Monday, October 19, 2009

Old Bottlecaps Don't Die, They Kill

Check out the pictures here to see what happens to discarded plastic. It doesn't quickly dissolve, break down, or disperse into tiny little harmless particles. It kills baby birds (and other animals, too).

There is a place out in the ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is composed almost entirely of plastic waste products -- bottles, caps, fishing line, etc. But don't worry, most of the trash in it is small and already starting to fall apart. Of course, when plastic disintegrates, it can also release lots of nasty, poisonous and nefarious chemicals into the water.

But these baby albatrosses didn't get the chance to fly over the Garbage Patch and see the damage to their environment for themselves. Their parents inadvertently fed them junk food -- literally. You see, birds can't readily distinguish a colorful piece of plastic from a colorful bit of edible marine life, so many of these young birds were force-fed trash until their digestive systems clogged and they died. It's not the mama bird's fault -- it's ours.

All plastic is human produced. All plastic trash is human waste. So all those dead birds (and turtles, otters, fish, etc) are our responsibility. So, how much wildlife have you killed today?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Who says Supreme Court Justices need to be unbiased?

I always thought the nomination of Supreme Court Justices was supposed to be based on a record of fairness, clarity and intellect, and that they were lifetime appointments so that the partisanship of culture and politics would not color or sway their rulings.

Unfortunately, we aren't lucky enough to have a full nine justices meet those standards. One of them (at least) is an outright bigot and ignorant bastard. Check out this exchange over the perceived meaning of a cross:

Judge: The cross doesn't honor non-Christians who fought in the war?

Lawyer: A cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins.

Judge: It's erected as a war memorial! I assume it is erected in honor of all the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of . . . of . . . of the resting place of the dead.

Lawyer: The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemetaries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.

Judge: I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion!

Now, that's one confused and bigoted judge. Seriously, he seems unconcerned that the symbol he's claiming represents "all war dead" is a specific religious icon of a specific faith group. It's like claiming that no one should mind if he refers to all soft drinks as "Cokes", not even the Pepsi people. Or that the McDonald's golden arches are a symbol of all fast food restaurants, and ignoring the outcries of dismay from the Burger King's and Dairy Queen's of the world.

If this was some hick country judge from a century ago, presiding over some menial court case in the backwoods of the Ozarks, I probably wouldn't mind too much. Clearly, in such a situation, the judge's comments would be buried in the onslaught of history and never see any higher illumination than a few brief seconds in his own tiny community.

Unfortunately, the brilliant jurist and profound pundit who spouted such inanity was none other than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Yup -- one of the nine most important people in the nation, who are tasked with determining the constitutionality of law, the judicious application of fairness, and the blind eye of justice. There have been many claims that the Justices appointed by Clinton (and now Obama) are, or will be in the future, "activist".

I'm sorry -- let me clean out my ears. I must have missed the massive hue and cry from the religious right as Justice Scalia just shat on the idea of equality under the law and separation of church and state.

I'm sure Justice Scalia wouldn't mind, since the clear intention (not!) of the cross is simply to honor the dead and not single out any particular sect, if upon his gravestone we emblazon the Islamic Crescent -- after all, it's simply a symbol of recognition and honor to one who has served his nation well. Right?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Comfort-less Introduction

I was informed a few days ago that Ray Comfort's new "introduction" to Darwin's On the Origin of Species was available online, so I went and looked at it.

Well, I wasted 20 minutes of my morning reading it (GAHHHH!!!!!! THE STUPID!!!!! IT BURNS!!!!!!eleventyone!!!!!!)

Actually, the first 8 pages aren't too bad as a historical summary of Darwin's life and publication record. It wasn't great (I've seen far better books and articles that recapitulate his life in far more detail and accuracy), but at least it wasn't completely off-kilter and full of lies. Unfortunately, I can't say that for the remaining 86% of the "introduction".

Seriously, Ray Comfort is an idiot. Not just a little bit, but a full-blown, off-the-charts, willfully stupid and arrogantly unintelligent idiot. He's been shown dozens of times the basics of evolution, and where his "ideas" about it are wrong, and yet he continues to bleat out this mangled, inept, not-even-wrong version of crap. And the whole Pascal's Wager bullshit over the last dozen or so pages (convienently rewritten as being pushed out of an airplane at 10,000 feet) is so overblown and underthought, that one would think Comfort's head would be enough to keep one afloat at that altitude (he's definitely got enough hot air, and he's sucked way too much helium for even a dozen people to survive).

I'll admit, when I got to the section labelled "His Famous Student", I was actually expecting something about Huxley or Dawkins or Gould. Then I realized it was just a series of out-of-context quotes. Then I had my own "Uhh....wait.....what?...." moment (quite literally, actually) when I realized after the second quote from Darwin that he switched to quoting Hitler. Ummm... Poe's Law, anyone? And of course, there's no mention anywhere of the quotes from Hitler praising God, proclaiming his devotion to Christianity, and his emphasis on doing "God's work" throughout his life. Gee -- selection bias, maybe?

At that point, I almost gave up. Actually, I almost threw up (uggh... don't you hate that burning, awful taste of puke rising in the back of your throat, especially when you manage to swallow it back down? YUCK!!), but I managed to keep from yacking on my keyboard, and kept reading. Lucky for me, I didn't drink myself stupid last night, Ray's next few pages felt like it crashed my IQ at least 20 points. I don't think I could have survived the loss of that many brain cells twice in 24 hours.

AAAACCCKKKK!!!!! PPPPBBTHHH!!!! (Damn! Now I'm quoting Bill the Cat. A sure sign I'm a few braincells short this morning. Thanks, Ray!)

The bludgeoning of the transition from bashing Darwin to shoving Pascal's Wager down the pipe is simply breathtaking in it's absence of logic and rationality. Absolutely guaranteed to cause your synapses to misfire (not just a few -- all of them). In fact, I'm not sure I can even manage to stand up now -- I'm that overwhelmed by the stupidity. I think I need a drink (maybe a dozen or two) to restore my sanity.

What a maroon! What a fool! What a waste of time. I tearfully regret that I won't be able to regain the time lost while reading this crap, and I hope my wife likes wiping up drool, because I'm not sure how functional my brain is going to be from now on. It really is that bad.

Chatting with Jim...

On a whim, I invited the theists who regularly post over at Bill Tammeus' blog to meet me last Saturday evening for a discussion about Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. I first announced I'd be there on Tuesday of last week, so that anyone wishing to show up would have plenty of time to schedule it. I even specifically invited the "Master Debater" Jim Christensen (or at least, I told the kids he mentors to invite him). Given the aggressive and offensive nature of the juveniles posting over there, I wasn't surprised to see vitriol and insults.

Clearly, just the thought of meeting an atheist is frightening and worrisome to the youngsters. So when polite invitations didn't work, I tried challenging their courage. As expected, they declined, as only cowards and fools will do. I predicted over there that only Jim would have the balls to show up - and sure enough, he was the only one who did. All the kiddies ran away to Lawrence, instead. (I have to wonder about the ethics of allowing teenagers to go to a college fraternity on a Saturday night). Ho, hum. Too bad they didn't show, maybe they would have learned something about tolerance, ethics and genial conversation.

As it was, there ended up being quite a lively crowd at Borders last Saturday. I really wasn't expecting much (again). Instead, when I arrived I saw Cole Morgan, Iggy Dybol and Greg Swartz sitting waiting for me. "Uh, oh." I thought. I worried that Jim wouldn't come over to our table with all four of us sitting there. Glad to see I needn't have been concerned. A few minutes after I sat down, I was tapped on the shoulder by the man himself, Jim Christensen. A quick round of introductions and a trip to the coffee bar (I bought Jim his first coffee, like I said I would), and the conversation took off.

Of course, I was hoping to focus more on Dawkins, and less on the theological arguments of atheism and belief. For better or worse, Iggy and Jim started to go astray almost from the start. I was impressed by some of the admissions and concessions that Jim made -- he's not a Young Earth Creationist, but a "Gap Theorist". He does accept most of evolutionary explanations, he just thinks there must be a "guiding force" (Star Wars Jedi Masters, perhaps?). While I tried several times to get the conversation back to evolution and the evidence from the book, it was futile. Jim and Iggy (and the rest of us, I'll admit) had too much of a good time arguing atheism vs. theism.

I do have to wonder, though. Jim made several comments about ethics and whether we thought it was right to be posting on a blog (Bill's) where perceived threats and offensive language were used. Of course, he didn't have much to say when I pointed out that his "kids", Adam and Will, were also on there and posting insults, personal attacks and slander. I guess being unethical only applies to atheists, because a good Christian can always ask forgiveness, right?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quadrillions and Quadrillions of stars...

I find it perverse and extremely arrogant of religion to insist that the entire universe was solely created to entertain/support humanity. That is an understandable viewpoint based on the knowledge level 2500 years ago, when it was thought that the earth was the center of the universe, and the whole thing was no bigger than the solar system, and no older than a few thousand years.

But after the findings of the last 200 years in cosmology, geology and physics, such a view is extremely difficult to comprehend. Have you ever looked at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image? They pointed the telescope at a tiny section of the sky (less 1/12,000,0000th of the entire sky) and took a picture (OK, slightly more complicated than that, but you get the idea). What they found was, for lack of a better word, magical. Over 10,000 galaxies, streching out over 13 billion lightyears of history, each one host to several billion stars.

Think about that for a minute. This was not a particularly interesting part of the sky they pointed at -- it was, in fact, fairly devoid of any visible light or known stellar objects. For all practical purposes, it was a blank, black bit of nothing to raise any interest. And yet . . . and yet. . .

10,000 visible galaxies, each with several billion stars. That alone is a staggering tens of TRILLION stars in that one image. But that image was just a random bit out of over 12.7 million possible bits of sky they could have looked at. There's no reason to think that it wasn't representative of the rest of the sky. Nor does it mean that those 10,000 galaxies seen by the Hubble were all that's in that little sliver of the heavens.

Think about it -- 12 million pieces of sky times ten thousand galaxies times several hundred billion stars per galaxy... That's a heck of a lot of stars! In fact, it's well over 200 sextillion of them. It's pretty much mind-blowing.

Let that number sink in a little bit -- 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

If the possibility of a sunlike star with a planetary nebula around it is extremely remote (say, 1 star out of every 1,000,000 happens to be like our solar system), that means there are approximately 200,000,000,000,000,000 "solar systems' out there. And if only 1 out of every 1,000,000 of those happens to have a planet in the "habitable zone", then there are only 200,000,000,000 possible 'earths'.

200 billion earth-like planets. How many of those will possibly have life? I don't know. But I wouldn't bet against the possibility.

Oh, and here's a little reality check on those solar/planetary probabilities. As you can see, I seriously UNDER-estimated the probabilities:

# of stars in typical galaxy: between 10 billion (dwarf galaxy) and one trillion (giant galaxies) (reference)

% of sunlike stars: ~10-20% of all stars (at least in the Milky Way Galaxy) (reference)

% of sunlike stars with rocky planets: ~5% (reference)


Now, think about all that for a few minutes, and then consider how reasonable and rational it is to think that all of that was solely for the sake of us humans on our little planet, with our thin smudge of organic life sloshing around on it. What possibly reason could there be to have trillions of galaxies out there that aren't visible or reachable? Why would any deity who could possibly conjure up a universe as vast and awesome as this one spend any time at all demanding blind obedience and servitude from a few billion slightly evolved apes?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Where did all the oil come from?

Here's a question that puzzles me when I try and consider the young-earth creationist mindset.

Where did the oil come from?

Was the oil all there from the beginning (6000 years ago), and we've been using it up in an exponentially increasing manner over the last 200 years? Or is it created in an ongoing process that has accumulated those trillions of barrels in less than 100 centuries?

If the answer is the former -- and there is no new oil being 'created' -- then the problems related to peak oil and resource depletion apply (you know, those sticky issues that the 'greenies' and 'environmentalists' are so damned concerned about). If we've only got what we started with, then eventually it will run out, and there had better be some alternative energy source available and integrated into our infrastructure long before then, or the world will turn dark, slow and violent in a very short period of time.

However, if the answer is the second choice (continuously created over time), then where is the research in YEC science to find out how this occurs?

Our current annual consumption in the USA is approximately 7.5 billion barrels (that's over 317 billion gallons of crude oil consumed just in this nation every year). That's a lot of oil, but it's small potatoes when compared to the total proven reserves still in the ground worldwide -- over 1.3 TRILLION barrels. If only the US was using it, that amount of oil would last us (assuming we don't increase our consumption over time) over 175 years. Alas, we aren't the only nation in the world using those reserves, and in fact, while our own consumption has leveled off, other developing nations are rapidly increasing their demand as their economies grow and their citizens demand higher standards of living. As of 2008, the total consumption worldwide for oil was about 85.5 billion barrels. Unfortunately, that means that our current oil reserves will expire in less than 45 years.

Now, if we assume that oil is continually produced (option #2 above), and make an unevidenced assumption that at the beginning of the earth there was no oil, then that means there should be nearly 400 million barrels of oil formed per year for the last 6000 years (note: I'm including the historical consumption of oil in addition to the current proven reserve volume as an approximate total originally available). While that 400 million barrels isn't a complete solution to the energy crisis, it does present a unique and tempting opportunity. After all, if it is a natural process that is continuous and currently ongoing, then it should -- in principle -- be possible to duplicate it. And if one can repeat the process, then it can be scaled up and used to produce our own oil!

The YEC crowd often complains of a lack of funding and research dollars to support their "science". What better way to fund themselves than to find a way to manufacture hundreds of millions of barrels of oil per year? Even if they only got a penny per gallon of oil, that's still $164 million dollars PER YEAR!

But then I look at the creationist research on this, and I find something strange and incomprehensible. They aren't even looking at this avenue of investigation. What?!? How can that be? It's a clear winner for them -- not only do they gain scientific credibility for their research and claims, but if they are correct, it's a HUGE revenue stream that will bolster their mission. How can it not be done?

Unless, perhaps, they secretly realize that all their claims and assertions are actually not true...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Selective Breeding: It's Good to Be a Smart Atheist!

Since it's well known that higher intelligence, higher education levels and higher incomes are all correlated strongly with a higher degree of critical thinking and atheism, is it any wonder that I'm not at all worried about creationists trying to out-breed the intelligent people?

I've been told by several arrogant theists that the atheists won't survive because we don't produce as many offspring (I happen to have three, so I'm certainly doing my part). But just like the Dilbert cartoon above, that whole Darwinian selective pressure makes it inevitable that we'll continue and increase in influence. The only way to stop it is to make ignorance, hatred and superstition "sexy". Somehow, I doubt that's going to get you very far these days...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A. P. Rillful's Proof that Darwin was Wrong!

Yes, it's apparently true! A new peer-reviewed paper out just this week confirms what all the creationists and ID'ers have been saying for years -- Darwin was wrong!

In the April 1st edition of Journal of Evolutionary Diversions, Professor Augustus P. Rillful et al. document a paradigm-shattering, evidence based theory that revolutionizes all of biology (and every other aspect of scientific knowledge). Rapid faunal succession is the new way of thinking -- throw away all that "random variation and selection" crap! It's all part of the Empedoclean Evolutionary theory.

Darn! Guess I'll have to re-write all my blog entries, discussion group postings and random pontifications to encompass this new field of study.
Or maybe I should just take the day off and digest the implications of these new discoveries. After all, I wouldn't want to waste the first day of a new world order, would I?


Rillful, A. P., Metonym, P., Hebe, P., Samsa, G., et al., 2009. "A new theory of evolution based upon the ubiquity of lateral genetic transfer". J. Evol. Div. 23 (2):69-136.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How far should we go to protect "life"?

My personal view of life is that it started several billion years ago, and has been continuing uninterupted ever since. I have never understood the idea that "life begins at conception". Aren't the sperm and egg alive before they merge? And don't they derive from already 'alive' humans? And if you traced back your ancestry, didn't every single person in your lineage start that way -- from already living people? Go back far enough, and you are connected in a very real and ancestral way to those first living things on earth, millions and millions of generations ago.

But there are many for whom "life begins at conception". What they seem to mean is that "humanity" begins at conception, or that the fertilized egg is "fully human" and deserving of all rights and protections as any other person. I wonder -- what could that mean for women and medicine, if taken to it's fullest extent. The following is an hypothetical based on where current technology is, and what the consequences and effects might be if "all abortions" were halted (I'm not just talking about medically induced ones).

Is this the type of situation that you imagined? Do you think such a situation is possible? What other options would you propose to either support or prevent this type of scenario from happening?


While the combination of one sperm and one egg give a unique combination of genes that have the potential to be a full and viable human, that moment is not all that is required. It's estimated that up to 70% of all fertilized eggs fail to implant and are flushed out with the next menstrual cycle (1) -- and the potential mother never realizes it. Additionally, of those that do implant, there is a sizable minority which also spontaneously abort over the course of the pregnancy (additional 10-15%) (2) This means that possibly 80% or more of all fertilized eggs (the majority of which actually successfully implant in the womb) are naturally aborted.

Saying "life begins at conception" implicitly ignores the medical reality that only 20% of those "conceptions" actually have a chance at surviving to birth, irregardless of the number of medically induced abortions. And there is no indication anywhere that all of those 80% naturally aborted were not viable -- on the contrary, it is actually far more likely that a large percentage of them are. They just "miss" the uterine lining and pass out with the next menstrual cycle. Even those that are spontaneously aborted after being implanted and medically confirmed (up to and including the 3rd trimester) are not necessarily "non-viable". Many other conditions and situations can naturally induce a spontaneous abortion -- injury, chemical imbalance, hormonal switching, etc.

So my question to all those who say that conception is the start of human life, and that any abortion after that point (including the "morning after pill") is "immoral", what should we do about all those non-medically induced abortions?

Now that we've got the medical technology to detect fertilization of an egg within 24-72 hours after conception (even before implantation), why should we not try and do everything possible to save them? It may be that some women's bodies are not yet ready to carry a child, but that doesn't mean there isn't a way to monitor the women and collect any and all fertilized eggs and fetuses that are developing. It might be an inconvenience to the women (always wearing monitoring equipment -- or having to go in for testing after each sexual encounter), and the protective regimen to save all those fertilized eggs may be considered by some to be extreme (mandatory bed rest, specially designed monitoring and collection equipment worn at all times to alert doctors and prevent the death of a spontaneously aborted egg or fetus, etc).

I can certainly understand the distaste and concern over medically induced abortions -- but those only account for a small percentage of the potential "lost children" that could be saved.

Consider: There were 4.3 million live births in the USA in 2006 (3) If we add in the full number of medically induced abortions (assuming that 100% of those would have been viable and brought to full term) - approximately 1.2 million in 2006 (4) that brings the number of babies to 5.5 million. But wait -- that's only 20% of the total potential births -- because that doesn't count in the 80% that are spontaneously aborted. Even if we assume that half of the spontaneously aborted would be non-viable (genetic malformation, etc), that still leaves a full 40% of the total conceptions that are allowed to die. That's an additional 11 million potential babies that are naturally lost, and through modern medical technology could potentially be saved.

Of course, implementing this to the full extent of medical technology would mean that every female who begins menstruating would require monitoring (either actively via portable hormone monitoring equipment or through regular weekly visits to a doctor) and surveillance. If a fertilization event is detected, the female would need to either have a full-time monitor carried with her (possibly along with a device that could "catch" any spontaneously aborted egg/fetus and protect it -- I'll let your imagination go to work on that idea), or agree to be examined daily by a doctor after positive confirmation of implantation. Once beyond the second trimester, the risk of spontaneous abortion drops, but not completely. Monitoring and surveillance would still be needed, but only once or twice a week. If at any time, signs of a potential spontaneous abortion are detected, the female should be immediately put into a medically supervised environment and maintained on strict bed-rest to ensure the safety and survivability of the fetus. Only after reaching 24 weeks of gestation would the female be released from the facility - but only with continuous monitoring to ensure the safety of the fetus.

This plan would ensure not only the prevention of all medically induced abortions, but would potentially save millions more who would otherwise die due to spontaneous abortion. If every fertilized egg is "fully human" and deserving of all the rights of humanity, and if we have the medical technology to detect fertilization, monitor implantation and gestation, and either prevent spontaneous abortion or safely collect and re-implant those that do -- shouldn't we make the attempt?



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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Science News: Cheap sequencing!

Wow! I remember the days only a little more than a decade ago when the Human Genome Project was started and expected to take several billion dollars and 20-30 years before the first complete sequence was finished.

Technology, knowledge and computing power have completely shattered those limits -- at least one company expects to be able to sequence a complete human genome (all 3 billion bases) for less than the price of a used car and in only a few days.

What do you think this will mean for the future? What effects do you forsee happening in insurance, government, social sciences, etc? Is this a good thing, or not?


Logical Fallacies vs. Life's Work: Which is more important?

Is using out-of-context quotations and selective opinion pieces a reasonable means of determining an person's overall viewpoint and opinion, or is it better to evaluate an author's entire body of work and acheivements? And should a person's accomplishments and successes be undermined or discarded because some of their views and statements are hateful and offensive?

This has been a topic of discussion in several threads on the KC Freethought Forum, and it made me wonder why anyone would try to use such an obviously flawed argument to try and demean and de-legitimatize the prodigious works of a man like Charles Darwin. In the case of Charles Darwin, one of the frequent posters to that site, Will Graham, linked to several sites that take only a few dozen sentences from his massive volume of professional and personal writings, and those are often mischaracterized or misinterpreted as being "racist" or "sexist".

I have no problem recognizing that compared to today's more "enlightened" culture, his overall views would be seen as bigoted and prejudicial -- but in the context of his timeperiod and culture, he was without doubt a very liberal abolitionist. On particular example of this is the attempt by creationists to use the sub-title of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, to imply that he was racist. And yet, although the term "races" appears on the cover, it is clear from historical conventional usage at the time, as well as the full context of the book itself, that he was referring not to human cultural races, but to subspecies and breeds of species. That is blatant misquoting and purposeful misinformation, and should be condemned by all as unethical behavior.

Darwin is the subject of a very recent book, Darwin's Sacred Cause, which explores the abolitionist spirit and values of the man, and how his ideas and opinions drove him to understand and appreciate the value and interconnectedness of all humanity, and that the cultural definitions of race were a false construct of man, not an actual biological phenomenon.

Contrast that to someone like Martin Luther. While he gets great credit for challenging the archaic, bloated and hypocritical megalithic Catholic church, there is also little debate about his virulent antisemetic views. And in contrast to Darwin, whose views on race became much more enlightened and abolitionist over his lifetime, Luther became more and more antisemetic and hatefilled as he got older. Not only that, but he wrote entire books about the subject of how to demean, destroy and dismantle Jewish property, synogogues, homes and families in order to "purge" them from the face of the earth.

Luther on the Jews

More Luther

Even More from Martin Luther on Jews

In comparing the two, Darwin and Luther, we see that one grows over the course of his life more tolerant, more forgiving and more understanding of the connections between all humans and life, while the other grows harder, more intolerant and far more virulent as he ages. But neither the fact that their views changed, nor the fact that either or both were racist, antisemetic or otherwise bigoted, has anything to do with the overall contribution to human society that they both had and are rightly recognized for.

Luther helped overthrow a tyrannical, overbearing, overindulgent and corrupt church. Darwin gave a comprehensive and overarching explanation for why life is so diverse and yet so similar. So why is it that we often see attempts by those opposed to one or the other use the out-of-context quotes of Darwin, or the irrelevant-to-the-issue antisemetic views of Luther to attempt to poison the well of discussion? Rather than actually addressing the achievements of these great men, people who use such tactics are trying to avoid addressing the actual issue of their accomplishments.

So my question is, given that Darwin Day was just last week, why is it that creationists continually try to use out-of-context quotes from Darwin on race and sex? And why do they not actually address any of the challenges to the use of such logic when I applied those same techniques to Luther's writings? If using such logic works to invalidate all the successes and accolades of Darwin, then it should likewise work to invalidate the achievements of Luther.

And if anything, based on a reasonable comparison of the two men's writings, Luther has far more to answer for, and far more to lose. So if we're going to throw out evolution because Darwin was supposedly a racist, why shouldn't we also throw out the Protestant Reformation because Luther was a self-affirmed antisemite?

Science News: Search for alien life gets boost from Kepler

Back when I worked on magnetotactic bacteria at Iowa State, I remember the frenzy and interest in the "Martian nano-bacteria" in a meteorite found in Antarctica. We still aren't sure about life on Mars, but with the upcoming launch of Kepler, we just might be able to see earth-sized planets orbiting stars far outside our solar system. And with some of the other ground and space based telescopes either already in operation or scheduled for the next few years, we're going to have the potential ability to detect the presence of potential life-marker chemistry (water, oxygen, amines, etc).

This is amazing, mind-blowing stuff. Just a few hundred years ago, we had no clue there was anything beyond our solar system. Even 100 years ago, it was thought that the galaxy was the extent of the universe. Now we're stepping out to the point of looking directly for other planets.

How does the potential of what Kepler might find affect your views of humanity and life on earth? If at some point in the next few years life (or significant indicators of life) are identified outside our solar system, will it affect your personal worldview?

Bee Healthy = Bee Happy / Bee Dead = We Dead

Honeybees are used to pollinate the majority of humanity's crops around the world. Without them, fully half or more of our production of food would fail, leading to massive starvation and death worldwide. Bees have evolved for hundreds of millions of years, and are very good at what they do. But when humans arrived on the scene and started "hijacking" the bee's native abilities for our own uses, we messed with their system -- and not in a good way. Now it looks like we might be on the verge of a very steep, dark and treacherous decline.

Between pesticides, herbicides, genetics, selective breeding, the practice of monogenetic breeding and infection, we've put the honeybee on a path to potential destruction -- and our own health and future in jeopardy, too. While there are many non-honeybee pollinators out there (even many other bee species), the fact is that there aren't enough native pollinators to take up the slack if the honeybee populations crash and fail. We've not had a time in this country's history where such a large portion of the population are at a threat for starvation and disease -- even the great Dustbowl years didn't compare in the potential for overall crop devastation and failure.

What this will mean in the future, I don't know. It's possible that this massive, worldwide die-off is transitory and temporary, and over the next few years, the bee populations will recover. Or, in the worst case scenario, the populations are decimated permanently all over, and it could result in a total collapse of agricultural food production.

Think about it -- we're nearly to 7 billion humans on the planet (and well beyond that number of domesticated animals that depend on our agricultural food supply to survive). Based on conservative estimates, even if we restrict reproduction as humanely and efficiently as possible, the human population will probably not stabilize until well over 10 billion. Our food generating capacity right now is probably sufficient to feed all those mouths, but just barely (and let's not get into the difficulties and costs of distribution of food worldwide -- another great big problem area).

Now imagine if 25-50% of the world's food supply were cut down by the devastation of the bees. What consequences would result? Mass starvation? Rise of totalitarian states? Collapse of international alliances and accords? War?

The rising disaster in honeybees is only one facet of the greater problem, but without doubt, it's one that could have a rapid and devastating effect on the world economy and security within the next decade.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Vaccines don't cause Autism

The science is clear, and the legal rulings are coming faster and faster. The original study (Wakefield, 1998) was flawed and the author is being investigated for misconduct, and over the course of the following decade dozens of studies worldwide have shown conclusively that there is no link between vaccinations and autism.

Does that mean there shouldn't be concern about the number of vaccinations, their interaction with the body, and the safety and health of all people? Not at all. But this autism-vaccine scare has gone on long enough. Autism is a difficult disorder to diagnose, and the symptoms don't all show up with consistent timing and sequence. And the fact that the MMR vaccine is given at 18 months means that there is very little development time for noticing autistic tendencies. In fact, it's not until about 18 months that those tendencies start to appear.

This is obviously a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy - just because the MMR vaccine (and many others) are given at around the same time that early autistic tendencies are noticed does not mean that one caused the other. It's clear from the research that's been conducted that there is no difference in autism numbers, regardless of vaccination status.

And the risks aren't just for the kids who don't get the vaccines. Herd immunity is critically important for public health. We need about 95-98% of the population immune to a communicable disease to keep from triggering outbreaks. Since this bogus vaccine scare started, the vaccinated numbers have dropped -- from over 97% in the late 90's to less than 85% now.

And what's happened? Outbreaks of measles, polio and other easily preventable illnesses. Not vaccinating your children is a reckless public health threat. There's no other name for it -- it's a threat and a risk for all people.

When you get vaccinated, you not only help yourself by immunizing against the disease, you also add to the blanket of protection that covers all people in your community. If everyone is vaccinated, then no one can get sick. Even if there are a few that don't vaccinate (for whatever reason), they are still protected by that greater public blanket. But poke enough holes in it, and the blanket starts to leak, and the infections, sickness and death follow quickly.

We haven't eradicated the diseases we innoculate against - we've simply put up a shield against them. And these anti-vax morons are trying to rip apart that shield and put everyone -- not just their own selfish selves -- at tremendous risk.

Please, educate yourself about the safety and security that complete vaccination creates. The risks are real, and the idea that these are "old" diseases is a fraud - they still exist, and they still kill, maim and disable. If we succumb to the irrational and fearmongering anti-vaxers, we'll end up with easily preventable, curable diseases making a "killing" on the death charts.

Saving old games for posterity

I've always been a video game player. From the earliest Atari system to the video-game arcades of the 80's, through the Sega Genesis to the PS3, I've owned sysetms and played them for decades. One of the little joys of my life is using a software emulator (M.A.M.E.) to play old arcade and console video games on my computer. Donkey Kong, Galaga, Pac Man, et al -- they're a lot of fun. And the new games -- WOW! High Definition graphics, full 7.1 surround sound, interactive worlds of adventure: what a rush of adrenaline.

But there's a lurking problem. Many of the old games are hardware dependent, meaning that without the proper computer or console, they won't work. Sure, there are some emulators out there (as mentioned above, M.A.M.E.) , but it doesn't work for all games, and there are many consoles that don't have good emulators available.

Now there's an EU funded group that's trying to develop a software that will allow any game, from any generation, to be played. I think this is a worthy effort, but I'm hoping they aren't just looking at the gaming world - there was a lot of relevant and historically significant productive software that is being lost because there aren't any machines capable of running them anymore.

I really hope they succeed -- because we all need a little Donkey Kong now and then.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Maybe This Explains Creationists Too

Well, chalk up another reason why teenagers are so rebellious and dismissive of parental authority. According to this study, teenagers haven't fully developed their "theory of mind" and have a more difficult time figuring out what other people think.

After reading the article, I can say that it sure looks similar to what happens when I talk with creationists. No matter how logical and reasonable the evidence is, no matter how many times the theories are explained, no matter how hard I try to get them to "imagine no religion" (even for a moment) - they refuse to do it.

Based on this report, it may not be because they choose to refuse, but because they can't do it at all. Trying to view things from another's perspective is difficult anyway, especially when that other view is radically different from your own. But if this research is correct, those with younger, less developed minds will have an even greater difficulty doing so. And we all know creationists don't like to think very hard about things -- they'd rather be spoon-fed their beliefs and simply parrot talking points and canards without reflecting on the reasoning and rationale behind them.

Of course, if this does explain creationist thinking, then it also implies that there may be other parts of their brains that are underdeveloped -- I wonder if there's a test for development of critical thinking and skepticism?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Artificially mimicking Natural Selection

There they go again, proving evolutionary theories right!

Darn those dratted scientists!

When will they ever learn that Jumpin' Jebus Jee-horsey-fat preprogrammed every little thing before the start of the universe? Their experiments are all the work of that Evilainous Satan Dervil! I just knows it!

Now those pesky scientists are making artificial brains that actual learn and grow! Their monstrous creations (all the size of a paperback book) can walk, see, and maybe talk.

Someday soon, they might even make a fake brain that works better than the typical creationist brain.

Oops, wait a minute -- the one they started with had six neurons. Guess they've already accomplished THAT feat!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Curses Or Prayers -- What's the Difference When It Comes To Football?

Most theists are quick to tell you that prayers get answered all the time. Of course, the empirical data says otherwise, but we all know how impervious theists are to rational examination of their beliefs.

However, I've got a question for all those honest theists who are so insistent that their preferred deity will answer their prayers. What is the difference between the answer to a prayer and the fullfilment of a curse?

Seriously, aren't they basically the same thing, and only the outcome being different (one for a "positive" result, the other for something "negative")? Is a curse something that God would deliver on, or is it just as ineffective as intercessory prayers?

At least in the world of sports, it's a common practice for individuals and teams to gather together and pray. Many credit "god" for their good fortune, skills and ability (of course, that leaves good old mom-and-dad out in the cold: thanks for those genes!) The KC Star has an article today about the faith of football players. Great for them -- they pray together.

But what are they really praying for? Luck, points surrepitously added to their score, or -- perhaps the injury and/or failure of the other team? After all, if "god" is going to favor one side, there is obviously a lack of such favor on the other, and what really is the difference between giving the favored side a little boost and the opponent a kick in the shorts?

Seriously -- would these professional, highly trained, extremely talented athletes be getting a lot of praise and positive press if they were calling down curses, hellfire and damnation on the other team? I can just see the quarterback standing in the middle of the field, his teammates huddled around him, chanting and swaying together as he calls out on his "god" to smite the other team, smack them down hard, make them hurt, make them suffer, make them LOSE!!!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Buddhas at the Zoo cause Christian Zealot to Cry "Foul!"

Well, it finally happened! The Christian zealots have finally found a religious icon not related to JudeoChristianity on public property, and they're making a stink. David Engle was at the KC Zoo last weekend, and witnessed the abuse of religious power that Buddhism has over the zoo staff. There are apparently two statues of Buddha flanking the entrance of the Tiger Trail, and despite protests by the zoo management that they were only meant as decoration and to represent Asia, it was clear to Mr. Engle that they were there specifically and only for worship, to the exclusion of all other Asian belief systems.

Actually, while I do think the zoo wasn't trying to promote any religious bias, I have to somewhat agree with Mr. Engle on this one. After the fuss and protest about the bias given towards Christianity in the public square, the oversensitized feelings of all parties needs to be taken into account (including theists).

I haven't seen these Buddha statues, so I don't know if they are a traditional version (like a bodhisattva) or more in line with a Hotei, or "laughing Buddha". Either way, while Buddha statues aren't quite as common around these parts as crucifixes, they still represent a sectarian philosophical religion (albeit one that is nominally atheistic in nature), and should probably be taken down.

It's somewhat of a sad statement of today's overhyped sensationalism regarding religious iconography in the public square. While I do think there is too much influence of specifically Christian icons, references and symbolism in American government and the public square -- especially instances where it is intentionally used for sectarian influence -- there still needs to be some acknowledgement of the history and heritage of all cultures, which includes the religious traditions.

I would be very curious to know if the Buddhist community in KC pushed the zoo to adopt the Buddha statues for the Tiger Trail. This would be similar to the illegal influence of Christian groups who pushed (successfully) to get religious symbols, words and phrases inserted into official government places ("Under God" in the Pledge, "In God We Trust" on our currency, Christmas Trees in the capitol rotundas, etc). If they did, then it is definitely a case of state/religion comingling that shouldn't happen.

But if it was simply a case where the zoo employee thought the statues looked "Asian", then it is probably not quite so bad. Either way, the statues should go. After all, we wouldn't want to see all those good Christian kids turning Buddhist because they rubbed the belly of a Buddha!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Evolution In Action: Bettwer Watch Out for the Flu Bug!

Guess what? Even when we know it happens, it can still surprise. Case in point, the current dominant strain of influenza that is causing people to use up all their sick days at work this winter happens to have be a "mutant" strain that is resistant to one of the newest and best antiviral drugs on the market.

Not only is the H1N1 strain resistant, but the very mutation that causes that resistance has been identified. It's a spontaneous mutation (apparently not caused by selective pressure from the use of antiviral drugs), but the sudden increase and overwhelming replacement this season in the flu genome is tremendous. The mutation was identified a few years ago, but was contained to a small percentage of the total cases. In fact, last year the resistant variety was less than 11% of the total flu cases. This year -- 99%.

Now, this isn't the dreaded pandemic of "bird flu" -- but it does show the incredible power and effect of mutation plus natural selection, i.e., evolution. But one of the biggest problems is the lack of a rapid differential identity test between strains. Not even in the biggest hospitals can the doctors tell which strain a sick person has until it's too late to start on the antiviral treatment (it has to be started within 48 hours of infection to be effective).

Lucky for us humans, the flu isn't capable of horizontal gene transfer -- er. . . wait a minute, yes it is. Hmmm. Better keep that box of tissues handy, the drugstore might not be able to help you in a few years!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What if we used other words in the motto?

I've got a question for everyone who insists that the words "In God We Trust" and "Under God" are not an establishment of religion when they are prominently displayed on our money and in our Pledge of Allegience (and on just about every government building). If, as has been claimed, these are inocuous, ceremonial words that simply celebrate the heritage and history of our nation, then what happens if at some time in the future (and it may be sooner than you think) Muslims become a large enough group to gain a majority?

Will you have a problem if they suggest, mildly and with respect, that the word "God" should be replaced with "Allah"? After all, it would only be a recognition of the Muslim traditional and linguistic history, and not at all about a "founding of religion". It's not like they're pushing their full religious beliefs on you -- they just want to recognize in their traditional language the exact sentiments already present.

Think about it --

"In Allah We Trust" on the money.

"Under Allah" in the Pledge.

Would you be offended or upset by that? Why? The term "allah" simply means "god" in Arabic, so there really shouldn't be any reason to be angry, worried or threatened by it -- it means exactly the same thing! If it's OK and not an imposition of any specific religious belief or faith, then using a word from another language that has exactly the same meaning shouldn't bother you at all.

On the other hand, perhaps if you consider the situation in these terms, you can begin to understand why the prevelance and ubiquity of religious-words (like "God") on our national symbols, seals, oaths and money do seem somewhat oppressive and offensive to those of us who don't have a belief in your gods.