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...