion into perspective as a global issue that has to be dealt with eventually if we are to progress. That fact that these religions cannot be reconciled with each other, coupled with the fact that the overwhelming evidence against their stories being even remotely true should lead us all as a species to reject this type of detrimental dogma, for the sake of all of us on this planet to get along and, in long-term cosmological terms, survive. Nothing would be more tragic than a species eradicating itself from the universe for something that amounts to a terrible idea.

Let us instead make a conscious effort to search for the truth that can be found in this world and the commonality that we all share as primates, members of planet earth and partners in the global effort to exist. Let us take thought for the other person and not be so quick to judge if their actions or rituals or cultures differ or seem strange. Let us find common human values that can be applied to all people so that life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is not just an American ideal, it is a human ideal. Respect for life, respect for this fragile rock we live on and respect for the unbelievable power of the universe to give and take away life. Let us use our brains to make something positive of this ride called life. That we are the universe becoming self-aware is possibly the most beautiful thing to imagine and should be cherished and not toyed with lightly for the fanciful thoughts of a better after-life. This is all we know for sure that we get, so let's make the most out of it for all of us as a species.

As we pause to remember the terrible events of September 11, 2001 and all those who lost their lives that day to fanatical religious ideology, let us also think about ourselves and how we should treat each other moving forward. This world can be a beautiful place. It's up to us to make it so.

Courage Lies In Every Heart, And One Day It Will Be Summoned

Very moving speeches by former Presidents George W. Bush & Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden at the Shanksville, PA Memorial Dedication yesterday:

The Sound of Silence

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"
And whispered in the sounds of silence

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one