Evo - Devo? What is that

I just found a new podcast at Scientific American and one of the first episodes deals with Evolution and genes. The Sciam podcasts are fantastic and highly recommended for all who enjoy science. Here is the Evo-Devo video

Asok is dead!

I have terrible news for Asok's coworkers and all interns suffering unspeakable evil in the corporate world: Asok died bravely testing his company's latest project.

This is how the news are broken to Asok coworkers:

If you want to know about the unfortunate series of events leading up to Asok's sad demise, check http://www.dilbert.com/, click on the "read past strips" tab and check the 3 or 4 days leading up to Asok's final journey!

I think I will log into Second Life again and look for Scott Adams avatar to kick his ass around the block! Poor Asok!

On the subject of Humility Part 2

The recent events of my father's death have made me reconsider the subject of humility. How arrogant of the human species to believe ourselves superior to nature and yet, death is inevitable and we cannot do anything against it - neither can we abate other forces of nature (hurricanes, earthquakes...)
On a more mundane level, how we approach our fellow human beings is a matter of special consideration. I saw my brother last week show a complete lack of humility when dealing with people at the funeral and it reminded me of how Benjamin Franklin approached the subject. You see, Ben Franklin was not an aristocrat; he was a tradesman, a man of the people, used to hard manual labor. He started working at 12 as an apprentice at his brother's printing shop and from those humble beginnings he rose to world class diplomat, inventor extraordinary and statesman. He, however, felt he did not quite fit in with the rest of the aristocracy he frequented in the last half of his life and made a list of the virtues a gentleman should have.
The list itself is worthy of serious consideration, as is Franklin's method to practice the virtues. As he was told that he sometimes came across as too pedantic and arrogant, he added humility to his list of "gentlemanly virtues". In his words, while he did not think he ever achieved the virtue itself, he made a passable impression of it (which, to me, is a sign he did become humble).
Humility is the one virtue that you lose the moment you realize you have gained it. It is an elusive shadow of a virtue but one worth pursuing, for it greatly helps to allay the roadblocks in the difficult landscape of interpersonal relationships

The skeptic likes religion

My father passed away last Thursday. It was a very sad event when he kind of slowly slipped away. I knew it was coming but it was devastating anyway.
We went to the funeral parlor, where they prepared my father's body and then they showed it to us. I felt the impact of the sad event returning and then my wife asked for us to pray. We held our hands together and she then began to recite the Lord's prayer.
As much as I hold myself not to be a believer anymore, the reciting of the familiar words felt very comforting and reassuring. I don't know if it was because of the feelings I associate with the prayer (community, belonging, love) or because I felt comfort in engaging in a familiar activity when presented with an out of the ordinary and tragic situation. But my sadness abated for a while and I felt tranquility and resignation.
Religion may have a role to play in our society. It does not work for all of us or at least, not all the time, but I cannot deny that at least part of our value system derives from religious teachings and many people may need the sense of community and belonging that comes with church attendance and religious rituals.

On the subject of Humility - part 1

A friend just gave me this information which looks interesting though I have to say I have not checked it for accuracy. It is about Warren Buffet

There was a one hour interview on CNBC with Warren Buffet, the second richest man who has donated $31 billion to charity.Here are some very interesting aspects of his life:
  • He bought his first share of stock at age 11 and he now regrets that he started too late!
  • He bought a small farm at age 14 with savings from delivering newspapers.
  • He still lives in the same, small 3-bedroom house in midtown Omaha, that he bo ught after he got married 50 years ago. He says that he has everything he needs in that house. His house does not have a wall or a fence.
  • He drives his own car everywhere and does not have a driver or security people around him.
  • He never travels by private jet, although he owns the world's largest private jet company.
  • His company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns 63 companies.He writes only one letter each year to the CEOs of these companies, giving them goals for the year.. He never holds meetings or calls them on a regular basis. He has given his CEO's only two rules. Rule number 1: Do not lose any of your shareholder's money. Rule number 2: Do not forget rule number 1.
  • He does not socialize with the high society crowd. His pastime after he gets home is to make himself some popcorn and watch television.
  • Bill Gates, the world's richest man, met him for the first time only 5 years ago. Bill Gates did not think he had anything in common with Warren Buffet. So, he had scheduled his meeting only for half hour. But when Gates met him, the meeting lasted for ten hours and Bill Gates became a devotee of Warren Buffet.
  • Warren Buffet does not carry a cell phone, nor has a computer on his desk. His advice to young people: 'Stay away from credit cards and invest in yourself and remember:

A. Money doesn't create man, but it is the man who created money.

B. Live your life as simple as you are.

C. Don't do what others say. Just listen to them, but do what makes you feel good.

D. Don't go on brand name. Wear those things in which you feel comfortable.

E. Don't waste your money on unnecessary things. Spend on those who really are in need.

F. After all, it's your life. Why give others the chance to rule your life?'!?!?

And now that I was turned on to it, I will get back with Humility part 2 - sometime later...

Magical underwear and other mormon myths

Did you know that male mormons have to use a special undergarment with signs over each of their breasts, the navel and one of the knees? And this garment is supposed to "protect" them while being worn, thus fitting the description of a "magically" endowed underwear.

Evidence that this magical undergarment works as "protection": none that I know of. By the way, you can get your mormon underwear by buying it from the mormon church, the only approved supplier of magical undergarments.

Did you know that mormons believe that some jewish people were taken from ancient Judea into the American continent (the US, obviously, since Joseph Smith was born there) and they multiplied and flourished, eventually becoming two tribes, one good and one evil; the evil tribe destroyed the good tribe and were "punished" by having their skin colored in a darker color?

Evidence that this is how the Americas were populated: none. DNA studies conducted on amerindian tribes from Alaska to the Patagonia indicate that the human race colonized the American continent some 15,000 or so years ago, by crossing over from Asia over a land bridge on the Bering Strait. Mormon apologists indicate that DNA science is very new and, with further developments, their hypothesis will be confirmed. I remain very skeptical of the whole story but I am convinced that Joseph Smith did not like black or american native people.

Did you know that Joseph Smith eventually got married to more than 30 women? As the first Prophet of the mormon church, Smith had "divine" revelations that he could be married to more than one woman, as some of the characters in the Old Testament (see Solomon, David, Abraham...) The mormon church allowed and encouraged polygamy until Utah tried to become a state and they had to draft a state constitution banning polygamy, in order to be accepted into the Union. The mormon church holds, however, that if a man marries a woman and she dies, after which he re-marries, when he dies and "goes to heaven" he will be married to both women in the afterlife so that polygamy is legal in the mormon heaven.

Evidence that Smith had "divine" revelations on this and other issues: See DNA evidence above - the whole story about the jews being transplanted into the Americas was a "divine" revelation.

A skeptical view of peak oil

Learn more about Peak Oil at Energy and Capital.

Since posting my very own Peak Oil Clock, I have been mulling over this Peak Oil concept. Since I do work for an oil company, I knew about the concept but it seems to me that there are conflicting and vested interests in determining when Peak Oil Production will be reached. According to the clock above, it is less than 3 years away. Other predictions take Peak Oil to 2015 and beyond. It depends obviously on who you ask. Oil companies are not interested in discussing a short-term Peak Oil because it would affect their stock price - even though price of oil after Peak Oil is reached will definitely begin to rise sharply. Governments of oil producing companies (why is it that oil is found in troublesome spots like Nigeria and Venezuela?) are not interested in discussing the issue although I suspect Mr. Chavez may want to say that Peak Oil has been reached already as he wants the price of oil to rise to $120 per barrel.

And it will rise. But, very important to understand the debate, is to look at past estimates of our oil reserves. According to Wikipedia, here are the estimates of world reserves during the course of the 20th century:

- In 1874 the state geologist of Pennsylvania believed that all the oil would be gone by 1878
- In 1920 the U. S. Geological Survey estimated 60 billion barrels as the world reserve
- In 1950, estimates were raised to 600 billion barrels. Note that some barrels of the original 60 had already been consumed.
- In 1970 we were looking at 1500 billion barrels
- The same USGS estimated in 1994 2400 billion barrels and in 2000 revised the estimation to 3000 billion barrels

Where are those barrels coming from? They are not being produced but better estimates and better extraction technology (as well as rising prices) are allowing more and more oil to be recovered from places that were previously inaccessible and uneconomical to produce from.

Dave O'Reilly, Chairman of Chevron Corporation, indicated in a speech at the 26th annual Oil and Money Conference in London, that Peak Oil would more resemble a plateau than a peak. It seems to me that he is on to something, as there is a lot of investment going into increasing production, what with oil at $90 per barrel more and more locations where previously oil companies did not feel inclined to give a second glance at are now being actively worked on. The oil containing sands in Canada and Colorado are one example - this oil would have been uneconomical to recover at $40 or $50 a barrel but with current prices, it begins to look like a good opportunity.

And the side of consumption needs to be looked at. Although we are now using more fuel efficient vehicles, oil consumption continues to rise, with China and India leading the way. These countries are both motivating international oil companies to look for new sources of oil as well as sending their own national oil companies to look for sources of crude abroad. An example is the newly formed alliance between China and Venezuela and the (unsuccessful) attempts of China to buy out other oil companies such as Unocal.

When discussing Peak Oil, these factors have to be taken into account and as one of our known skeptical thinkers, Brian Dunning, likes to say: "Be skeptical".

TED: 10 ways the world could end

Stephen Petranek delivers an incredibly humorous presentation on 10 ways the world could suddenly come to an end. He delivers them in a "top ten" format and although, obviously, all of them spell tragedy for mankind, you can't avoid the feeling that this is tongue-in-cheek, even when you are seriously pondering all of them as the presentation ends. This is a video that can be watched online, downloaded to your desktop or imported into iTunes and viewed via your iPod. Choose your weapon. Click on the TED logo to watch or download the video. While at the TED site check the other interesting and intellectual talks on the TED website. There are fantastic presentations there, like Chris Bangle on cars as an artistic expression or Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala talking about how foreign help can really help Africa (a powerful presentation by an impressive woman) or Jane Goodall reflecting on what differentiates us from apes (she seems to imply that apes are the better man). This excellent site is great nourishment for your intellect. I am hooked on the TED talks and keep coming back to the site for more. I hope you will feel the same.

The world is not enough

No, it is not a James Bond movie, it is a report by the UN on the world resources. Again, as with the Peak Oil Clock, I am skeptical of the conclusions but they are scary, nonetheless. I guess we have to start educating our children on how better to support our activities leaving a very light footprint on this world, which we only have one, anyway...

Check out the article on the Scientific American Website. Picture is linked to the SCIAM website as well - it is not mine! Click on the red Earth picture above to go to the Sciam Website and read the full article!

Misquoting Jesus: how scribes altered scriptures and how readers may never know

This is a highly recommended series of videos of a lecture by Dr. Bart Ehrman, who is a bible scholar and teologist. I highly recommend you look at the whole series and you will seriously doubt the claim that the bible has any "divine" inspiration.

Work Peak Oil Clock - be very afraid!

This is really amazing. I am skeptical of the time left for Peak Oil (a subject of much debate) but the consumption numbers you can trust.
Something to think about, no doubt...

Learn more about Peak Oil at Energy and Capital.

Pangea Day

The goal of uniting the world's peoples is always a worthy one. This organization is trying to make us see the world through each other's eyes:


See the YouTube video here:

If you are into making videos, contribute. If not, watch the results. I bet it is going to be interesting

Perry DeAngelis - 8/22/1963 – 8/19/2007

I found out today, to my surprise and sorrow, that Perry de Angelis passed away last Sunday. Perry was one of the founders of the New England Skeptical Society (www.theness.com) and one of the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptics guide to the Universe (www.theskepticsguide.org).
Perry will be missed by all the fans of the SGU and the skeptical community. Farewell Perry, you will live on in our memories.

Changing pace - Che Guevara was a murderer

Yesterday, Luis Figueroa wrote a column in Prensa Libre about the Che Guevara. He explains how the image of this bloody revolutionary has been idealized and how people now don't really know that he was a cold blooded murderer and a hard line marxist who helped Fidel send Cuba's economy down the drain. Then there are comments on his blog by someone who says he doesn't understand how there is so much stupidity in the world that Luis could write something like that about such a wonderful place like Cuba.
I wonder who the stupid people are, those who see and don't want to understand or those who expose the truth. If Cuba is such a wonderful place why are people going out of Cuba? and not out of the US and other neighboring countries INTO Cuba? For that matter, even though Russia is now a non-communist country, how come there are so many russian women offering to get married to foreigners in order to get out of Russia? The legacy of the communist system is apparently too strong and difficult to get rid of.
I have mixed feelings about Cuba because I see that the strong points of the communist system are education and health care - those seem to work alright in Cuba. However, the price to pay for that is freedom and I don't know that people want to trade their freedom (of speech, of movement) for good health, good education, no work and long lines for a few scraps of bread. I don't know. I would rather keep our imperfect system than go to that totalitarian system; the cost in human suffering is, I believe, too steep for us to pay. Even the Chinese, who live now in a quasi-capitalist country, have to pay their new found wealth with heavy control from the government in terms of information (the internet is forbidden in China, basicaly) and they still suffer from the consequences of the "one child per family" policy, that led to uncounted abortions and murders of new born and stilborn babies. And that price, in terms of human suffering, I believe is unpayable.
Luis' blog is available at http://luisfi61.blogspot.com

Holy Communion or Ritualistic Cannibalism?

It is interesting to see the things we have been thought to believe. According to catholic dogma, during consecration bread and wine are transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus himself. Then we are expected to eat this flesh and drink this blood, for purposes that really escape my memory but are supposed to get us to achieve communion with Jesus.
In antiquity, people believed that if they killed their enemies and ate their flesh, they would attain some of their good attributes (bravery, courage, whatever). This belief seems to have rubbed off onto early christianity, as we are expected to eat of Jesus' flesh, not to acquire his divine attributes (wouldn't that be a supreme arrogance?) but to achieve communion with him, to be closer to him, I guess.
Well, I agree I could not be any closer to my food; it really is in me. What happens when I am done with my food, however, I would not wish to my closest friends so I still wonder why we would want Jesus to suffer that ignominy. When I want to be close to my wife, I get physically close or intellectually close, as in a very deep conversation; I still have not had any desire of eating her flesh to be closer and I hope I do not get that urge. I don't think I would get any closer and then, the closeness would only be temporal as the flesh makes its way through my digestive system and then goes away... for good. Maybe that is why we have to commune every week or, in the case of very devout catholics and priests, every day.
Of course, this is assuming the bread and wine are really transformed into the flesh and blood of the Son of God. In reality, it really tastes like a rather insipid and carboard-like bread and a rather cheap wine so that the ritual is only that, a going through the motions in order to mimic the real thing. Which does not get me any closer to Jesus.

Was Jesus married?

One of the reasons I think it will be useful to post this blog is that I can use it as a placeholder for all these thoughts going around in my head.

Yesterday I was discussing with my mother the question of whether Jesus was married. If we accept the fact of the historical existence of Jesus, which some people seriously doubt or deny, then we have to look at this question in the context of the times in which Jesus allegedly lived. First, Jesus was a practicing jew, and according to the Bible, he was extremely well versed in the knowledge of Judaism. At the age of 30, a jew was always married. Not being married would have been a very rare event for someone of Jesus' age and I seriously doubt he was antisocial or abnormal in any way. So, most probably, Jesus had a wife.

Why then is she not mentioned in the Bible? Well, for one thing, we know for a fact that women and children in the land and times of Jesus were, basically, non-entities. They were not taken into account. We know, for example, that Peter was married. His wife is, however, never mentioned. Women are mentioned in the Gospels only when they are essential to the story; otherwise, they are ignored. Same as with children.

Jesus did show a distinctly anti-social behavior: he spoke to women in public. That is mentioned in the Bible and the surprise of those surrounding Jesus is also mentioned.

Again, in reading the Gospels, allowances must be made for the fact that they were written by men. (No, I don't think they were inspired). And they wrote them with all the biases that were hard-wired into their psyche by the customs and usages of the time in which they lived. They also don't mention those things they took for granted (being married would have been one of them). One of my favorite examples is that not once is Jesus or his disciples being described in the process of going to the bathroom; those things you do and they are taken for granted.

So, was Jesus married? I guess he was, because that was the proper thing for a young jewish man of 30 in Jesus' time and land of birth. However, I have to bow to the lack of evidence and say, truthfully, I don't know.

Why I am doing this

I am intrigued by the idea of blogging. I don't know if I can muster the courage to widely publish my ideas and gather the will to regularly publish my thoughts, but what the heck, let's give it a try...
And I am doing this because I need a relief. I am going to church every Sunday - going through the ritual and the routine and the motions of the catholic faith which I no longer profess but have to continue to practice until such a time comes when I am able to confront everyone with my re-discovered skepticism of the religious beliefs. Yes, it is not new and although I have been a practicing catholic practically all my life, the lingering doubt and incredulity has always been there, right in the background of it all - same as when I sat in the back of the chapel in school because I was taken to mass but did not really want to be there
How can people be so deluded even when they must be fully aware of how christianity has developed is beyond me. Maybe my publishing of these thoughts will bring other like minded skeptics to share their ideas in and enlighten me. I hope.
Now, if I could enlighten anyone...