Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hangs around with men: check!

PZ reports on the Catholic Church's ongoing war on Teh Gay. Specifically, this time it is Melbourne (Oz) considering testing priests for homosexuality. Those who "appear to be gay" will be given the boot.

Of course, this is misguided. You don't need me to tell you that. "Appear[ing] to be gay" is not what defines gay men. Heterosexual men (at least, self-proclaimed breeders, happily married and raising kids, never once looking longingly at Brad Pitt instead of Angelina Jolie at the movies) may be effeminate. And gay men may be ... well, anyone. I had a student once who surprised our class greatly--tough as nails, South Philly, a real man's man. Literally, as it turned out. A great guy, he kept track of the heteronormative comments by his classmates just so he could check how each student took his announcement (2/3 of the way through the semester, when he spoke of being spit on and hit with rocks during a gay rights parade). He didn't "appear to be gay". And of course, my uncle, who was apparently happily married for 18 years, with three kids, before running off with a Catholic priest. (No, it is not just the Catholics; my uncle was a minister himself.) He didn't "appear to be gay".

You know who did appear to be gay? Hanging out with men (12 of them!), no reports of any sexual relations with women, or even relationships, despite being roughly 30 years old. He did hang around with one woman, but again, all reports are that they were just friends... if you don't count a relatively recent formulaic blockbuster.

When cutting through the crap and lies
We find, with really no surprise,
That Jesus hung around with guys
And told us "love your brothers"

His choice of lifestyle still survives
As priests and monks still live their lives
With one another--never wives--
The brotherhood just smothers.

And when the homosexual beast
That lives within each Catholic priest
Is bottled up, and not released
It's likely to explode!

So nip the problem in the bud,
With "eat my body, drink my blood"
And each potential priestly stud
Has sanctity bestowed.

The church thinks that the problem's faced
By having priests assert they're chaste,
But Freud would say they've just displaced
Their homosexual urges.

See, ever since the world began
Some men have loved their fellow man--
A truth the Church can never ban
Despite their futile purges.

There are, of course, some other ways;
They could embrace their fellow gays,
Not blame them for the sad malaise
Of scandal, sin, and shame

The church, not gays, in thought and deed
Has sinned--a fact they won't concede.
Now more and more, their numbers bleed...
There's none but them to blame.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Real-Life Flood (No Arks Involved)

click pic for larger view--seriously, it's worth it!

I was looking through my blog stats, and found a slow, steady trickle of posts coming from 97KYCK, a country station in North Dakota. Now... I don't actually like country music (sorry), but I love 97KYCK. The picture above was on their homepage when I checked it, and the moment I saw what it was, I got a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. The picture is of the central sandbag-filling location at the Fargodome. These people, if you have not been watching the news out of the US midwest, are fighting for their homes, their city, and maybe their lives. The waters are expected to crest at over 40 feet; the latest prediction is 43 feet, which would break a 112-year old record, and which could easily devastate entire towns. This is truly horrible.

The AP reports
Thousands of shivering, tired residents got out while they could and others prayed that miles of sandbagged levees would hold Friday as the surging Red River threatened to unleash the biggest flood North Dakota's largest city has ever seen. The agonizing decision to stay or go came as the final hours ticked down before an expected crest Saturday evening, when the ice-laden river could climb as high as 43 feet, nearly 3 feet higher than the record set 112 years ago.
I sincerely hope that residents are not relying on prayer as their sole protection. Pray while you sandbag, or pray while you get out of Fargo, or pray while you get to high ground, but please do not just pray! This is one of those times when a bronze-age superstition is not gonna help; gathering with your fellow townspeople and working... may or may not help. I hope it does. I hope the people who wasted their time praying get to tell me "I told you so!".

But... if the levee fails, if the sandbags do not hold, I am going to be checking with 97KYCK to find out where to send money. I urge any and all of you who can, to do the same, if disaster hits. This is not a good time for any of us (cuttlehouse is certainly not unhit by the financial tough times), but we are hell and gone more fortunate than the people working themselves to exhaustion trying to save Fargo and surrounding towns. I hope your efforts have been enough, ND.

And, Fargo, please don't take offense, but I will not pray for you. There is no time to waste in prayer.

(Let's face it, anyone in Fargo who is reading this instead of working is not helping anything at this point. If you are reading this after the flood is over, hey, go nuts.)

Bag by bag, and hand by hand,
The people build a wall of sand;
As father, mother, son and daughter
Fight against the coming water.
The waters rise; the tension mounts,
And every single second counts;
Each pair of hands that’s clasped in prayer
Is one whose effort’s missing there.
There will be loss of life, I fear,
The wall of water coming here
Could tear the wall of sandbags down
And spread destruction through the town.
I hope I’m wrong, with all my heart—
The town has got a decent start,
A sandbag wall ten meters tall—
I hope that it will hold it all.
The water rises, day by day;
I hope the folks who stopped to pray
Instead of putting sand in sacks
With aching arms and straining backs
Will not regret their wasted time—
Will not perceive their prayer a crime
Will not have lives that they have cost
Because of useful time they lost.
A day or two, and we will know—
The wall could be an inch too low,
Or hold the flood and save the lives
Of sons and daughters, husbands, wives,
The wall, if it should hold, will show
Not heaven’s work, but man’s, below;
If prayer could work, we would not need
To fill up bags at breakneck speed.
It’s effort, not vain fantasy
That keeps a city safe, you see;
A million hands clasped tight in prayer
Mean less than just one working pair.

Does Satan Exist? (and does he organize debates at ABC?)

So last night on ABC's "Nightline"--ostensibly a news program--the debate was fiery, and on a devil of a topic! Does Satan Exist? ABC apparently found the question important enough to organize their third national "face-off". (Video and icky story at the link)

But not important enough to actually address the question. Though they say that "[t]he question of whether Satan exists is one of the most contentious theological debates possible", ABC then chooses the equivalent of going after the most dangerous killer with a cork-gun and two water-pistols. It should not be terribly surprising, but the debate participants were chosen for their ratings-boosting personal quirkiness than for any evidence or insight they could add. There are brilliant theologians (even I admit), there are anthropologists and experimental psychologists, there are philosophers, who could have spoken with authority and data... but how could they compete with the founder of "Hookers For Jesus"? And Deepak Chopra? I once got kicked out of a bookstore because I picked up one of his books and started leafing through it... which led to my trying to retract the stupidity by banging the book against my forehead.

And every panel participant believed in a god! (I say "a", because only three of the four were explicitly christian.) So it was a debate over somebody else's invisible friend, hobbled by the requirement not to accidentally disprove one's own invisible friend! Sure, the audience (at a church) would have shouted down an atheist, but it might have made for decent ratings...

It was a bit like watching a debate over the healthiness of McDonald's hamburgers, where the expert panel consists of two fry cooks from Burger King, someone who once ate 17 burgers at a sitting and got sick, and a representative for the fast food industry. No nutritionist, no vegetarian (let alone vegan) view, no environmental impact data, no nothing.

This "debate" was junk food. It was fluff. It was a tale told by four idiots and a network full of enablers, full of sound and fury, signifying the depths to which ABC News has dipped.

Tonight, two sides begin debatin’
Whether there’s such thing as Satan,
Whether he is merely some imaginary friend
Like the playmate of a child
Whose imagination’s wild
Or a real and present danger, against which we must defend

ABC’s own Nightline newsies
Says there’s data for these doozies—
That Americans believe that such an entity exists
It’s a very weighty question
That deserves a good digestion,
From the expert theologians that they’ve plucked from off their lists

There’s the fundamental preacher,
Quite a wild and wooly creature
Whose collection plate depends upon his congregation’s fear
And the born-again ex-hooker,
Doesn’t hurt that she’s a looker,
Cos the network lives on ratings and the news must persevere

Next, a bishop, former minister,
Who came to think the sinister
Portrayal of the devil wasn’t bringing folks to God,
And then Dr. Deepak Chopra,
A celebrity, like Oprah,
Whose beliefs are slightly different, and sometimes downright odd.

Not an atheist among them,
One whose questions might have stung them,
Not a single theologian with authority to lend
Anthropologist? Psychologist?
Biologist? Cosmologist?
No solitary skeptic was admitted to attend.

If it really is a question
Worth debating, one suggestion:
Give the sides some ammunition—as it is, they’re shooting blanks.
If it’s worth examination
There’s a certain expectation
That some experts, and some evidence, are welcome in the ranks.

But if all this fun debating’s
Not for knowledge, but for ratings,
Go ahead and pack the panel with some entertaining fluff
If the overall desire
Is to push the ratings higher
Then the hooker/preacher freakshow is authority enough.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

If I stand on these bodies, maybe God will get a better view of how pious I am...

Once again, PZ gets credit for ruining my morning. Sadly, my ruined morning is nothing at all compared to the story he shares. The deaths of 14 people--7 children, 7 adults--are being used to promote a sick agenda. God was punishing them, you see. Because the father of two and grandfather of five of the victims (just think about that loss for a moment. Two daughters, five grandchildren, dead in a plane crash) is the owner of a chain of clinics that, among other services, perform abortions. So, of course, the whole family deserved to die.

Of course, it would be horrible to phrase it that way, so the much more polite phrase "I don't want to turn this tragic event into some creepy spiritual 'I told you so' moment..." Hey, guess what? You just did.

There is no tragic loss of life so great
That someone, somewhere, who has a book to sell
Or vile view to promote, cannot create
A circus, a spectacle, a forum for their hate,
A soapbox platform, from which they can tell
The world--these sinful victims are in Hell.
This crash--with seven kids among the dead;
Whole families lost--is cause for countless tears,
A time to comfort victims' families. Instead,
The horrid claim the families' actions led
To this. Their sinful lifestyle, it appears,
Angered God. Now Gingi Edmonds cheers
"Stack the coffins; I'll use them for my stage!"
And all my sadness turns itself to rage.

If you want the details, read PZ's post. I will not link to the Christian Newswire source.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Wing And A Prayer

PZ reports on a trial verdict just out. It stands in stark opposition to the efficient actions of the pilot and crew in the Hudson River emergency landing; today's ruling finds pilot and several crew members guilty of actions which contributed to the deaths of 16 in a crash-landing in the Mediterranean in 2005.

The fuel gauge had just been replaced with an improper gauge that showed the plane as having more fuel than it actually did; the pilot then ordered insufficient fuel to make the return trip from Sicily. Both engines died within moments of one another; the plane could have been glided to a nearby airport, or procedures could have been initiated to have a safe water landing, but the pilot chose instead to pray. Yup. Loudly enough for the passengers to hear. It must have been quite comforting to know he was praying instead of piloting. See, normally, prayer is the responsibility of the passengers, whose other main job is to sit and do nothing... so they are clearly qualified.

Flying along on a wing and a prayer
Works better for songs than for planes;
Trusting in God, when the fuel isn’t there,
Is a poor way of using your brains!

Turns out that the phrase "a wing and a prayer" originates from a 1943 song and a 1944 movie. Not a true story, a work of fiction. A good one, too. But not a substitute for pilot training. [Correction!!! A knowledgeable reader, Howard, has corrected me--the song is based on a real incident. Read his comment below for more info.]

Flying along on a wing and a prayer
Works better in fiction than fact
When engines conk out and it gives you a scare
It’s time not to pray, but to act!

Anyway, I thought I'd revise the lyrics of the original song, to better suit the 2005 incident. Feel free to sing along.

One of our planes was flying
Over water, just south of Rome
The fuel gauge, sadly, was lying
There was not enough gas to get home
The engines were skipping and stalling
The plane started tossing about
And the passengers found it appalling
When they all heard the pilot shout out:

Comin in on a wing and a prayer
Listen up, god, I know that you’re there
Though we’ve run out of gas
I know god loves my ass
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.

What a show, what a flight, boys
We’re gonna hit some whitecaps here tonight
How we pray as we limp through the air
Look below, there’s just waves everywhere
With all our fuel gone
We can still carry on
Comin in on a wing and a prayer

Comin in on a wing and a prayer
Listen up, god, I know that you’re there
Though we’ve run out of gas
I know god loves my ass
Comin’ in on a wing and a [splash].

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Let Us Pray (No, Really, Let Us!)

Pee-Zed reports on a brilliant scheme--a company that, for a nominal fee, will take over that exhausting task of praying. That's right, they will fold their hands and do nothing at all, so you don't have to! $3.95 a month for the basic service, or $9.95 for 5 prayers a day! All the awesome power of prayer, harnessed for about the price of your cup of designer coffee. For those people too lazy to sit quietly and murmur.

This service saves your precious time
It might be right for you--
If sitting, doing nothing
Is a bit too much to do.

It used to be that what we did
To make believe we care
Is clasp our hands together,
Doing nothing (call it "prayer")

But if your life is hectic, and
You want more time alone
We'll do the nothing for you,
If you'll just pick up the phone!

When sitting on your ass is getting
Boring, dull, or hard--
It's just three-ninety-five a month
Come on--pull out that card!

If you think it's still too much for you
We know just how you feel--
Too lazy to pick up the phone?
We've got another deal!

We're sending people door to door
So you can stay in bed--
No need to find your credit card
They'll take your cash instead.

We know you wouldn't call the cops
Or use some pepper spray--
Hell, if you believed in action,
You'd do more than fucking pray!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I’ve finally found the girl for me—the lovely HRP-4C
If only I could make her see how very happy we could be!

Her slightly larger manga eyes can blink, or widen with surprise,
Or narrow with the thought of lies, or sadden, though she never cries.

She’s pure perfection, every part, a walking, talking work of art
Her fashion sense is sharp and smart, but oh! Alas, she has no heart.

Now, some would choose to bid adieu to her for this, I hear it’s true;
There’s reason here to say we’re through, except that I know what to do—

Although they tell me I’m bizarre, I’ll grow a heart inside this jar
And she will be my shining star, with none so happy as we are!

Karel Capek introduced the term Robot in 1921. Capek's robots were humanoid,
She's a robot; she doesn't look real,
But she still has a certain appeal:
She has silicon eyes
And molybdenum thighs
And an ass made of chromium steel. *
but the vast majority of modern robots are not. My favorite comments on this new HRP-4C, though, remember those days. At Technovelgy.com, we are reminded of two men named Fritz-- Fritz Leiber, who wrote The Mechanical Bride in 1954:
"Mr. Shalk supplies the finest mannequins in the world. Streamlined, smooth-working, absolutely noiseless, breath-takingly realistic. Each one is powered by thirty-seven midget electric motors, all completely noiseless, and is controlled by instructions, recorded on magnetic tape, which are triggered off by the sound of your voice and no one else's. There is a built-in microphone that hears everything you say, and an electric brain that selects a suitable answer. The de luxe model is built to your specifications, has fifty different facial expressions, sings two hundred love songs, and can carry on a thousand fascinating conversations... But she has one serious defect. They all do.

"What's that?"

"They have no heart."

And Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis:.
Strikingly similar to HRP-4C, don't you think?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Research at the Creationist Museum

Over on Pharyngula, PZ has posted a viddy of Michael Shermer at the Creation Science museum, interviewing one of their research scientists. I won't link the actual video here, because it is just so annoying. The scientist is utterly blinkered, and stays on her points despite Shermer's rather tepid prodding. She studies bacteria, and the changes that turn symbiotic bacteria into pathogens--that is, the non-evolutionary changes, since they are still bacteria.

Bacteria will always be
Bacteria; we’ll never see
Another organism come
From just a changed bacterium.
We won’t see an amoeba grow
A pair of fins, and so we know
That evolution’s tale is wrong.
We’ve known it, really, all along.

Until a lump of lifeless mud
Transforms itself to flesh and blood
And starts to dance and sing a song,
We’ll know that evolution’s wrong.
The logic’s clear, and all it took
Was looking at our holy book;
The truth about our planet’s age is
Written there within its pages.

If evolution’s true, then god
Deceives us with a false façade,
A tale of time’s expanse so vast,
Which stretches back into the past,
With fossils, footprints, DNA,
To disbelieve and throw away
As “just a test”; and this, we know
Because the Bible tells us so.

Because we fear the pit of fire
We trust this demonstrated liar;
He made his Adam and his Eve
Along with fossils to deceive;
The fossil footprints? Ancient mud
Set down in the Noachian flood
A mere few thousand years ago—
But any older? God says “no!”

If God created all the earth,
Was there for every creature’s birth,
Created Sun, and Moon, and tide,
Then who are we to say he lied?
The words god wrote in bio-data,
Fossils, geologic strata,
Are these words merely so much libel
Because they do not match the bible?

It seems to me that either way—
No matter which you choose to say—
In Earth or Book, it’s no surprise,
You’re telling us that Yahweh lies!

I hope that Dr. Purdom’s work
Includes a decent healthcare perk;
It wouldn’t seem quite right to me
To charge for her lobotomy.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Speaking Of Faith

I turned on the radio yesterday, and caught just the tail end of “Speaking Of Faith” on public radio. The host, Krista Tippett, was asking for listeners’ stories, specifically regarding the recent Wall Street turmoil—“the moral and spiritual aspects of an economic downturn”. The show has produced a series called “Repossessing Virtue”, in which “voices of wisdom and insight” have commented on various aspects of the economic crisis. I was a bit shocked to see, for instance, a piece reporting on homeowners choosing to foreclose on their mortgages rather than give up tithing. Other reports ask of the effects of the market on moral character, or explore the poetry of depression (both economic and psychological).

I suppose it is too much to ask for a regular atheist voice on the program; there are more religious views than can be accommodated on a weekly show already, and sufficient diversity among non-believers that no one voice could possibly speak for us all (but I would love to be one of those voices). For instance, the very notion that there would be a moral or spiritual aspect to the downturn was taken as a given, whereas it really threw me for a loop—at least, initially. But it does make sense. If you believe there is, in this universe, not just order but divine guidance, if you believe that there is a benevolent and just hand at the helm, then you have to wonder, when things go horribly wrong, what you did to deserve it.

An uncaring universe does not promise good things to good people and bad things to bad people. A world that is blind to our beliefs, responsive only to our actions, requires us not to have faith, but to act. Blind faith, whether in god or in Bernie Madoff, leaves us vulnerable to exploitation, and is no virtue. There is no higher morality to be found in clinging to a belief system that actively harms.

If god is great, and god is good, and god is kind and just
As theologians everywhere believe that they have shown,
The losses of my family’s jobs and of our house, then, must
Be well-deserved, appropriate, and yes, our fault alone.

We’ll put some money in the plate, with less and less to give;
We’ll say our prayers, and sing our hymns, with praises to his name,
Each week we find it harder, but that’s just the life we live;
It’s all our fault—the one thing god won’t ever take is blame.

It’s a crisis of morality, a spiritual malaise,
It’s time to kneel and bow our heads and double up on prayer!
I’ll never doubt that god deserves our everlasting praise;
The alternative’s unthinkable—that god just doesn’t care.

So… to answer the questions on the contact site:
» Are you experiencing this economic moment as a moral or spiritual crisis as well?
No. My morality does not depend on being blessed, or cursed, by god or fate or karma. Good times are not a moral reward, nor bad times a punishment. As for “spiritual”, the word is the remnant of a vocabulary of ignorance; this economic crisis is here in the real world.
» Do concepts of trust, of living in community, of what sustains you have relevance in new tangible ways as you face changed economic realities?
I have always lived within a human community. We are all we have, and have always been this. I rely on my fellow creatures, and try always to act such that they may rely on me. This has always been important; perhaps if more people were living for this world instead of passing time through this one while waiting for another, we would not have so many people in such dire need.
» What qualities of human nature do you want to cultivate in yourself or your children?
Skepticism and reliance on evidence. Helping one another is in our best interest; science has been our most powerful tool in all of human history. We are at a point when we need our most powerful tool applied to our common social interest. Religious solutions have divided us and put us at war with one another; if religion has had good effects, it has been only for the winners.
» Who will we be for each other?
Everything. We are all we have. If, as the saying goes, two hands working do more than a thousand clasped in prayer, just imagine the increased potential for good in the world if we actually did realize that we are all we have.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Digital Pack-Rat, Vol. 15

The objections to stem cell research are not all … rational. Everyone knows, we are working on the ultimate weapon—a gun, made of babies, that uses babies as ammo.

No ifs, no ands, no buts, no maybes,
Merely guns made out of babies--
We need good guns, to go to war;
That's what we made eugenics for!

I was happy to hear, on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, about the problems the elves are causing these days. Or is that the fairies? Anyway, it’s somebody who likes to stay hidden.

A book lost somewhere on my shelves
Assures me that there are no elves
Nor fairies, banshees, gnomes, nor trolls
Not one of these, my text extols!
The certainty with which it speaks
Reflects its out-of-date techniques:
It's mostly full of Bronze-Age tribal
Myths. It's called... let's see... The Bible.

(And that's why I don't find it odd
That fairies don't believe in god.)

And the spate of recent news stories of the other apes (the non-human ones) gaining the upper hand prompts this reminder that 2/3 of the planet is still out of reach for them.

With coconuts, and rocks, and feces
Daring plots, and cunning plans,
The battle's on! The warring species
Want the crown that once was man's.

The apes will have the upper hand,
Unbound by superstitious gods,
And when it's done, they'll rule the land--
The seas belong to cephalopods.

Oh, yeah, it’s not just the apes you gotta watch out for:

When working with an angry horse,
(As well with donkeys, asses, mules)
You'll find it is the prudent course
To armor-plate your family jewels.
Or else, bring gauze and lots of ice
For when your nuts head further south.
I know this must be good advice--
I got it from the horse's mouth!

And, oddly enough, one from this strange blog called “The Digital Cuttlefish”. Not quite enough to merit its own post, but (yet) another antireductionist rant in the Dennett thread. Seriously, it reminds me of a line from a Barenaked Ladies song; the line goes “I’m not trying to sing a love song; I’m trying to sing in tune”. The finest description—even to the quantum level—of what an action is, does not explain why it is taking place. A description of my fingers on the keys—even to the quantum level—does not tell you whether I am writing The Great American Novel, or a dirty limerick! Assuming that you were to elaborate on the description at the quantum level such that you knew it was a dirty limerick, you would not know whether I was writing it as a joke, a submission for publication, a mistaken attempt at seduction, or any of dozens of other motivations. In other words, you would not know the cause.

The graphite’s slip is just the same,
With this view thrust upon it,
If I should merely sign my name
Or write a quantum sonnet!

Your answer serves to illustrate
My problem with your view:
I think that answers should relate
To questions—how ‘bout you?

To speak in terms of “gentle slip”
Describes the graphite’s flaking,
But not the path my pencil’s tip
Across the page is making.

Description of the finest kind
Is still not explanation;
Not pencil tips, and not the mind—
That’s misinterpretation!

You act as if reducing mind
To quantum-level laws
Allowed a person thus to find
A true internal cause!

But this, of course, is not the case—
One only finds description!
(A simple fact, which you must face
And not have a conniption.)

Our explanations, grounded in
The world that we can see,
Are where we fruitfully begin
To find what mind must be.

(I also see, parenthetically,
A view that you ascribe to me
That does not sound like mine at all
A strawman, rather, built to fall--
In searching my views for contradiction,
Please have a care not to tilt at a fiction!)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Broke Down On The Road From Albuquerque To Seattle--I Need A Quantum Mechanic

More action from the Dennett thread, and more of me beating the anti-reductionist drum. Reducing isn't explaining.

Although it’s true, the quirks of quarks
Are what we find when we reduce
The laws of rocks, of tuning forks,
Of cats, of cars, of orange juice,
The truth is, if I know the quirks
Of quarks, and qualms of quantum states
They don’t tell how my pencil works
Or what to do with roller skates.
If (knock on wood) my car should stall
And leave me stranded in a panic
There’s many folks whom I could call,
But none of them a quantum mechanic.
Explosive oxidation of
The hydrocarbon molecules
Is many many leaps above
The quantum tale of fossil fuels;
If, at my car, some stranger spoke
Of many-worlds hypotheses
Instead of just: “your fuel pump’s broke”
He might as well speak Japanese.
Indeed, if one is told a tale
Of how an engine burns its gas,
Of how exhaust comes out the tail,
Of how they make the windshield glass,
Of shock absorbers, front disc brakes,
All sorts of automotive prattle
It would not tell which road one takes
From Albuquerque to Seattle—
Which, if that was what one needs,
Is how the answer should be phrased;
Reductionism here impedes,
And only leaves ones eyeballs glazed.

The actions of a single nerve
Or even of a given piece
Of one, we clearly may observe—
Say, neurotransmitter release—
Where ACH or dopamine
Released in the synaptic cleft
By vesicles, which we have seen,
A process at which cells are deft;
The process may be understood
At many different levels, such
As cell, or body, or a good
Example of a chemist’s touch;
An organ’s function, or perhaps
A function in some social act—
Each level different, each one maps
A different view of one same truth.
The quantum level cannot say
The others now do not exist;
Reducing won’t explain away
A higher explanation’s gist.
Your quantum invocation means
You simply wish our current views
Left something there behind the scenes—
Some agent, with the power to choose.
Alas, there’s nothing there to find;
This entity does not exist—
No moral agent, causal mind
That all of science must have missed.
The science shows no secret curse,
No need to travel back in time
To save Cartesian minds—and worse,
We’ve done it, once again, in rhyme.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Digital Pack-Rat, Vol. 14

Ok, back to the list... On a pharyngula thread about a scandalously titled recent discovery about the evolution of sex. Well, not sex, per se, but having sex. Sorta. What we really need is a clearer fossil of the action... in action.

To see if fishies copulate, thus little fishies born,
We need some "more revealing fossils" (i.e., fossil porn)

A clear fossil pic o' flagrante delicto
would really be reason for bragging--
A stone preservation of fish copulation,
A petrification of shagging!

A fossil find of such an act would surely take some luck
But think... for all eternity, preserved in stone, mid-fuck!

"I never drink water. Fish fuck in it." W. C. Fields

Next, we have a complaint--we've driven God out of our schools! Won't somebody think of the children?! Well, somebody is thinking of the children. They even made a little video, showing all the places where God was too weak to overcome the actions of evil school boards...

It opens with a spotting scope--
God's rifle, from above--
That seeks to find His victims
Then he'll pump them full of love.
If God in his omnipotence
Is weak against O'Hair,
Don't tell the little children;
They might think he isn't there!
Almighty God is weak, compared
To school boards, so it feels.
Don't blame him; after all, the buses
All have iron wheels.
I wouldn't mind the petulance
Of God the Petty Whiner
If only those who followed Him
Could be a bit benigner.

Next... I couldn't bring myself to write about the actual topic of PZ's post--the rape of a little girl. The headline spoke of the "alleged" rape. Wow. What sort of ... never mind.

Make certain that your bets are hedged
And always use the word "alleged"--
It shows your head is firmly wedged
Where sun will never shine.
That word aside, we can't escape
The facts: this case is clearly rape
Made even worse because of Pap-
al reasoning divine.

Almost done... a delightful webcomic poked a bit of well-deserved fun at hard scientists, and happened to mention pharyngula. The main characters are furries, which I can't very well have a problem with while I self-identify as a cuttlefish.

I call myself a cuttlefish, but now I have to worry--
Can one be an invertebrate, but still be called a furry?
I would have thought it simple, but the line seems rather blurry;
If someone here could clue me in, I truly hope they'd hurry!

Now, thanks to Dr. Seuss and Ray Comfort...

In the World Nut Daily, or so the tale goes,
There wrote a strange man that most everyone knows
His name, it was Ray C.; he was dumb as could be
And he never seemed sane—frankly, out of his tree!

Sighed Ray C., this crazy man hatching his plot
“I’m a great many things, but a genius I’m not;
I don’t like to think, cos it makes my brain hurt,
So I’d rather say God made us all out of dirt.”
The evidence, though, left him caught in a bind,
Till Horton the elephant passed through his mind!

“I wonder” thought Comfort, “how elephants bred,
When it takes two to tango—or so it is said”
A thought that showed Ray was clean out of his head.

See, Ray thinks selection gives animals things
Like backbones and fingers, like tusks and like wings
Before they were both male and female of sex—
A notion that’s clearly designed to perplex!

While Ray could not see what was wrong with his view
A smart second-grader could—how about you?

He meant what he said, and he said what he meant;
Ray Comfort’s a pinhead, one hundred percent.

And lastly, PZ tells us that his Trophy Wife does not share his squid kink...

Oh, trouble and strife! The Trophy Wife
Doesn't quite get the cephalofetish?
But think, if she did, and dressed up like a squid
To entice you to someplace that's wettish--
She would use both her charms and her tentacle arms
To entrap you in utter delight--
We'd just stare at the walls, while Pharyngula stalls
Cos you're too effing busy to write!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Digital Pack-Rat, Vol. 13

Lucky thirteen! A fairly large one today, too--I have let this get away from me.

I'll start with one posted on Evolving Thoughts, (and later posted as a comment in the Dennett thread), commenting on the arguments regarding consciousness. Worth reading the original, BTW, and the comments.

It seems to me philosophers have somewhat been seduced
By the metaphor of storage, and conclusions it implies.
The self, itself, it promises, is something that’s produced
Via information transfer in that blob behind our eyes.
All too often this assumption underlies their exploration;
The conclusions that it leads to seem a normal path to follow
But inherent in the metaphor is one sort of explanation;
By removing those assumptions, it’s a tougher bite to swallow.
If the structure of the person helps to form what’s introspected
(And the social and environmental atmosphere as well)
Then feelings, thoughts, or memories just cannot be dissected
From the person as a whole, as information one could tell.
“Ah, but that’s just further information”, I have seen in practice,
When I try this explanation—and I want to pull my hair—
You could stuff it in, of course, but it’s like sitting on a cactus:
Just because it can be sat on, doesn’t mean the thing’s a chair.

Next, a short little verse inspired by George Will's habit of making shit up:

Republicans observe the news
And don't like what they're seeing;
They dream up facts to fit their views,
Then Will them into being.

A poll gets pharyngulated, and all the votes coming from PZ's link get deleted. Too bad, because I know more on the topic than the author of the poll does. Guaranteed.

I'd wager I've read much much more on such topics
Than he has, and yet he deleted my vote!
With evidence rarer than snow in the tropics
The chances of life after death are ... remote.
But out with the bath-water, there goes the baby,
Throw out the bad votes and good votes as one:
The lesson that's there to be learned is that maybe
An internet poll should be nothing but fun.

A little musing on the topic of spirituality--all the benefits of religion, without the actual social part of getting together with your fellow humans:

I'm spiritual, but not religious;
egotistical, not prestigious;
belligerent, but not litigious;
deviant, but not prodigious.

Take the extreme, remove the part
that shows I have a working heart;
Whatever's left is what I am,
Because I do not give a damn.

The benefit, but not the cost
Is mine--if something might be lost,
It's paid by others, not by me--
Three cheers for sociopathy!

Ack! The real world beckons! I guess there will be a volume 14 up very soon, but this one gets cut off prematurely.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Truman The Octopus!

Ok, first go read the actual story.

I'll wait. It's worth it. Come back when you are done, and you can read the verse. Teaser--it's about an octopus, doing something really really cool. Oh, and... Truman is especially cool. I have pics of him on my camera--the dude is amazing.

Truman the octopus saw the locks
That closed the outer, bigger, box,
Inside of which, he had a hunch,
Was one more box, which held his lunch.

Truman the octopus could have tried
To break the locks and reach inside
Or else, he could have set the goal
Of fitting through a two-inch hole

Truman the octopus, big and strong,
Some 30 pounds, and 7 feet long,
Saw lunch, and would not be denied;
The tiny hole? He crawled inside!

Truman the octopus filled the box,
But never did release the locks;
He tried for nearly half an hour,
But found no crabs he could devour.

Truman the octopus slithered out
(To plot some more, I have no doubt)
The truth? I’d give fantastic odds:
The next world leaders? Cephalopods.

(Edited to add: There are some additional pics of the event here, where you can get a feel for the real size of Truman.)

Oh, yeah, buy the Open Laboratory book and my own book. Check the earlier posts, and you will find the links.

Open Laboratory 2008!

Over at Bora's, the announcement has been made--the 2008 Open Laboratory (the best science writing on blogs) is now available at Lulu, and people (or cuttlefish) like yours truly can proudly put up a nice clickable link like this:

Which you can use to go and purchase your own copy. (It will be available from Amazon later, but buying it from Lulu means that the proceeds go to organizing ScienceOnline '10 next January.)

Of course, this much more generic button
Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.
would lead you to where you may buy my own book at Lulu. If you buy both, of course, you guarantee that you will be the coolest kid on your block.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Introspection Fish

Another comment from the Dennett post.

I have no eyes to look behind
And view my brain, much less my mind;
I cannot know your thoughts, and you
Are blind to what I’m thinking, too.
These are the facts; we can’t deny
We have no working “inner eye”
Nor any form of ESP;
Your thoughts cannot be seen by me.

Your claim—that we can know ourselves—
Is countered by the miles of shelves
Of self-help books. Our knowledge hides
From where you tell us it resides!
If we could simply take a look
Inside our minds, why need a book?
We’d never ask “How do I feel?
Could this be love? Could it be real?”

If God or Science offered me
Some cranial transparency
So you could see my every thought—
The change of mind; the urge I fought,
The censored comment never spoken,
Secret kept and promise broken—
What fabled treasures! Wondrous finds,
If we could read each other’s minds!

But we cannot. Make no mistake,
Our skulls and minds are both opaque
We do, instead, what we can do;
We read the things in public view
We see the song, the poem, the kiss;
Infer from these that love is this.
In turn, each element we find
We sum, and call the total “mind”.

If I could see inside my head,
(A place where angels fear to tread)
And see how thinking really works,
The jumble of selected quirks
And if (what wonders “if” can do!)
I saw inside your thinking too
I think that I should never see
What now makes up philosophy.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Reductionism? Never Mind...

Another comment from the Dennett thread--those of you who have read my evolutionary biology valentine's day poem will know that I am not a fan of reductionist explanations.

It frustrates me a bit, to find
This parsing out of “what is mind”
Seems always, always to have missed
That I am no reductionist!
I am no fool; I won’t deny
The brain’s importance. Ah, but I
Would argue that is just one part,
But so’s the gut, and so’s the heart.
There is no brain that acts alone—
At least, not any I have known.
The consciousness phenomena
Are everyday and common—a
Description of one’s life, it seems,
Both wide awake and in our dreams.
The consciousness we must explain
Is product of much more than brain!
A wider scope, and not more narrow,
Serves as target for our arrow.

(Explanations claiming “quantum”?
We don’t need, and much less want ‘em;
The level that we need—behavior—
Is not quantum; it can’t save yer
Theory, just because it’s hard
To fathom. We can disregard
The quantum stuff as misconstrued
By several leaps of magnitude.)

The consciousness vocabulary
Isn’t technical or scary;
Rather, it’s the common tongue
We learned while we were very young;
We’re taught our anger, love, and pride
By people with no view inside.
To their thoughts we were likewise blind,
And yet we learned to label “mind”.
But how to learn what makes up “red”
Without a view from head to head?
Or hunger, sadness, even pain
Without a window to the brain?
We learn the things that make us us
Through public, common stimulus;
There is no disembodied “blue”,
But things we learned to call that hue;
When looking at your “mind” today,
Reflect on how it got that way;
The learning that took many years,
Not mere arrangement of the gears.

So much of mental mystery
Reveals itself in history,
Which, if we choose to disregard,
Makes consciousness appear the “Hard
Problem”, as Chalmers so labeled,
A lofty problem, nearly fabled.
It’s “hard” because it asks to find
Physical cause for mental mind.
(The answer I would give—surprise!—
Is one the question plain denies,
As if rotation of the earth
Could not explain the eastern birth
And western death of each day’s sun
As well as Phoebus’s chariot run.)
Our language speaks of mental stuff;
For many, that would seem enough,
And “images” and “memories”
And reified ideas like these
Are what we’re challenged to explain
A task which we’d pursue in vain
Like capturing a unicorn
Or finding where a gryphon’s born.

Reductionist neurologists
By now have plenty on their lists
Explaining this or that or these
In all the detail that you please
Reducing Y to lots of X
Can simplify or make complex,
But if you’re simply changing levels,
Such “explanation” just bedevils.
The problem, if it’s there to find
Is solved in how we learn our mind.
It won’t be found in EEG’s
Or PET scans, CAT scans, none of these—
Oh, yes, we’ll learn some awesome stuff,
But, at that level? Not enough.
“Physical mind” is not just contradiction—
It’s sending us all on a chase for a fiction!

Monday, March 02, 2009

To The Senator's Health!

PZ reports that Senator Tom Harkin regrets that his National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has done what I, for one, would have bet against: it has disproven "too many" alternative therapies.

I wonder if we can get something to make the Senator feel better...

The Senator is needing
A colonic or a bleeding
Or perhaps a dose of radium to give a healthy glow.
My alt-med guru teaches
That the use of sterile leeches
Would give balance to his humours, and would help his chi to grow.
Hydrotherapy and spinning
Would be only the beginning;
An emetic or a purgative would do his body good
Ground-up rhino horn or penis
And a sacrifice to Venus
Will do more to swell his thinking than viagra ever could!
A double dose of calomel
Would do his tired body well
Or drink colloidal silver till his skin is vivid blue
Elective psychosurgery,
As anyone can plainly see,
Is something that could keep his thinking on the straight and true
We can mix some herbs and spices
Bought at legislators' prices
With the urine of donkey, for the Senator to drink--
But despite our urgent praying
We recall the ancient saying:
You can vote a man to Senate, but you cannot make him think.

Support independent publishing: buy this book on Lulu.

It's Getting Verse And Verse!

The discussion in the Dennett thread continues--Phunicular is a phenom, and Thoughts is thoughtful (if wrong).

Phinicular is archiving his own comments, or I would post several here; they are wonderful. I'll just post my latest comment as an appetizer here:

The nature of your question presupposes your position;
The “phenomenal” you’re after is an artifact of word;
Descartes approached the problem in a dualist tradition—
With the progress of neurology, that view is now absurd.
A photon is reflected from a stimulus that’s distal;
Through the pupil, lens, and humors to the retina it goes,
Where a rod or cone transduces it, to fire like a pistol
To bipolar cells and ganglia, as everybody knows.
At the level of the retina, already there are features
Which are processed by the structures that we call the visual fields;
Light is processed very differently by different sorts of creatures
So that information useful to their situation yields.
Now a signal (or “potential”) shoots along the optic neuron
Then through processing in parallel in many different ways
Such as color, edges, faces, on and on and more obscure on—
Read some Sacks or Ramachandran if you can, one of these days.
From occipital to temporal, and on up to the frontal
Back and forth, with constant feedback, now the signal makes its way
With perhaps a verbal output, though the answer that you want’ll
Still elude you, cos you’re looking for a view that’s had its day.
The majority of processing is out of our awareness
(And “the feeling of awareness” has its processing as well!)
We cannot feel the process, just results, and so in fairness
Introspection as a method simply doesn’t work that well.
At no point in the process is “an image” there for viewing,
Nor a “self” to view the image, which is really no surprise;
To demand an explanation for what you think we are doing
Is equivalent to asking how the sun can truly rise!
A perceptual illusion doesn’t mean that something’s missing—
What it means is merely something isn’t what it seemed at first
There’s no need to be Cartesian now, unless we’re reminiscing,
And there’s nothing there but trouble in the bubble we have burst.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


The department of oddities proudly announces
The latest official new species of fish!
It isn’t a swimmer—it more or less bounces—
With features that Timothy Leary might wish.

A species of frogfish, its fabulous features
Make H. psychadelica second to none—
Unique locomotion is one of this creature’s
Exciting behaviors—this fish is just fun!

(A bit depressing--if you pay close attention, you will note that the ocean floor in the clip is littered with trash, some of it camouflaged by seaweeds.)