Am I doing the Lord's work? or the Law of Unintended Consequences

The other day, D.J. Grothe, who evidently was spending a nice vacation with his beau, Thomas, in Mexico, posted an interesting tale of trying to do good and ending up with a big mess - a nice example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. For those not having access to D.J.'s Facebook, he and Thomas tried to feed some dogs and ended up causing a horrible dogfight, where one of the canines was probably killed by the others over the food that was offered.

Not in the same vein but also an example of unintended consequences, I got a nice e-mail from one of my readers/friends just yesterday.

My friend tells me that my blog as well as the links posted in it have helped him sort out his doubts and beliefs and now, as a rational christian, he is more secure of his faith in God. He says he has run the full gamut from believer to agnostic and is now safe and happy on his christian belief.

Well, I am puzzled but, truthfully, very happy for my friend.

As I have matured as a skeptic and agnostic, I have learned not to pick fights over religion or belief. I am "embedded" in a very conservative, catholic family and it is to my advantage not to get into arguments one way or another. If anything, seeing my (mostly political) family attend their various religious rituals and functions has pushed me further into agnosticism and I flirt with atheism all the time but I don't quarrel with their beliefs.

In fact, as I have mentioned before, I don't have a problem with people being religious. Organized religion tends to piss me off but people attending religious services and having their particular sets of beliefs, well, you can chalk that one up to freedom of speech, which I am 100% for.

And having read Dawkins and Harris, I have consciously decided not to be a militant atheist.

My initial purpose in writing this blog was to try and organize my ideas and philosophy into one coherent body. All the crazy things spinning in my head had to be given some kind of structure and the blog has helped me do that. In fact, going back over the initial postings, I see how my perspective has changed.

I continue to have fun with pastafarianism and will go on making fun of mormon's underwear or catholicism ritual cannibalism, not forgetting Corny's absolutely idiotic rantings. But I have come to feel secure in my ideas and content with other's beliefs... as long as they don't try to infringe on my personal space.

So, again, I was puzzled by my friend's e-mails but very happy that I was able to help. There is no doubt in my mind that the pursuit of happiness is one noble goal and part of that happiness is being secure and safe in your beliefs. If my writings help one way or another, well then, the golden rule is in action! And friends are always a blessing, however you want to interpret the word.

Thanks Ed!

Happy holidays... or not!

To all of my readers, not many but very good and nice all of them, I wish to send a politically-correct, non-denominational and fully refundable holiday season greeting!

If you celebrate the year-end holidays and consider a new year to begin in only 6 more days, I wish you a happy holiday season and a wonderful and successfull 2009!

If you do not celebrate any holidays, I want to wish you continued success in your daily activities and I hope you enjoy your regular, work and/or personal, day!

To all, thanks for reading my ramblings and I look forward to your support and feedback!

And for my fellow pastafarians, here's a nice pic I lifted from my friend's Daily Profaner. Hope she doesn't mind!

Majel Barrett-Roddenberry 1932-2008

Majel Barrett as number one in "The Cage" with Gene Roddenberry. Image courtesy of
"Warning! Damage to warp core. Containment failure in ten minutes"
Whenever that was heard in Star Trek, that was the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry. She voiced the computers in all the Star Trek spinoffs after The Next Generation. As Gene Roddenberry's widow, she carried on with the Star Trek franchise and, like Roddenberry, became an icon for us Star Trek fans.
Mrs. Barrett-Roddenberry will still be voicing the computer in the upcoming Star Trek XI. She will be missed.
A homage video is already loaded in You Tube. See below.

Stanton Friedman is a great ufologist

When I was a teenager, our local ufologist had a radio show that I listened to every night. Many years after that show ended its run I have found that events he described as very mysterious were easily (or sometimes not so easily) explained.
For instance, he referred (in the 1970s) to the De Havilland Comet crashes. The De Havilland Comet was a revolutionary aircraft at the beginning of the 1950s, ushering in the era of jet travel for the masses. Unfortunately, the design was flawed and after some cycles of take off and landing, the hulls suffered from fatigue and the planes began to desintegrate in midair. It took the De Havilland company a serious amount of research work to figure out what the problem was in order to correct it.
This guy I am telling you about (and I am keeping his name in reserve, just to protect the guilty) showcased the Comet crashes as "unexplained" and probably the work of "hostile aliens" or other paranormal events. And this was 15-20 years after the crashes were explained.
My childhood ufologist is out there. Still believes in Velikovsky and Berlitz. (yawn)
So, this guy Stanton Friedman is the greatest ufologist now in existence.
Friedman apparently made his fame with the claimed Roswell UFO crash. I sincerely accept the explanation of a crashed aerostatic balloon covered with foil but Friedman and his friends have taken the case to an incredible level of conspiracy and government cover-ups. He has, apparently, also written and researched the alleged Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction, a story that has so many holes in it you could drive a truck through.
He is another irretrievably lost soul.
My buddy Brian Dunning, of Skeptoid fame, mentioned in his Facebook status that Friedman had made an attack on him via the Paranormal Podcast. (No, I refuse to link to such places from here. Google it.) So I went on iTunes and downloaded the relevant episode. And yes, indeed, Friedman makes fun of the Skeptoid episode about Betty and Barney. He also denigrates SETI which is a serious scientific effort and insists on government interests in keeping UFOs a secret.
When people believe and don't want to stop believing they will just close their minds and not listen to any reason. For instance, when Friedman was talking about government conspiracies I was thinking that you might kind of believe that the US government can keep a secret but what about other governments? It shows that Friedman was born in the US and has no idea how inept most if not all other governments are since the alleged UFO phenomenom is not unique to north american skies.
People like Friedman make it look like the Earth is the crossroads of the Universe. That is extremely unlikely. The energy expenditure required for interestellar travel makes the possibility of such long distance travel very unlikely. The energy required to travel to Alpha Centauri alone is 100 times the current energy output of the whole planet!
According to some estimates we are a Type 0.7 civilization, where a Type 1 civilization would be one that is able to harvest the entire energy available to a planet. Obviously, a race capable of interestellar travel would have to be a Type 2 - able to harvest the entire energy available to a solar system.
Interstellar travel would be cool. But it seems that we are far from attaining it and, while not impossible, it does no seem likely that our little blue planet is the crossroads of the universe Friedman and other wackos would make us believe.
Dream on!

The Lord's prayer - can a skeptic relate to it?

As almost every Sunday I went with my wife to church today. (My kid has asked me why I do it and my response, Sheldon's style is "unavoidable social convention". Especially with the wife.) And, as almost every Sunday my mind wandered from the inane rantings of our priest to more interesting topics - in this case the Lord's prayer.

As per previous posting, I have felt comfort in reciting the Lord's prayer. I am what you would call a tooth-fairy agnostic, so the comfort does not come out of belief but rather out of the familiarity and past associations with the words in this particular prayer. I have always liked it. And here is why I still like it.

"Our father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name..."

One who knows cannot help but feel wonder and awe when looking up to the night sky. Our small blue orb is insignificant in comparison to the marvelous objects out there, which come in all sizes and shapes. From the mighty Beltegeuse and Antares to our humble moon, going through all kinds of novae, super novae, black holes, quasars, neutron stars, gamma ray bursts, spiral galaxies, globular clusters... we are really nothing when compared to the vastness of the Universe. That is the reason Herr Doktor Einstein talked about God in the context of Nature and the powers behind the Universe. It was not the Jew God he was talking about, it was Nature as God. Hallowed be thy name indeed.

"Thy Kingdom come thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven..."

Herr Doktor Einstein struggled with the non-deterministic nature of the Universe until his final days and this struggle left us wonderful anecdotes of his discussions with Niels Bohr, the father of quantum mechanics. We know that, at the subatomic level, there is nothing truly determined and we can only discuss probabilities. However, at larger scale, the Universe does seem to have rules and regulations, a kind of trascendental orderliness. (Hence the teleological argument). Would it not be wonderful to translate that order to our daily existence?

Consider the collision between two galaxies. It takes many millions of years but casualties... are few and far between. Gravity forces stars to move to other orbits and get out of the way. Even if two stars were to collide, it would not necessarily be their end... there might be a new, larger, brighter star being formed out of this collosal merger. At the end, the two galaxies merge into one, single, larger, mightier entity. Peacefully.

Consider a collision between two of our nation/states. Lots of people die and most of the time there is no merger of equals - one may end up opressing the other or both countries/states come out of the struggle with huge losses, both economical and in terms of human capital.

On Earth as it is in Heaven indeed.

"Give us this day our daily bread..."

What could be more basic than asking for our daily sustenance? Our body needs energy to move, breath, reproduce! Food is the source of that energy, herein symbolized by bread. Indeed, we need our daily bread.

"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us..."

Ah, the golden rule! How can we live without it! The golden rule must be golden because it is a basic tenet of our life in the community - we have to respect each other and abide by a set of rules designed to make our communal life bearable and free of conflict. This is not an aspirational goal, it is a basic requirement of societal life. Do unto others as you wish to be done unto. Indeed!

"And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil..."

As I always tell my friends, those things in life that are nice or tasty or pleasurable are usually "sinful", unlawful or harmful to our health. So, a basic precaution of mankind is to stay away from those "temptations", not to mention evil which is to be avoided at all cost. Common sense, to remind ourselves of that in our daily prayers. Indeed!

"For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever."

The closing is a reminder of the religious nature of the prayer. Nothing to say on the skeptic side but I would side with Herr Doktor Einstein and bow to the wonder of the Universe. For ever and ever is a little more than the Universe will last but from our limited perspective, the couple hundred billion years more the Universe will be around does look like "for ever and ever".

A long time indeed. Time enough to reflect on how this prayer brings out the common sense and realization of the things man really needs.

Note: I found Wikipedia's article to be extremely informative on the Lord's Prayer. Make sure to check it out.

Magic? or science?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke, "Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)

The video above shows an aluminum foil "boat" misteriously floating in the air. Magic? Supernatural powers? NO! The glass container is filled, at the beginning, with a gas that is denser than air and sufficiently dense to make the "boat" float. Check the Popular Science article here.

As Mr. Clarke indicated, any event whose explanation requires more knowledge than what we posses looks to us like magic. Imagine a Cro-Magnon or a Neanderthal coming into one of our houses! He would be scared to death by seeing our mysterious powers of producing light by pinching the wall (I doubt they would notice the switch and that still would be magical) - communicating at a distance just by talking into our hand (cell phones are so small that they would not recognize their significance) - being able to summon mysterious spirits and even dead people into a strange looking box (TV!) - things that are everyday events to us would be definitely magical and miraculous to a caveman.

So, next time you come up with something that looks mysterious, magical or miraculous consider the more practical possibility that there is a rational and scientifically sound explanation for that event. Solids can turn into liquids just by shaking (thixotropy) - strange shapes need not be miraculous representations of deity but rather our mind trying to find patterns into everything we see - an evolutionary advantage that works to the critical thinker's disadvantage...

Fun letters to God. I love this!

Facebook has many good things going for it, one of which is the sharing of news items by my friends. One of such items was this "letters to God collection" , which I found refreshing, funny and insightful.

This letter appears in this blog FUnlimited which seems to specialize in funny stuff found on the internet and the letters are shown as actual pictures of the children's writing, which is also refreshing. You are welcome to check the actual posting.

I loved several of the notes. Here are the ones that caught my attention:

"You don't have to worry about me. I always look both ways. Dean"

Looks like we could advise our good friend Cornswalled NOT to look both ways before crossing the street but, of course, Dean is more sensible.

"Dear God, if you watch in Church on Sunday I will show you my new Shoes. Mickey D."

God must be appreciative of new apparel, especially if worn to church. Mickey must be a tidy young person.

"Dear-God-if-we-come-back-as-something-please-don't-let-me-be-Jennifer-Horton-because-I-hate-her. Denise"
"Dear God I bet it is very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it. Nan"

Denise and Nan are very candid. They know we just can't love everyone. Wise insight.

"Dear God, If you give me genie lamp like Alladin I will give you anything you want except my money or my chess set. Raphael".

Of course. Some things are just not negotiable.

"Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy. Joyce."

At her young age Joyce is now learning the real power of prayer.

"Dear God, I went to this wedding and they kissed right in church. Is that OK? Neil."

Is this Cornswalled's child? What do these parents tell their kids? I feel sorry for Neil's outlook on sexuality. Hope God answers that kissing is OK, no matter where.

"Dear God. Are you really invisible or is that just a trick. Lucy"

Dear Lucy, I believe it is just a trick.

"We read Thos. Edison made light. But in Sun. School they said you did it. So I bet he stoled your Idea. Sincerely, Donna".

Donna is already suffering an early conflict between science and religion. Hope science wins.

"Dear God Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry".

Larry, I couldn't have said it better. Nothing makes peace better that having your own stuff. Well put.

Cornswalled, stupidity, hipocrisy and other sins

A few weeks ago I got notice of this blog, via the SGU podcast. Of course, I went to check out the site and was surprised at the depth of ignorance and stupidity it reflects. This guy, Alexander Cornswalled, bills himself as a "conservative christian" and rants against science, education and whatever is not written in the bible.

(Whenever I think about these people who take the bible as a literal guide to life I wonder if they go to the bathroom; the bible never mentions Jesus or his disciples taking any kind of biological break).

I find a lot of problems with these fundamentalists, or "fundies" as a fellow blogger calls them. Whenever you read Cornswalled, you can feel the bile, the rage and the hate for anyone who does not share the same fundie values. It is all negative. Disease is punishment from God. Modern medicine is against God's will. And I, in his eyes, am a willing member of Satan's army. It does not matter that I do not believe in Satan, he will say I follow his dictum if he gets to read this.

I do not have anything against people having religious beliefs and faith. The fact that I do not share those beliefs does not prevent me from seeing good things belief has made in others, rescuing them from the depths of alcoholism or drug addiction and turning them into upstanding members of our community. Maybe that is what they needed and I am fortunate enough not to need any kind of religious crutches to behave and be an upstanding member of society. But, having said that, I truly do not want to be a member of any cult, religion or group that believes they are the only possesors of the truth and who believe in a God that is so full of hate and rage that will eternally punish the 95% of humanity that do not share the same fundie belief.

If God exists, he would not be so unfair, even if he cared...

And as I have told people who are very close to me, Jesus is said to have preached love. Love thy neighbor, love thy brother. And we are all brothers, coming from a few common ancestors, as much as Cornswalled and his brethren want to deny it. (No, it was not only two). Why not follow that good advice? When you see these fundies talk and read their writings, they are preaching hate: hate for the unbeliever, the gay, the muslim, the Obamas, anyone and everyone who does not conform.

(Reminds me of the Pocahontas movie song: ..."you think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you...")

And that, in my book, is not christian charity. It is plain hipocrisy.

Seti or Weti?

Today I listed to one of my favorite podcasts, Astronomy Cast episode 110 "The search for extraterrestrial intelligence" where good buddy Fraser Cain and the lovely Pamela Gay (yes, I am a fan of Pamela's) talk about Seti (the Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life via catching their "stray" radio or tv broadcasts.

Seti has been going on since the 60s and still has not shown any "alien" signals. That does not mean they are not there as every good skeptic knows that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" but its apparent lack of success has not necessarily contributed to being a well funded endeavour, which I think is a shame.

Success or lack of it aside, the idea of extraterrestrial life is most intriguing. Basis the premise that the Universe is a very large place and that Earth is basically insignificant against the gigantic backdrop of what we know exists, extraterrestrial life looks like a logical conclusion - if life happened on Earth it must have happened elsewhere, once we also accept the fact that there may be nothing particularly especial about Earth, the sun and the human race in general. Life may be rare but that doesn't necessarily make it unique.

But if life is not unique to Earth, does that mean we will meet an extraterrestrial civilization? No one really knows as the progression of events leading to contact between two separate civilizations may indeed make such contact very improbable if not impossible:
  • Right conditions for life must exist
  • Life must arise and evolve
  • Evolution must lead to intelligence
  • Intelligent life forms must develop technology
  • This tecnology must allow for interstellar travel or communication of some sort
  • The communication capability must exist for a finite amount of time

Each one of the above must be a very low probability event. These probabilities, taken together, offer an insight into a possible number of "communicative" civilizations. Dr. Frank Drake developed Drake's equation, in 1961 (read more about it at the Seti website). As solved by Frank Drake himself, the equation yields a number of 10,000 "communicative" civilizations in our galaxy.

The last term in Drake's equation refers to the lifetime of this "communicative" civilization. I haven't heard or read anything about this particular term but I have indeed thought about it.

Our sun seems to be a third generation star as it contains a lot of heavy elements (heavier than iron) same as the solar system. Without these elements, life as we know it could not have evolved.

Considering that the lifetime of a star like the sun may be 8 to 10 billion years, we seem to be indeed early in the "history" of the universe. That would present an argument for saying that we may be among the first technologically capable civilizations in the galaxy and that we may be, eventually, the first or one of the first to venture out into the unknown.

On the other hand, there was a huge meteor impact on Earth about 65 million years ago, that nearly wiped out all life on the planet and led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs or at least that is the generally accepted view. But I keep wondering if species of dinosaurs like velociraptor could not have evolved into sentient, intelligent beings much like humans but with a 65 million year head start?

Actually there is a Star Trek Voyager episode which depicts descendants of dinosaurs that escaped destruction on Earth and now living on the Delta quadrant of our Galaxy, wherever that is (Season 3 episode 23 "Distant Origin") . Obviously this is highly especulative but so is Star Trek. These intelligent reptiles are the kind of advanced civilization that a 65 million head start on us would lead to.

So, if that 5-6 mile piece of space junk had not hit, we might all be dinosaurs roaming the skies. And if other civilizations had that same kind of a head start, we are late to the party. Probably too late.

After all this ranting, what is it going to be? Seti... or should we wait and see? That is what WETI stands for, Waiting for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence to arrive.

Me, I am sitting back and relaxing waiting to see if our velociraptor cousins show up. Good piece of advice from Pamela.

Listen to the podcast. You will be enlightened while being entertained.

Why skeptics like science fiction?

I have been following the skeptical movement for about two years now and I feel very identified with it because I have always been a skeptic at heart. And I feel more and more a part of this way of thinking when I realize that my passion for science fiction is shared with so many of my skeptical colleagues.

Maybe skeptics like science fiction because many of the best and best known SF writers of the 20th century were also skeptics. Arthur C. Clark lets readers clearly see his agnosticism/atheism; Isaac Asimov defends science and the scientific outlook in both his fiction and non-fiction writings; he was the original skeptic. And you can feel the skepticism in Heinlein's and Van Vogt's work. While you are at it, don't forget Gene Roddenberry and his Opus Magnum, Star Trek.
So, many good SF writers were (or probably were) skeptics. But what about our own mindset when we read (or watch) science fiction? Interestingly, us SF fans classify these works of art into "good SF" and "bad SF". How come? Most SF requires some suspension of disbelief in order to be enjoyed. Yeah, yeah, Dr. Krauss, I understand that beaming someone using a Star-Trek-type transporter would require so much information storage as to make it unpractical... but watching the special effects of Captain Kirk being "beamed up" and "down" does get us thinking how good a change to our daily conmute that would be and wouldn't it be good to have one of those at home. On the whole, Star Trek is regarded as good science fiction, warp drive non-withstanding. On the other hand I personally consider Star Wars a very low grade SF work... although many of my skeptically minded friends like the movies. What is the difference?

For me at least, the difference is that, while Star Trek at least tries to base some of the stories on some kind of science, Star Wars does not. When Captain Janeway asks for a "tachion beam", we already know that time disturbances are somehow linked to these "tachions" which, maybe, will now be discovered by the LHC. But "the Force" is so "mystical" and "religious" that I am personally turned off by it. It is like the Matrix - they do things that are impossible, only you know that "in the Matrix" they can be explained by manipulation of the "reality-producing" algorithms while there is no good explanation of how "the Force" works short of being a deist and considering a mysterious spiritual bonding of every atom of the universe... a concept I really shy away from.
So that most be the reason why Asimov and Clarke are considered among the top SF writers of the last century - two authors who consistently used good science and reasonable extrapolations of current knowledge throughout their stories, while some other writers (and I don't read them, so I don't want to name them) might best be classified as fantasy rather than SF authors.

And there is the "in-between" category. For instance, I am currently listening to J. C. Hutchins "7th. Son" trilogy. J.C.'s story has a wonderful flow that really grabs you and forces you to listen forsaking TV, sleep, sex and meals... well, maybe only TV. But I find that the need of suspension of disbelief is, at times, a little too much. For instance, J.C. postulates the existence of the mysterious "Aurora" aircraft and then narrates that it takes an Aurora 20 minutes from Virginia to the middle of Texas. OK, I think, maybe fly over Virginia and into Texas in 20 minutes... but landings and take-offs would easily consume an additional 10 minutes each considering the extreme heights at which such an aircraft would have to operate. And then you have the refueling problem (no refuelings occur...) and the Auroras, in the novel, seem to be kind of a flying 4X4, able to take off and land in almost any strip. It really strains my skepticism until I remind myself that "7th. Son" is a thriller more than a SF novel.

Maybe that is the reason I, as a skeptic, like SF. It flexes my critical thinking muscles and forces me to look beyond and try to see these things really happening... are they at all possible? If most of them are, in light of our current knowledge and a reasonable extrapolation into the future, then you are reading good SF.
J.C. Hutchins novel is available at While you are there, be sure to check Mur Lafferty's excellent "Playing for keeps", which is now also in print and available at I highly recommend both even if they are not all that "believable" but they are definitely enjoyable. Image above was found in this excellent blog, Trevize's computer.

LHC: End of the world postponed?

Of course I do not believe that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will cause the end of the world! But since the chicken-Littles of the world have been crying wolf... I thought I would have a little laugh at their expense.

What is the Large Hadron Collider? Simply put, it is the largest particle accelerator ever built (actually, the largest atom-smasher) and it will allow us to peer into the very fabric of the universe and re-create conditions that were only present a few nanoseconds after the Big Bang. If you don't know what a particle accelerator is and what it is used for, go check wikipedia, which also has a nice article on the LHC.

Now, seriously, we science fans are more than a little disappointed. The LHC (see news here) was initially turned on on September 1oth. A good day for science! The giant magnet was powered on and protons were spun around the 27 km circunference successfully. Unfortunately on September 19th, a failure in two of the magnets used to accelerate and confine the proton beam caused a helium leak. Helium is used as a coolant, the LHC magnets being kept at an extremely low temperature of 1.9 K - that is more than 270°C below cero!

Imagine the challenges of operating equipment at such extreme temperatures! Science fans have been further disappointed by the fact that the LHC is now only slated to be re-started in the early spring of 2009 - which for me means march or april.

There have been all sorts of reactions from the fans of the LHC protesting such a lengthy repair. But the challenge is to bring the failed section up to room temperature: from 1.9 K to 300 K it may take several weeks, in order to avoid any damage during heat up. And once the repairs are conducted, it will then take some more time to cool down everything to operating temperature - not to mention the planned winter shut down, which is closing fast!

In any case, 2009 should be the year when the LHC will make headlines (at least in the media outlets that we, science fans, read) and who knows, maybe string theory will get confirmation... or not!

Six degrees and Facebook

This morning I requested a friend who Facebook kept suggesting to me. It turns out my new friend is a nice young lady studying biology at Carnegie Mellon. She is very much into the skeptic movement, from what I have seen and she sent me the address to her blog. So, naturally, I checked it out...

And she is funny! She blogs about a variety of subjects but manages to post a lot of humor (at least for my skeptical mind it sounds like humor). So I am having a blast reading her and I hope you will as well.

There is a theory that all humans are connected by six or less people. I am skeptical of that claim but I really do enjoy meeting new people on these social networking sites and every once in a while a real gem of a new friend comes along, courtesy of Facebook. So I guess I should give in when Facebook insists someone is my friend for more than three days or so...

In case you are wondering, the above picture I found in her blog, where she indicates the provenance.
Thanks for the friendship Shalini!

Debate about evolution?

I am continually amazed at the sheer stupidity of this issue. Now that Governor Palin (AK) has been nominated as the vp candidate for the Republican party, there are news again of a supposed debate between evolution and creationism.
Now children, repeat after me: "There is no debate. Evolution happened." Write 5000 times until it gets through your thick skull!
Problem is people seem not to know what a theory is. Pres. Bush's statement "it is only a theory" shows ignorance. A theory is a hypothesis that has been backed up by evidence and makes usable predictions about the real world. If I have a 10 pound weight on my right hand and I let go, it will fall to the ground. That is what the "Theory of Gravity" predicts. And it happens. It is not "only a theory".
Now, a gentleman by the name of Bobby Henderson wrote a letter to the Kansas Board of Education several years ago when the board tried to introduce creationism in school. Ah, sorry, not creationism, "Intelligent Design". Same difference. Bobby regaled the board with another option to teach in school, the theory that the world was created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
And pastafarianism, which is the devotion (I will not say religion) to the Flying Spaghetti Monster has spread. I feel myself touched by His Noodly Appendage as I am writing this lines...
A strange belief? Not less strange than many of the stories found on the Bible, the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon.
And we are all pretty sure the Book of Mormon was made up by crackpot Joseph Smith...
Anyway, read all you want about His Pastaness at

We have not sunk into a black hole... yet!

Today is a day to remember in history. The Large Hadron Collider has been successfuly tested at 10 am this morning, Geneva time. The test was a success!

Although no particle collisions are scheduled to occur before October 21st, I am very skeptical that the disasters heralded by the usual loud-mouthed Chicken Little types will occur. The most talked about disaster these poor souls have been cackling about is the supposed creation of black holes that would in an instant swallow the Earth whole, taking us all into oblivion.

I guess they will say this can still happen since no particles are colliding as yet. But I would prefer to wait until October 21st before crying foul. Until then, I am not really holding my breath. The LHC is a wonderful new instrument for probing into the mysteries of the universe and all I am looking forward to is the news of more fascinating discoveries in the years to come.

If you want to learn about the best and worse case scenarios, there is a very nice article in the Wired magazine website. Enjoy!

God must be a robot...

I am a devoted reader of Popular Science and found this very interesting article. Since I have been reading about the Singularity (check elsewhere in my blog) I find these ideas a natural progression.

In short, once the Singularity is achieved and very advanced computers help design even more advanced and intelligent computers, progress would be so fast that time between computer generations could be shortened to a few days. The end of the line is for human beings to live forever, having uploaded their conscience into a mechanical brain... and an eternally repairable body.

So, this NASA exobiologist thinks there is a better than 50/50 chance that some of the alien races that may be out there are not biological anymore, but completely mechanical. And again, it would be the logical and natural conclusion to the series of events started by the Singularity.

So, future of humanity is robothood (will we call it robotkind instead of mankind?) And since, if there is a God, He is supposed to have created us in his likeness and we have not finished evolving, it only follows that God is a robot!

How about that for a slippery slope?

The strange dichotomy of death and religion

I am thoroughly convinced that one of the main reasons for the existence of religion is the fact that we all die. Man has, from the very dawn of self-awareness, struggled with the reality of this fact, that we live for a short time and then die and are never seen or heard of again.

Jay Novella mentioned last week in the SGU podcast (remembering Perry De Angelis) that "death makes no sense and it is a loss". I agree, man has tried to make sense of death from the beginning and tried to find ways to cope with the loss and, there you have it, religion tries to make sense of it and tries to find ways to alleviate the loss.

Not very succesfully.

The strange dichotomy I am refering to in the title to this post, is the effect of death on the religious. I cannot understand why, if death is a transition to a "better place", if the deceased is going "to face God" and be "in his presence" (which I imagine would be wonderful if only God really existed), why then religious people react to the loss of a loved one with such intense grief? And believe me, I think agnostics and non-religious people, like myself, cope better with the loss than the religious.

I have seen the two attitudes from very close quarters. I lost my father last November, and believe me, the pain is still there and at the moment of his death, though I knew it was coming, the grief was unbearable. But, I have to accept, my dear old man is no more and I have to learn to live with that fact and console myself with my fond memories of him and the love that we shared in the family for him and he for us. And with time, acceptance sets in and peace returns.

But the religious... what a way to grieve! I have seen depression, loss of apetite, desire to also die, complete desperation. Do they not believe that their loved one is in heaven, happily playing the harp or something? Do they not rejoice at the thought of the deceased suffering no more and leaving his/her mortal attachments for an eternal life of bliss?

I don't understand.

In the Arabian Nights tales, there is one that mentions that humans should actually party, dance and rejoice when a loved one dies, for he/she was God's property and that property has gone back to his/her actual owner. From this side of the fence, that attitude makes so much more sense.

Strange things of life in this world...

Did you know the earth is flat?

Yes, it is flat... or at least so maintains the Flat Earth Society. I browsed through their claims and found them interesting. They say that

  • The Earth is flat
  • Most of it is water - held in place by ice walls
  • Gravity is really acceleration - the Earth accelerates upward and that gives us the illusion of gravity

And most interestingly, they say that if Earth were round, people standing on the south pole would fall off!!!

I don't know if they really believe all of this nonsense is true or if they are only having fun at the expense of gullible people. Anyway, check their claims and see if they convince you. They didn't convince me.

And I still don't understand what Rasputin has to do with all of it...

By the way, researching this piece, I found this fantastic piece of art, by a gentleman called George Grie. You can use it as wallpaper.

THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS: The Archdiocese of Mexico recomends women how to dress and behave to avoid sexual aggression!

Jamie Lynn did not follow the advice of Father Román...

I believe the priesthood has overdone it. I stumbled upon this news (in spanish here) and felt outraged. An excerpt follows, freely translated by yours truly:

"The Archdiocese of Mexico has published some 'advice' for young women to avoid being the victims of sexual attacks... 'do not use provocative clothing'; 'avoid being alone with a man, even if he is an acquaintance...'; 'avoid suggestive conversation...'

"When we exhibit our body without modesty we are prostituting it because we cause in others feelings they have no right to unless it is our desire to become public property, that is, we get mentally prostituted*. That's what pornography is, a mental prostitution..."

"The human body is simply beautiful, it is God's work... Art has glorified and sublimated it in search of a merely esthetical feeling...

"Some of our young women, well educated in the value of modesty, feel uncomfortable with clothing that shows their bodies. We see them modestly pulling down their short shirts, their skirts and covering their cleavage with a sweater..."

*my emphasis

Looking back at my previous post on personal responsibility, I believe this is another wrong direction religion can take us. It is not the rapist's fault - she was "unmodest" and "provocative" or "suggestive". This "advice" also makes the priesthood thinking visible, they insist on demeaning women by making them guilty of the aggression they suffer because "it is her fault" or "she was looking for it".

It is time to stop the bullshit and the nonsense. Everyone has to be accountable for their actions. End of the story. Nothing less will do.

Note: I tried looking at the source in the Archdiocese of Mexico's website,, as advertised in these news and in the Google search. The website was apparently down, probably because of the (just) indignation at this stupidity. However, I was able to ascertain that the note was published on August 10th, 2008, by priest Sergio G. Román del Real. The article might have been pulled by the Archdiocese which is now trying to distance itself from the writings of "father" Román. Check this additional note here (in spanish)

And now there is a book on the Merchants of Faith!

The book is called "How to get rich as a Televangelist or Faith Healer" (Bill Wilson, Paladin Press 2008) and in it he is exposing the tricks of the trade commonly used by these con artists (Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Pat Robertson, even our very own local boy Cash Luna) to get the faithful to "believe" but, more importantly, "to give" until it hurts (the faithful, of course, not them).
I have not read the book but you can check out the contents here. I did listen to an interview with Bill Wilson on the Infidel Guy show and it really was a paradox, wanting to laugh out loud and at the same time feeling the frustration of knowing that people are being so blatantly misled and conned into giving away their hard earned cash.
Consider this typical ploy of the faith healer (and these fraudsters love "to heal"): after carefully screening the "heal-ees", they are told to sit in a very special chair the pastor has for them. The chair, of course, is a wheel chair. They are then wheeled into the stage (notice that they did not come with "their" wheel chair, it was already prepared for the poor suckers) and the "faith healer" says something like "In the name of Jesus, get up from that chair and RUN!". And people do run and the audience explodes. Of course, you see a guy get wheeled in and then you watch the guy get up and run, you assume he has been "healed" and can now walk. But, who said he couldn't walk in the first place?
In the interview, Wilson also mentions the exposé by James Randi of Peter Popoff. Randi showed up at the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (he and Carson were very good friends) and told him "Johnny, we learned something interesting about God. He broadcasts in 49 MHz and he speaks with Peter Popoff's wife's voice!". Turns out Randi went to one of Popoff functions and took a radio scanner with him; Poppof was being told by his wife over a wireless link about the audience and their ailments, looking at cards the attendants had filled as they came in. Check the YouTube video here. It is very educational.
Anyway, this is a follow up to my previous posting on the Merchants of Faith. Get the book, I will - 166 pages of fun reading will go by in a couple of sittings at the throne and, who knows, maybe I have another career left in me yet!

And now on to... rising fuel prices?

Yeah, another subject worthy of critical thinking - don't you think?

I recently submitted what you would call an op-ed to a local newspaper, on the subject of rising prices at the pump. It has not been published yet, which is why I will not reproduce it here but it seems to have generated a bit of controversy among the editorial staff.

Reason for the controversy is the fact that I do indeed work for an oil company and even though I have nothing to do with fuels or fuels marketing, my article was apparently seen by some as "loaded".

Why loaded?

Maybe my big mistake was indicating that oil companies are not "greedy". That must be a capital sin in the world of these newspaper editors, who are always looking for "the angle" and "who to blame". (Everyone's to blame except for me - I guess).

But the truth is, oil companies are not greedy. At least, not in the traditional sense of the word. Let me explain.

Greed is a human emotion. If you have ever worked in a large corporation, you know that the full range of human emotions applied to the corporate "mind" is utterly meaningless. Yes, big companies (big oil, indeed) can be ruthless but it is not out of "greed" or "hate" or because there is an inherent "evil" within. It is just that they represent two main interests: one, the shareholders', who are always trying to get more for their investment and will flee at the first sign of trouble and two, the managers and corporate directors, who operate under the pressure of these shareholders and have what I think is a very myopic and shortsighted outlook, namely, the results for the year have to be good so that we can be well evaluated this year and we will hold the stock price high. Unfortunately, this thinking leads to decisions that are difficult to understand from a distance and may look "ruthless" and "greedy" to outsiders.

In any case, that is as far as "corporate emotions" go. As for the perceived "greed", well, there is none. Oil is expensive and will become more expensive simply because there is not much of it left and it will be exhausted at some time in the future. That is a fundamental fact of life and it means that we will have to pay more and more at the pump.

The times of cheap oil are past. Any new development is so outrageously expensive that most people cannot get their mind around the numbers involved. Big oil is investing as fast as it can just to keep up and they are getting behind.

The point I was trying to make in the article, which seems to be over the head of these editors, is that high oil prices may actually be good. And many people seem to agree with me. Yes, in the short term we all hurt. But if oil is inexpensive, why bother with hybrid and electric cars, biofuels, solar and wind energy? Everything else is so expensive at the moment that we all just go for the cheap option, our good old trusty petroleum derivative of choice. But make that old friend disappear and the s**t will hit the fan if we don't develop alternatives. Think about this in a post-petroleum world:

  • Flying to your favorite vacation spot - oh wait, the plane does burn kerosene, right? (That's Av-Jet for you perfectionists!)
  • Wearing the latest fashion Oakley sunglasses - hey, hold it. Doesn't plastic resin come from petroleum?
  • Let us have some good old fashioned Corn Flakes... oops, forgot that agricultural equipment runs on diesel fuel (petroleum based), the flakes themselves are cooked using heat from steam generated by an oil-fired boiler... where did oil go?
Our lives are inextricably intertwined with petroleum products and we are not aware of that. We need to start looking at the options NOW and high prices at the pump will prod us in the right direction.

Anyway, we will all be much more fit and healthy in the post-petroleum world. Walking or bicycling to work is going to do wonders for our figure.

This does not need any comments

I found these two images today in Pharyngula (thanks PZ!):

A little problem: most of the people above were not atheists. See a fascinating discussion of the topic here. Anyway, these gentlemen did not believe in the judeo-christian god and I can relate to them on those terms (Who are they? check the link above!)

There was someone who created the following retort:

I guess we all know who these idiots (sorry, geniuses) are.

Anyway, just a little bit of fun. This got me a nice new link for my blog, which I am posting today, on the right column.

I just joined Facebook

I joined Facebook yesterday and it's awesome! I was already on Hi5, joined MySpace but I found Facebook different in a good, better way. It looks like it is more conducive to networking than the other sites... call me biased if you want but I would like to know what other people think?

I am an admirer of Dr. Pamela Gay

I just started listening to the "Slacker Astronomy" podcast and was pleasently surprised to find out that Pamela Gay (the Doctor) is on it. I am working my way up through the podcasts so I don't know if she still participates in the podcast but I am a faithful listener of Astronomycast and I have to say that Dr. Gay combines a sexy feminine voice with wonderful inteligence and knowledge - to me that combination is irresistible. I still don't know much about her looks, she doesn't seem to like to post pictures of herself, which I can relate to. Here is one, from her webpage at Star Stryder:

Swoopy says Pamela is hot. I believe most everything Swoopy says but this wonderful inteligent and educated woman does not need Swoopy's endorsement to gain my wholehearted admiration. I will make sure my daughter knows about her so that she can see a good example of a woman making her mark in a male dominated world (the world of astronomy, that is...)

Pamela rocks!

Yes, weather made a big mess but what about religion?

Last week Thursday I went out of town for the day and coming back to the office in the afternoon was impossible because of extraordinary rain that caused mudslides and all sorts of catastrophic events, reducing inbound traffic into the city to a slow crawl.

Weather can turn our best plans into a big mess but what about the mess religion is making with people's minds?

That same Thursday morning, before weather wreaked havoc with my agenda, I was talking to a gentleman who was showing me and my colleague around in the facility that we were visiting (a government entity). The guy was very nice and accommodating to our requests and while my colleague took notes I engaged him in conversation, since I was not really busy.

We started talking politics (who doesn't these days?) and since he told me he personally knew the guy who lost the election in the last poll, I asked him if he regretted having voted for the winning candidate, whose government after six months is a big disappointment to his voters. His answer, while candid and honest, was a big disappointment to me.

He said something like "look, I am a christian and I believe in the Word and I read the Bible, and the Bible says that at the end of times there will be violence and evil and those are the signs we are reading in the world all around us these days. So, it doesn't really matter if we vote for one candidate or another, the end result is going to be pretty much the same and Jesus is the only one who is going to make it better when he comes back in all his glory..."

So, if we pollute our environment and kill each other it does not matter because "it is written". And, exonerating ourselves of any personal responsibility, "God will, in the end, make it better".

Sorry, I can't deal with that.

We are responsible for our actions and we are the ones who have to take action and be accountable in order to improve our world and clean up our messes.

I understand now better Mr. Harris' and Mr. Dawkins' fierce opposition to religion. I am inclined to agree.

The life of a religious skeptic

I guess doubt has always been in me. I got a flashback of my early years doubt (a flashback that has lasted for three days) from a recent conversation with my son. He was telling me about his skepticism of religion and I remembered how at his age I was not only skeptical of religion, I was very much against it. I sat in the back of the chapel in school every week during our obligatory weekly mass and cavorted with the other skeptics, agnostics and the occasional evangelical christian who was stuck in a catholic school with the rest of us.

These days I consider myself an agnostic though if you question me hard enough you might think I am a hard core atheist. But it was not always like that... or was it?

As a young boy I got through the usual cathecism classes and the first communion preparation and all that. I do remember vividly how I always thought how come those wonderful miracles you read about in the Bible were never around for me to see. Why did they happen in ancient times and not in modern times, when I could be around to see them? Seas parting, walls crumbling, huge floods and thunder and big voices coming from the clouds. It would have been great to witness such an event. Why did they not happen anymore?

My conversation with my boy echoed those same memories. Everything came back, together with the lingering doubt, a doubt that grew given the spectacular lack of evidence of any divine entity.

It was a long process that took 40-plus years. I have reflected before on how difficult it is to renounce your belief when you are indoctrinated (oh yes Mr. Dawkins, you are right!) from such a young age. Or is it not renounce your belief but rather accept your lack of?

As a child I could not do it. Parental wisdom and indoctrination prevailed. As a young adult, I got carried away by my friends and the vision of a pretty young girl (who is now my wife) into a "conversion" to the "new man" and a renewed encounter with catholicism, which lasted all of 4 or 5 years. Even in the deep side of my encounter with faith I doubted - I remember clearly thinking if this was all really worth it as I was being asked for sacrifices I really did not want to make. And the truth is I never got around to making those sacrifices. (So much for conversion to the "new man"). But I did get involved and it took me a long time to get out of the mess I got myself into.

For some people belief or disbelief is just not important. For others, like me, it is of the utmost importance. My son seems to be on the last group. My advice to him and others like him is that anything that you settle on (either belief or lack of) must come from a strong reflection and the conviction of one's own ideas. No one should impose them on you - and definitely, juvenile indoctrination should not be allowed

About the Singularity...

The best answer to the question "Will computers ever be as smart as humans?" is probably "Yes, but only briefly"

Can you upload your conscience?

and have you heard about the singularity? An interesting concept.

The long and the short of the singularity is that, according to some forward thinking individuals (some of whom may be a little too optimistic) the current advances in microprocessor technology and the accompanying software will lead to an "explosion" of technological advance in the very near future. In other words, since Moore's law of microprocessor power has ruled the world of technology for the last 30 years or so, the rate at which computer power is increasing is exponential. Then, there will be a moment in time, very soon, when computers become so powerful that they can bring about the next generation of computers and the interval between successive generations will shrink from years to months to weeks to days...

At that moment, this technological "Big Bang" (hence, the singularity) will allow us to de-compile, so to speak, our consciences by fully understanding how the brain works. Then, we will be able to "move" our conscience from our soft and fragile bodies into the sturdy framework of silicon and titanium ... and then live forever, moving from mechanical body to mechanical body ad infinitum. And we will become inmortal.

Sounds good? There are opinions for and against the whole idea, the singularity and the posibility of inmmortality. Some people believe that the singularity is a pipe dream. Others acknolewdge the possibility but the idea of "uploading" your conscience into another medium, outside of your brain is more often than not rejected.

And, I think, with good reason. Consider your motivations and your desires. How much of that is due to "software" in your brain and the neural connections in that maze of neural connections, developed during your 10, 20, 30, etc. years of life and how much is related to your hormonal level, pain, exposure to light... disease...

Critics of the singularity consider the idea of likening the uploading of our consciousness to a data download as an extreme simplification. We may be more than the sum of our brains - we are corporeal beings who suffer hunger and pain and sexual desire. Would those be uploaded as well? How do you enjoy your favorite dessert when you have become a titanium bodied, silicon brained artificial lifeform?

Would you give that up?

Here is Ray Kurzweil, who is the leading proponent of the Singularity, at Stanford University during the Singularity Summit in May 2006. You can also search for Mr. Kurzweil's provocative thoughts at TED. Further reading about the singularity at IEEE's Spectrum magazine for June 2008. Enjoy and prepare to be uploaded!

Good Sci-Fi is about people

I am a big fan of Star Trek. All my friends and family know (and sometimes shake their head in annoyment or puzzlement). And I have a friend who has the whole collection of ST Voyager DVDs, so I am screening right now through season 6.

Season 5 had a nice surprise for me. Episode 22 "Someone to watch over me" is a jewel and a shining example of what good Sci-Fi is all about. In this episode (spoiler alert!) Seven of Nine is encouraged by the Doctor to date and the whole episode is a delightful insight into what a normal human activity looks like to a human child raised by aliens. There is even a cliche right at the end where Seven finds out that the Doctor made a wager with Tom over her and she is infuriated, in typical movie female fashion, betraying her robotic Borg ways.

What this show had was a wonderful example of what good doctor Asimov indicated as the fascination of Sci-Fi. It is not the gadgets or the special effects; it is about people, only that we are seeing them in an extrapolation of our current life and we get to wonder how people will react when they are in this extraordinary environment. And not surprisingly, the extrapolation will tell us that people are people are people.

I remember that my father-in-law strongly criticized my liking Star Trek because "he wouldn't like to live in that world". Guess what: people would still be people. And a good science fiction story will always try to reach into the human side and indicate to the audience how human traits will remain, in spite of any technology you may care to throw upon us.

Picture above is, of course, Jeri Ryan in her Seven of Nine regalia. Talk about a good incentive to watch Voyager...

The Merchants of Faith

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 4BC - 65 AD - Roman stoic philosopher

This week I ran into an old college colleague at an airport. We started talking about the price of gas, which is a very current topic, went on to traffic patterns and ended up discussing the antics of one of our most popular exports to the world and whom I call #1 merchant of faith in our country.

This friend filled me in on another little scam of this scoundrel. It turns out that he organizes youth in small groups he calls "cells". When he shows up at one of these saturday evening meetings, he tells the youngsters, especially if they are mostly girls, that in order to prove their faith, they have to "donate" something that they really value. Family heirlooms have been lost this way: grandma's old earrings, mom's engagement ring, things like those. We couldn't help but wonder what happens to these pieces of jewelry at the end of the saturday evening meeting? Do the pastor and his wife check the spoils of the day? Do the pastor's daughters now wear grandma's earrings?

And this is not the first time I heard about these scams. An acquaintance claims she was coerced out of a pearl necklace she later saw hanging from the neck of this very same preacher's wife at a social event. She went over to the woman and demanded her necklace back. Good for her!

This is what upsets me royally about these charlatans. They claim to be inspired by God, yet they will not stop requesting their faithful to tithe. And they keep looking for ways to go above and beyond the customary "10 percent". Isn't God supposed to be uninterested in money? Aren't the "real riches" to be found in heaven and not in earth?

Regardless of whether there is a heaven or not, the problem with these greedy scoundrels is that they are benefitting from the gullibility of their faithful and taking unfair advantage of them, to their personal benefit. At the end of last year, U. S. Senator Chuck Grassley started an investigation into the finances of six large ministeries. The reason behind this investigation was not related to faith or anything divine. It related to very mundane things:
  • Personal use of church aircraft (for vacation, not for preaching)
  • Real state purchases (for living, not for worship)
  • Furniture purchases (for household use, not church)
  • Purchase of luxury vehicles (Rolls Royce and Bentley)
  • Jewelry received as Donations (sounds familiar?)

Need I say more?

So... these are the rulers for whom the belief of the common man that religion is "true" is "useful". Words of a wise man.

Entropy and the arrow of time

Curiously enough, after writing about entropy and the human race, I found a very nice article, recently published also, about entropy in Scientific American.

You can check the whole text here. I hope you enjoy it

Entropy and the fate of the human race

This is not an upbeat posting, so if you are trying to cheer up go look somewhere else.

It is not that I am depressed or that I am a pessimist, which I don't think I am but lately I have started to think of the very few chances of success humanity has at the moment. With the latest sharp increases in the price of oil and the scarcity of some food supplies, people in the poorest countries, like Haiti, have started to rebel.

Hunger will make that to you. Especially if it is not only you but your children who are hungry.

A consequence of the second law of thermodynamics is the continuous increase in entropy. Entropy could be defined (loosely) as a measure of disorganization, randomness.

You might say that humanity is increasing in entropy. Disorganization is increasing - randomness is sure to follow and with it, lawlessness.

I believe that the root cause of our economic problems is that there are too many people. Humanity has reached a point where it infests the Earth like a cancer or a fungus that will just not quit. Cancer is very successful at reproducing - and then when the host is killed, cancer cells die as well. Humanity's success as a species may very well be its undoing.

I am not saying that humanity is a cancer infesting the earth, just making an analogy. But the problem in reality is the tremendous amount of people. As more and more bodies compete for the available resources, trouble is sure to follow. And resources are definitely limited, as the current crisis is clearly demonstrating.

I was telling a friend that the only logical outcome and the best solution is a little (or a large) simplification. In chess, when you start playing, you have too many pieces on the board and, eventually, if you want to be able to really play your opponent, you have to engage in a little give-and-take, a quid-pro-quo that will move some of the pieces (both your adversary's and yours) off the board, offering a relief from congestion. We, as a species, surely need some relief from congestion. Imagine how much better the world would be if population were half, a third, a tenth of what it is now...

Successful players can limit the give and take and keep it balanced. My only hope is that as humanity engages in this simplification, which I think is inevitable, some of us will manage to remain and show their descendants how to be better men and women that what we are today. Hopefully the survivors will learn from the experience and avoid future disasters.

And that is an optimistic wish.

Pangea Day is a success and Cameron Diaz is in it!

Pangea day, May 10th. A big success and a star studded event. Cameron Díaz (picture above) and other celebrities participated and the event was held in the spirit of brotherhood, that what happens in one corner of the Earth affects us all.
The Los Angeles Times has an excellent article here. I recommend you check it out.
The main activity leading to Pangea Day (check my previous posting on the subject) was the production of a number of videos and movies. These can be watched at the Pangea Day website. Highly recommended.

Free will and religion

This week I listened to Dr. Ginger Campbell's episode of her "Books and ideas" podcast on free will. In it she refers to a book on the subject of free will and makes some interesting reflections, such as the fact that we may do what we want but we cannot will what we want - meaning that while we may act on our desires and impulses, such desires may not be under our control.

As an example, some months ago I was discussing with a colleague if she had gotten married of her own free will and she responded she did, no one forced her. I then questioned why she had gotten married. She said because she fell in love. I kept asking her why until she really got upset but my point was, she got married because she fell in love and because once you are in love you are supposed to get married. That is really an expectation set by your upbringing, society, whatever. I questioned her on why do you have to get married. That really upset her and I abandoned my line of questioning but the episode clearly illustrates what Dr. Campbell was mentioning: while my friend did willingly get married, getting married was not a decision she took, she was compelled by tradition or social convention to do so.

So what does religion have to do with all this? Very simple, religion is thrust upon us most of the time. We do not chose our religion, most of us are born in it. And then moving away from it is a really difficult process, that many people just never undertake. Of those who stay in the religion of their parents, many are not really deeply convinced believers, even if they think they are. They go through the motions and attend church because that is what they are supposed to do; they believe in God and have faith and pray, because that is what you do, what your parents did and your grandparents before them.

My contention is that many people just do not have any choice but to be religious and "believe". Most people never question religiosity, they just practice their "faith" and never apply any critical thinking to their "beliefs" which should rather be called "traditions".

That is the reason why Dr. Richard Dawkins says that forcing religion on children amounts to child abuse. Children have really no way to defend themselves from this imposition and they grow up in the tradition of going to church and "believing". And then, they may be hooked for life.

Never for one moment do these people get an opportunity to exercise "free will" and apply their critical thinking skills to the subject of faith and religion. They think they want to believe, they think they want to have faith but the whole thing has been thrust onto them.

Having been in the grips of religion for over 40 years, I understand how difficult it is to say "I will not believe anymore" and how this can bring you into serious problem with your loved ones, who are still in the tradition and dare not think about not believing.

But you can. And how liberating it is.

And now it is 16 years the good doctor is gone...

16 years ago yesterday, on April 6th, 1992, the good doctor, Isaac Asimov passed away. All of us who learned to love his writing and teachings (with Carl Sagan, Dr. Asimov was a great educator for science) were baffled at the news; like Arthur C. Clarke, I genuinely thought Isaac Asimov would live forever. Now I know I was not wrong, as he lives on in his legacy.

And what a legacy! 500 plus books! The man could write and talk on the phone at the same time and he was an accomplished typist. He used one of those old IBM electric typewriters (he died in 1992, almost pre-internet) with the letters on a sphere and he kept breaking the return spring until he had IBM equip one of the typewriters with a heavy duty return spring that would hold up to his furious typing. He did not bother feeding single sheets into the typewriter, he used a continuous paper, like the ones used later in computer printers.

Unlike Clarke and Heinlein, Asimov did not meddle with genetics in his stories. His thing was robots. Isaac Asimov created the famous three laws of robotics, to wit:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Later, one of Asimov's robots comes to the realization that there is a "zeroth" law: that a robot must protect humanity and avoid humanity to come to harm through inaction. This law would turn out to have precedence over the other three and allowed the good doctor to spin fantastic tales of human evolution arising from the heroic robot realizing the power of the "zeroth" law.

(Interestingly, the three laws of robotics are an excellent ethical guide... better than "the good book"...)

Dr. Asimov was an accomplished skeptic. In his book "The Roving Mind", he wrote:

"Don't you believe in flying saucers, they ask me? Don't you believe in telepathy? — in ancient astronauts? — in the Bermuda triangle? — in life after death?

No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out 'Don't you believe in anything?'

'Yes', I said. 'I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I'll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be."

And what a great lesson.

(Image above is from Wikipedia. In the words of the author: "I, Rowena Morrill, license this image under the GFDL, with an Invariant Section consisting of the words 'Rowena Morrill'. I am the creator of this derivative work, based on an original work of which I am the creator.")

On Arthur C. Clarke's death and the ethics of genetic engineering

One of the big three science fiction master writers (and one of my four favorite authors, the others being Isaac Asimov, of course, Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt), Arthur C. Clarke has passed away at the age of 90, in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon.

A lot was written about Clarke's life and works and I will not repeat it here. There is an excellent article in that can be looked up and it is one of the best I read before writing this post. What I want to do to honor Clarke's memory is add my recollections of how I came to know his works and add an interesting train of thought related to my first read.

I remember first reading Clarke's articles in the Reader's Digest, 40-something years ago. He wrote for the RD occasionally and I read the spanish translations. Then, when I was in school, one of my friends who also liked to read, recommended Rendezvous with Rama. I was enthralled wth the story. I even started making my own translation into spanish but I gave up... it was too much to write. I eventually got the spanish version (with a much poorer translation than my own) for my father to read. To this day, it is one of my favorite science fiction stories and I read all the sequels.

In Rama, Clarke introduced me to the concept of artificially made lifeforms. In the novel, there are beings which he names biots (obviously a contraption of biological robots) which behave as very specialized robots but are living entities, purposefully created for a specific job: surveillance, cleaning, repair and maintenance, etc. These entities appear as Rama which is a large spaceship, approaches the sun and everything inside it thaws and returns to life; the biots then perform all sort of housekeeping duties for the ship.

At that time I was 15 or 16 and the concept was fascinating. Years later I read another excellent work of science fiction, Friday, by Robert A. Heinlein and in it, Heinlein did go overboard with the idea of artificial beings. Friday, Heinlein's heroin, is an AP (artificial person): a genetically enhanced and designed human being born out of an artificial womb and raised in an institution.

Clarke and then Heinlein introduced me to the concept of the ethical challenges of creating artificial life. In Clarke's case, biots are made whenever Rama requires maintenance. As soon as their duty is completed, they are destroyed and their components recycled. One wonders if this would be an ethical treatment of living beings but at least biots appear to have very limited consciousceness and they are driven by their specific purpose. But then Heinlein brings up the ethical challenge of stepping up the bar and tinkering with human (and other species) DNA. In the novel, Friday is a stunningly fast, strong, intelligent and beautiful woman; she is also deeply traumatized by her upbringing and the fact that she is discriminated for being artificial. In the end she conquers her demons and lives out her life as a normal human being but she is also surrounded by living artifacts, which are also artificial beings made out of (mostly) human DNA but are not human in shape. While reading the novel, you get a glimpse at the bitterness one of these beings would posses, being of above average human intelligence but also being specifically built in size and shape to perform a specific function (like one of Clarke's biots): crane operator (with five arms and enhanced telescopic eyesight) or whatever else might be necessary.

Clarke, like other SF Masters, introduced us to many of the mysteries and challenges humanity faces going forward and I am thankful to him and all the others for that. By expanding our imagination, we may be able to prepare for the ethical dilemmas we will, no doubt, face in the coming years. Already there is someone marketing an hypoallergenic cat and who knows what else is on the pipeline. I am not against this type of development but the understanding of the ethics involved is crucial for our survival as a morally upstanding species.


P Z Myers is a college professor who publishes this fantastic blog Pharyngula. I don't know how I missed posting it in my favorite links

Check it out. Check out the "Expelled!" posting. It is hilarious

Long hiatus in posting... and then Holy Week!

It has been a few weeks since my last posting but, truthfully, I have been rather busy and no special issues have attracted my skeptical eye.

And then comes Holy Week.

So many things to be skeptical about. The very existence of Jesus as a true historical figure is in doubt and then, in my country, we have all this big celebration and ritual - which is now more teatrical than ritual.

Let me explain.

In Guatemala, as in no other place in the world (yes, not even Seville, in Spain), catholics have a very deeply ingrained custom of taking their figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on procession all over the place. Now, catholic processions are common everywhere, but not in the scale we do it in Guatemala. I was looking at one of the larger ones and it is being carried by 116 men! The whole thing must weigh at least 3 tons! A picture follows, to give you an idea.

Is it belief that takes people to the street and makes them carry these heavy loads on their shoulder, risking their very own physical integrity? There are so many issues we can discuss about these rituals - like atonement by pain and suffering, "veneration" (the Church's term) or "adoration" (my term) of these Jesus and Virgin Mary figures, the catholic cult of the Virgin Mary, etc, etc.

I guess I will tackle these issues in further postings. In the meantime, let us be skeptical.

How can God allow these things to happen

I was browsing today through TED's videos and came back to one of my favorites. Reverend Tom Honey, an anglican priest, is seen in this video pondering how a mighty and kind God could have allowed a terrible event like the asian tsunami of 2004 to happen. Very much like it has happened to me, Rev. Honey finds that he cannot reconcile the existence of God and this event. He then acknowledges his ignorance - declares himself agnostic as to this big why.

I am posting the link to the video here for you to see. A highly recommended and powerful presentation, like most of TED's.

Skepticism - is it global?

Browsing through the fora* of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, I found someone is using a Frappr map of the SGU listeners, which I am showing above. Interestingly, most of the listeners are bunched together in North America and not surprisingly, most of them in the U.S. A couple show up in Mexico and south of there, I seem to be the only one! There are other bunches in Europe and elsewhere.

Arguably, the SGU is one of the most influential podcasts on skepticism and there are tens of thousands of downloads every week. It is in english, which should help people understand it. However, maybe because of iTunes' preference for the US and other first world countries, it is not being widely listened outside of North America.

So I began to wonder if skepticism is a regional phenomenom, in North America and some english speaking countries. It would make sense that in Latin America, with the historical influence of the Catholic Church and, now, the rising influence of the protestant religions, skeptics have not found a foothold as yet. Clearly, we have to do something.

There are only a few skeptic societies in LA. There is one in Colombia and apparently there is one in Costa Rica. I haven't found others and I think we should find and contact these fellow free thinkers in order to make the movement grow.

So, any fellow latin american skeptics, leave your comments. Contact me. Let us get together so that we can promote the advancement of science, education and critical thinking. Our countries are in bad need of educated people.

*Footnote: Fora is the plural for forum. Forum-s is not correct in latin. Sorry about that.