Monday, May 30, 2011

Atheist Crowdsource

I'm looking for writing
That's cool, or exciting,
Or just has a nice turn of phrase
That's calm, or frenetic,
Or even poetic
There's so many wonderful ways
Your favorites, selected,
Compiled and collected
For use, any way you see fit
So it's time to get cooking--
Keep writing! Keep looking!
Go find all the best, and submit!

The background: Cuttlefish University does not have an atheist student organization. There are half a dozen Christian orgs, two Jewish orgs, and some sort of multi-faith thingie (no Muslim orgs, which my Muslim students have certainly noticed). I don't feel it is my place to start a student organization, when I am not a student, but it certainly would be my place to offer to meet with any of the believers' organizations as a "meet an atheist" day sort of thing.

Which brings me to the present, and to this post. I can certainly represent myself. But atheists have no central authority, no binding principles; we are privatively defined by our lack of belief in a god or gods. Someone could give the Catholic party line, but no one person can give the atheist perspective. I'm more than happy to share my own beliefs, but to really show these groups the breadth of atheist belief (because, of course, we do believe in stuff... just not in gods), I would like to be able to share other people's beliefs as well.

In that context--an atheist, invited to address a group of believers--what would you propose should be read? I would like to develop a database of relatively short pieces (there are some wonderful books out there, but they are clearly too long a form for the current situation) that anyone could have access to, to augment their own experience in representing atheists while addressing religious groups.

So I ask--what essays have moved you? What stories would you want to share? Don't limit this to well-known writers (but don't neglect them!); don't limit this to positive stories (or to negative!); don't limit this to whitewashed or bowdlerized stories, if the unvarnished truth is what moved you; the whole point is to have a collection of real atheist voices, that anyone could draw upon to demonstrate "what atheists believe" or "who atheists are". Be specific--not just "X is always worth reading", but rather "this particular essay by X is perfect."

I did a quick search before posting this--there are a few sites that seem somewhat related to my question, but frankly, none that fit what I am looking for. Certainly, I might have missed the perfect source--if so, please correct me! But if I am right, this could be a very useful resource. It will be available for anyone to pick and choose from, for their own "get to know an atheist" talks.

Please pass this on to others--nominate links in the comments. I will contact the authors for their permission, and will maintain the list to the best of my abilities. (I have no real ego, so if there is someone better qualified or better able to do so, let me know.)

And, for the record, anyone can use any of my verses in such a situation--consider this my explicit consent. I'll likely look through and put just one or two verses into this collection, though.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Two More Days

For two things, actually--first, to decide which side gets to break out a razor, in the battle between Team PZ (a one-man-gang to be reckoned with) and Team Underdog (aka Team Awesome). For current totals, see PZ's post here. The consensus is, PZ is an evil genius.

The second thing is, I just found an email (sorry, I was grading) that gives not a 20% discount, but a 25% discount, on my book. Just follow the link:
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.
and use the code word CYBERMAY305, and save 25%--up to $500, if you order in bulk. (I keep mentioning this, but none of you own bookstores, it seems.)

Both of these good causes are toast at the end of the month. You can still give money to either, but it would be considerably more altruistic on your part.

Meanwhile... my grades are turned in, my parents have visited and left, the family is healthy. Almost makes me wish I had something to complain about.

Reminds me of a song I wrote a while ago--either a true story, or bitter sarcasm...

I'm in love with a beautiful woman
When she's beside me I can't lose
I'm in love with a beautiful woman
When she's beside me I can't lose
I'm so sad because I'm too happy to sing the blues

I got a ninety dollar necktie
Seven hundred dollar shoes
I got a ninety dollar necktie
Seven hundred dollar shoes
I'm so sad because I'm too happy to sing the blues

Don't you give me no three wishes
Got no wishes I would choose
I'm so sad because I'm too happy to sing the blues


I got everything I ever wanted in the whole wide world
Offer me more, I'd just refuse (go ahead, I dare you, make me an offer)
I'm so sad because I'm too happy to sing the blues


Got more money than I can handle
It's just me and Howard Hughes
I'm so sad because I'm too happy to sing the blues


(etc.-- at one point I had dozens of verses, I think...)

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Monster Of Morris

The Monster of Morris was loved and adored
He commanded the awesome Pharyngula horde
When he mentioned the contest, the mighty crowd roared
“We are stronger than even Chuck Norris!”
But the balance of power must soon be restored
We’ll defeat the Monster of Morris!

The call echoed over the length of the land
For the underdog team, it was cluster’s last stand
With a weekend to go, they were still down two grand
So they raised up their voices in chorus:
Won’t the generous atheists please lend a hand,
To defeat the Monster of Morris!

Now the underdog team has a simple request:
If in humankind’s future you’d like to invest,
There are many good reasons to give to Camp Quest
And no reason at all to ignore us
The underdog team could be best of the best
And defeat the Monster of Morris!

The humanist, atheist, free-thinking kind
Who look not to heaven but to their own mind
Are asking the folks who are likewise inclined
To support, you don’t have to adore us
But the power of many, when all are combined
Can defeat the Monster of Morris!

Forgive us, I ask, if we poke or we prod
But I’m really concerned for the underdog squad
And we won’t have the help of some meddling god
Like Jehovah or Hermes or Horus
We rely on our readers to overcome odds
And defeat the Monster of Morris!

We are at the final weekend. If you were waiting, wait no longer. This is a good cause, no matter who wins, but I like underdogs. Hell, I'm a Browns fan.

So, if you have friends who might be interested, forward this along. Relatives? Neighbors? Pets? The odds are against us, but there are very few odder than me. Hey, if you are in good with some creationists, tell them they can rub PZ's nose in it. Their money still works.

Here--read Greta Christina's last-ditch post if you need context. Or you could just trust me, and forward this to all the benevolent millionaires on your list.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Good Night, Spirit

The New York Times is reporting that Spirit, everybody's favorite* presence on another planet, is finally to be abandoned. After exceeding the wildest expectations of its builders, Spirit finally gave up the ghost a little over a year ago. Nasa has been sending a daily call since then, with no answer, and tomorrow will be the last call. It is exceedingly unlikely that spirit will give any sort of response, but NASA will be listening through the end of the month.

I remind you of XKCD's homage to Spirit (click through--the pic is too big for my lousy layout, and it is one which brings tears to my eyes), and repost my own verse from January 2010:

Why do we care about poor little Spirit?
A robot is shutting down; why all the fuss?
My theory, assuming you might want to hear it—
It’s not just a bot: it’s a real part of us.

For over six years, I could wander a planet;
This rover named Spirit would act as my eyes!
Much more than suspected, back when they began it,
So, yes, I’ll be sad when the poor creature dies.

You say, “it’s a robot—it never was living!
It’s metal and silicon, lenses and gears!
Exploring the surface of Mars, unforgiving,
Controlled from a distance, for over six years!”

Of course, this is true. It’s a robot, just driving;
It just blindly does what it’s programmed to do.
But it does so where I have no hope of surviving,
And when it shuts down, then I’m blind on Mars, too.

I think it is good that the “death” of this rover
Is met with emotion—a tear, or a frown.
We all hit the off-switch, when our time is over…
I hope you’ll feel likewise when I power down.

*We cheer for underdogs. Spirit's twin, Opportunity, is still up and running, improbably and wonderfully.

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan

He's 70 today.

I was late to the table in becoming a Dylan fan; couldn't stand his voice. Now, it doesn't bother me so much, and there is no disputing, the man has a way with words.

Anyway, others have said much more intelligent stuff about him and today's lap of the odometer, so I'll just say "Thanks for doing all of the heavy lifting", and link to some of my older verses blatantly stolen. I could have sworn there were more.

They will be leaving, about the most recent rapture.

Ah, yes, with the Wisconsin union fights, it seems you couldn't turn on a TV without seeing... Charlie Sheen?

How do you do science, when God intervenes? Is there a control for that?

Of course, God intervenes all the time in football. Especially on Super Bowl Sunday.

And a silly little announcement for a blog carnival hosted by the much-missed TUIBGuy.

Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan, and thanks!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Apocalypse When?

With Harold Camping’s second strike,
His wounds were self-inflicted
Cos holy Jesus didn’t like
The date that he’d predicted;

He’s tried again! Oh, what a shame!
But this time, it’s October
(Too bad it’s not a drinking game;
We’d none of us be sober)

You guessed it!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Harold Camping's Success

“Harold Camping Fails Again”
The global headline hollers--
But no—his fraud’s a great success…
“Success” defined in dollars

Call me cynical, but I suspect there are two things Harold Camping loves more than Jesus. Money and attention. If we define Camping's success or failure in terms of these two standards, he is a tremendous success. He took in tens of millions of dollars in just the past few years (the International Business Times reports $100 million in the past 7 years, based on tax returns), in order to spread the his gospel worldwide. Not to mention all the free publicity of the past week or so. No, this is a major win for Camping.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Of Headlines and Deadlines

News outlets struggled to capture the Rapture
With interviews, videos, photos and such
Intimate details make writing exciting
So everyone aimed for the personal touch

Editors laughed at the deadline in headlines—
Lunatic out-groups are always fair game—
Some woman attempted to slaughter her daughters;
I doubt that the newsies will shoulder some blame

Watching the rapture was once fun. I think the first story I saw on it was months ago, and it gave me a chuckle; I was amused that such a splinter story would make it to national press. As you are well aware, not only did it make it to national press, but in the past week I don't know of a media outlet that did not have a rapture story.

And there's the problem.

A fringe belief was given a sort of legitimacy by round-the-clock coverage. The linked story above is a bit of collateral damage. I expect more, and hope to be wrong.

News outlets could have done differently. The lede tended to be "look at how deeply these people believe" rather than "oh, look, yet another end-times prophesy" (yes, both themes were there, but the ratios were not to my liking). The prophecy was "debunked" by other religious leaders pointing to other bible verses, rather than by historians or social scientists. Camping's cult is different only in the specificity of their timeline, and the lunacy of the broader belief was never (rarely, and by atheists, another outgroup) questioned.

This should have been a small paragraph on page 13, not a headline.

Friday, May 20, 2011

20% Off Sale!

I didn't plan this, but it showed up in my mailbox--through the end of this month, you can get 20% off of the regular price of The Digital Cuttlefish Omnibus. If you are buying in bulk (yeah, right), you can save up to 50 bucks. Remember, it's the perfect graduation gift, or end-of-the-world I-told-you-so gift, or just a really thick coaster for those icy summer drinks (northern hemisphere) or steaming cups of coffee, tea, or chocolate (southern hemisphere).

Just enter the coupon code "BOOK355" (without quotation marks) and congratulate yourself on being a shrewd and thoughtful consumer. Here, I'll even give you a handy button to bring you right to the store:
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Make you a bet: If the world does not end within the next 48 hours (see how generous I am!), you buy one or two. If it does, I'll buy you all drinks in Hell.

Wrong-Again Harold (A Camping Song)

Wrong-again Harold had made a prediction
Wrong-again Harold was once again wrong
Wrong-again Harold believed in a fiction,
But wrong-again Harold kept chugging along.

Wrong-again Harold had plenty of money
So wrong-again Harold bought billboards and such
People who saw them all thought they were funny
But wrong-again Harold, he didn’t care much

Wrong-again Harold misled the believers
Wrong-again Harold expressed no remorse
Wrong-again, wrong-again,
Wrong-again Harold stayed true to his course.

Wrong-again Harold, he looked through the bible
Wrong-again Harold, he did all the math
Wrong-again Harold, he claim’s he’s reli’ble
And gives us the date and the time of god’s wrath

Wrong-again Harold, I feel I should mention,
Wrong-again Harold has done this before;
Wrong-again Harold, he craves the attention—
Wrong-again Harold’s a media whore.

Wrong-again Harold misled the reporters
Wrong-again Harold expressed no remorse
Wrong-again, wrong-again,
Wrong-again Harold stayed true to his course.

Wrong-again Harold’s not much of a story
Wrong-again Harold has nothing to say
Wrong about rapture and heaven and glory
Please, can we just put this story away?

Wrong-again Harold, the media darling,
Radio, papers, the web, and TV
There on your soapbox, you’ve led me to snarling:
Bury this story, and just let me be!

Wrong-again Harold provided the message
Wrong-again Media, added their force
Wrong-again, wrong-again,
Wrong-again Harold stayed true to his course.

Is there a media outlet anywhere that has not given this man coverage? How many separate stories has he been in, among the major players? This has all the civility of a circus freak show, and I'm sick of it.

The Apple iGod

Mac-ily crack-ily
Apple Enthusiasts
Think about gadgets, and
Light up their brains,

Piquing the interest of
Glad to discuss what
The picture explains:

Sexily, vexily,
Newest technology
Shows an analysis
Just a touch odd;

Macheads don’t suffer from
Rather, their brains see the
Gadgets as God.

Apple-ish, Chapel-ish
Came to conclusions
A bit front-to-back;

God was their yardstick, but
Truth is, Jehovah is
Merely a Mac.

So, yeah, CNN is reporting about a Beeb documentary on the Secrets of the Superbrands. The big news that CNN takes from it is that Mac devotees' brains (as measured by MRI) light up when they are viewing Apple gadgets the same way that religious devotees' brains light up when they see images of their god.

But of course, the interpretation is all wrong. They say that iPads, for instance, benefit from MacHeads' "god-like devotion"... No, actually. God (whichever god you choose) inspires Mac-like devotion. I doubt very much that an area of the brain evolved to deal with stuff that is not there. I suspect, rather, that it developed to deal with stuff that is actually there, and was hijacked by a fiction.

I have often wondered whether the areas of the brain that light up for religious devotion, might light up for pop stars, movie idols, favorite authors, or the like. It would surprise me greatly if the feeling of awe inspired by a god and the feeling of awe inspired by a Van Gogh are differentially located in the brain. Evolution is a notorious tinkerer, and re-uses stuff all the time: "Love, pain, money, cocaine light up same area of brain", suggests one title. So, no surprise that iPads and gods are similarly wired.

What would have been extraordinary would be if god-perception was utterly unique. That would be remarkable, actually. But that, I suspect, would require intelligent design. No such luck.

Attack Of The Minnows

The big fish in their tiny pool
Where all the world is just one school
Can taunt and tease the godless fool
And bow their heads and pray
But video technology
Means, now the outside world can see
The worst of Christianity
In prominent display

Replacing prayer with silent thought?
Not good enough! And so, they fought!
They never figured to be caught—
And also, it was fun!
So, proving that they have no shame
The cowards held the kid to blame
And broke the law; it’s just the same
As Jesus would have done

It could have been such a great civics lesson. It could have been the mother of all teachable moments. It could have been a time for a community to shine.

But no.

It was a time for a community to pull together against a common enemy, to pretend to be victims of a persecution they were actually perpetrating.

Context, and video, at PZ's.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Graduation Rites

All across our mighty nation
At this time of graduation
It is Christian obligation
To acknowledge god in prayer
With a solemn invocation
Or an eloquent oration
That’s an open invitation
Aimed at everybody there

With a biblical quotation
To elicit contemplation:
“Lead us not into temptation”
As we head into the world
And with no equivocation
We affirm our adoration
And we pledge our dedication
To a banner there unfurled.

Now some godless aberration
Through his email machination
Seeks no less than termination
Of our simple, cherished rite!
Says we’re all in violation
Of the proper legislation
And demands an abrogation
Or he’ll lawyer up and fight!

Having read his information
We admit, with resignation,
Though it seems abomination
We sought federal advice
With our lawyers’ consultation,
To avoid much litigation
We announce the cancellation
Of the virgin sacrifice.

Via PZ, we hear of the annual dance between God and Country. Only one or the other gets invited to public school graduations, it seems. In Bastrop, LA, it was God that got the ticket, until Damon Fowler reminded the school that their traditional prayer was unconstitutional. As a reward for his civics lesson, the school lauded the young man, and is dedicating the graduation ceremonies to him.

Oh, wait, no. They are threatening him, and pretty much riding him out of town on a rail. Though the school board quickly realized he was in the right, the good christians of the area are planning to overwhelm the compromise "moment of silence" with prayer. This, of course, is their right. And it shows how much they value the words of Jesus, specifically Matthew 6:5-6. I kinda wish someone there would take that moment of silence (if it is indeed disturbed by loud prayer) as an opportunity to sacrifice a chicken or goat, right there, spray its carcass with rum, and basically exercise the same first amendment rights the other praying folks are. Except that I would feel a bit bad for the poor animal.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's The Lede?

The data are in, and they show there are planets
Which orbits, it seems, have not captured—
But science is boring, so bury that story,
There’s people who hope to be raptured!

The Milky Way Galaxy’s filled with these wanderers
Lost, unattached, and alone
But let’s go with the cultists who think they’ve discovered
A code that the bible has shown!

Gravitational lensing shows planet-sized masses
Adrift in the vastness of space
But freak-shows sell papers, and Jesus is coming!
Who cares if it’s really the case?

There’s trivial crap, and there’s serious matters,
There’s bullshit, and then, there is news
Thank goodness the media know what they’re doing…
Cos lord knows, the public can’t choose

So, yeah. A trivial percentage of christians think the world is going to end this Saturday; thank goodness every media source on the planet has seen fit to cover this important story. I'd link to a half dozen or so, but the truth is I am sick to death of it.

In the real world, they've discovered planets that are not attached to their own solar systems. "Rogue planets", or some other word (since planets are, technically, partially defined by their orbiting around a star), have been found--as predicted--by looking for the effects of microgravitational lensing. Actually, quite a few have been found, and by extrapolation there may be more of them than attached stars!


The real world universe is so much cooler than bronze-age mythological fairy stories.

But let's not let that get in the way of a headline.

Message In A Virtual Bottle

Happy birthday, to someone who’s dropped off the map
Though the odds that you’ll see it are long
I’d have bet, years ago, that we’d always be close
But of course, I’d have bet and been wrong
So wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing
I wish Happy Birthday, my friend;
Cherish the days that you have with each other…
It’s always too soon when they end.

Happy Birthday, to the person responsible for my moniker.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Annoying!

I am a student of human behavior
The funny, the sad, the annoying, and worse;
When faced with "those people", this view is my savior--
I take it all in, and I write it in verse

The clipping of toenails, the cracking of knuckles,
The scratch of a knife or a fork on a plate
While some pull their hair out, for me it's just chuckles
I find things amusing that others may hate

The grocery-store fast lane, with one extra item
The dog that's been barking from midnight to three
Examples come quicker than one man can write 'em
They bother some folks, but they don't bother me!

The internet comments I've often predicted:
"This story was simply a waste of my time!"
So, too, was the comment they rudely inflicted
On us, which I notice and add to my rhyme

NPR has a piece up on a new book by a couple of NPR-affiliated authors--Annoying: The science of what bugs us. As is completely predictable, the comments there are great fun.

I was giving final exams, and thus trapped like a rat in a cage for about 4 hours this morning; the above verses are the product. It's not (as yet, anyway) a complete work, but I have grading to do, so I will leave it to my readers to vent their annoyances or celebrate their lack thereof.

Back to work. How annoying!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Maine Boy Still Unidentified

Update--he has been identified, and his mother is in custody. Damn.

Maine police have found the body of a young boy. Found Saturday afternoon, and not yet identified.
Boston Globe story. Seacoast Online story. Fosters story.
They are asking for help. On the off chance you hadn't heard yet, and can spread the word, please do.

I used to run a daycare, and this story just hurts. I can't help but see *my* kids there. Someone must be missing their little boy by now.

Tom Waits, to rip your heart right out of your chest:

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Ok, so I was a little disappointed in Eurovision. I am a Eurovision addict, much to my shame, but this year there was no song/act that just blew me away. My highest picks were only 3/4 up the way up my page (ongoing ratings--from bottom to top of page), and my tastes and those of the European continent... did not mesh. Not entirely true--I had Italy in my top handful, and they placed second. First (Azerbaijan) and third (Sweden) were not in my top ten. Azerbaijan were in my bottom handful.

So this is for my European readers--too often, my posts are USA-centric. Did your favorites win? Lose? Do you hate Eurovision with a passion reserved for war crimes? Do you love it, perhaps despite yourself?

(for the record, my all time favorite is "We are the winners of Eurovision" by LT United, for Lithuania in 2006, which I refuse to believe was 5 years ago.)

What Happened?

Ok, so I know I had another post here, and I know a dozen or so people replied to that post--I have their comments in my email. But the post ("on the road") is gone, as are the comments, and I have no idea why.

So anyway, I am back from two long days of driving, and have therefore missed out on two days of grading papers. So I will repeat the invitation--who are you? Drop a line in the comments, and let me know how long you have been reading, where you found my blog, a bit about yourself. I have read the ones posted on the mysterious missing post, and find that my readers are as fascinating as they are intelligent (intended as a compliment on both, btw). Probably damned good looking to, and I bet they smell nice.

Back to grading, unless something forces me to write it. Oh, if anyone knows what might have happened, that would be cool to know too.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

PSA: Post-Rapture Pet Care

As recently noted, there are a number of people who firmly believe we have just over a week until they will (they hope) be raptured. As a public service to those individuals, I am reposting an older verse and story, so that they might put their minds at ease with regard to their animal companions. (Note--because of increased demand, prices have gone up since I wrote this.)

The day the rapture sweeps the land,
And plucks up true believers,
Among those heathens Left Behind
Are Labrador Retrievers

No Saint Bernard will make the trip
Nor Cockapoo, nor Hound;
The Lord may be my shepherd,
But my Shepherd stays aground.

No Poodles, Pugs, or Pekingese;
No ifs or ands or buts—
The rapture takes God’s faithful,
But it doesn’t take the mutts.

Believers who are worried for
The welfare of their pets
Are offered, now, an answer
If they’d like to place their bets.

Eternal Earthbound Pets” exists
To serve those Left Behind;
It’s rapture pet insurance, if
Believers are inclined.

Of course, not all believers think
Their pets will all be lost;
Their pets may go to Heaven, too
(Thus saving them the cost)

And Fido sits beside them, cos
In Heaven, all is well;
Together, they can laugh and spit
At sufferers in Hell.

From The Union Leader (Manchester, NH) comes the last pet-sitting service you will ever need. Well, assuming that you are going to heaven. If you're with me, plan on needing to buy kibble for a long, long time.
As those Christians who believe in the Rapture get taken up into eternity, the pet-lovers among them will have one less thing to worry about if a Langdon atheist has anything to say about it.

Bart Centre, 61, a retired vice president of an international retail firm and current co-owner of Eternal Earthbound Pets, is offering a $110 post-Rapture pet care service. The way Centre sees it, he makes a little money in his retirement, and should Jesus Christ return and the Rapture occur, those snatched up into heaven will have their pets cared for, he said.
Of course, to me, the most interesting thing was the reaction from the editor for Rapture Ready:
One Christian who is having a bit of a chuckle over it is Terry James, general editor for the popular Christian Web site Rapture Ready based out of Arkansas.

"He's giving somebody the business," James said. "It's a scam. . . . Anyone who would take that offer seriously, well, how would you even follow up?"

James said what is true is that Christians who believe in the Rapture do wonder about what will happen to their pets. So many, that James wrote a pamphlet about it. He said though pets will be left behind, if the people in Heaven decide that they miss their pets, they can decide to have them brought up later. He acknowledged that sounded a little screwy, but, he said, it's what he believes.

"I find it kind of amusing to tell you the truth," he said of Centre's business venture. "I don't begrudge him and I don't hate him for it. And if anyone is actually foolish enough to buy the service and don't think to follow up, well, then they are foolish."
Leaving aside the irony of a biblical literalist making up non-biblical pamphlets telling feel-good stories about pets in heaven, and leaving aside the irony of someone with his beliefs calling any other beliefs foolish, there is a further, less evident (or maybe that's the H1N1 talking) irony.

I have, in arguments with Rapture Ready believers and their ilk (not using my Cuttlefish handle), been told that they are happy I am going to hell, and that they will greatly enjoy looking down from heaven and watching me suffer in a lake of fire. I have been told that they will laugh, and if they are feeling particularly charitable, they will spit on me, just to watch me welcome this relief from the searing heat. Seriously.

And these people (or, most probably, others who share portions of their world view) are going to miss their dogs in heaven? Terry James makes up a story about bringing up Fido later, but gee, it's too bad about grandma. If you love her, maybe you can convince more of your heavenly friends to spit on her.

(edited to add: predictably, the commentary on the story is every bit as interesting as the story itself, which will surprise no one familiar with the Union [mis]Leader.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Goddess On The Beach

The other day, I swear I saw
A Goddess on the beach
An apparition, lovely to behold!

But Hindus used the force of law
To keep her out of reach
Those swimsuits are no longer being sold!

The images of Lakshmi
Have effectively been banned
Non-believers like myself, of course, may scoff

Though there’s nothing there that shocks me
If I see one, on the sand,
I’m demanding that the wearer take it off!

The Sydney Morning Herald (among other places) has the story of good intentions running into offended religious sensibilities (or of insensitive Aussie louts insulting devout faithful, depending on perspective), in which a swimsuit designed to turn heads did so, but for all the wrong reasons.

I do note, with no surprise at all, the fact that the photographs of the suit have now been on headlines across the world, so it's probably good that the protesters made such a big fuss over them, to protect the dignity of Lakshmi.

Run, Newt, Run!

So Newt is about to announce? How wonderful! He and The Donald can race for the moral high ground in debates! Newt takes hypocrisy to an art form; he is a gift to us all. Case in point: the New York Times is running an article on Callista Gingrich (wife #3, with whom Newt cheated on wife #2 for six years), and how she might be his "secret weapon" in his run for office. After all, she allows him a do-over, a mulligan, and he can be a marriage traditionalist, oppose same-sex marriage, and not pay the penalty for adultery.

In honor of Newt's imminent announcement, I am reposting a song, from last year when he lectured us on how same-sex marriage was destroying the institution he was so fond of, and railed against the overreaching of an activist judge.

Damn, he's so sexy when he's hypocritical.


I’ve been watching the news from California
Where an activist judge had his say
And conservative pundits now warn ya
You’ll only be safe if you’re gay
They talk to the networks and papers
And they speak of the dangers and harms
Then they swoon, with a case of the vapors
With their trophy wives clutching their arms

“They’re changing the meaning of marriage
The bonds that we used to hold dear
From a heterosexual pair-age
To a union a little more queer
A marriage is sacred and holy
Or at least, it has been so for me;
And perhaps a divorce, as a matter of course,
For to marry wife two or wife three”


I’ve been watching the queers at the courthouse
Where they pose for the cameras, and kiss
And although I’m not gay, there is one man today
Whom I’d join in connubial bliss:

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
He’s perfection in only one man
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
So I’m thanking the courts that I can!

Cos Newt is an expert on marriage
A commitment “till death do us part”
He’s so smart, and so cute; he’s my teddy-bear Newt
And I love him with all of my heart

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
The conservative man I adore
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
And love him as “spouse number four”!

We’ll walk down the aisle together
On that wonderful, magical day
We’ll be “Mister and Mister”, and maybe Newt’s sister
Could give her big brother away

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
What a wonderful, marvelous thing!
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
I’ll be wearing Newt Gingrich’s ring!

Sure, he left his first wife on her deathbed
And he left “Mrs. Two” for “Miss Three”
But with Newt on my arm, I say, “fourth time’s a charm!”
He’ll be happier married to me!

Yes, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
He’s perfection in only one man
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
So I’m thanking the courts that I can!

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Vanishing Hillary

Yesterday—I thought it weird—
I saw two women, disappeared
Religious censorship held sway
Oh, how I wish it’d go away

When first I saw the photograph
Two women numbered in the staff
But when the censor photoshopped
The both of them were simply dropped

Go away, go away, from the situation room!
Go away, go away, or the censor will fume

Yesterday—I thought it weird—
I saw two women, disappeared
Religious censorship held sway
Oh, how I wish it’d go away

I expect you have seen both the original and the doctored photo by now--it is already an iconic image--my favorite coverage of the issue is here, at the Washington Post. Of all the variations on the classic photo, Der Zeitung's is the only one I disapprove of (My favorite features a velociraptor).

The verse, you might recognize, is stolen from "Antigonish", by William Hughes Mearns. Just because.

Oh, and:

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Secular Studies At Pitzer

Hooray, Pitzer College! The first to acknowledge
The worth of the secular studies
Which will offer a few new alternatives to
A theology class with your buddies

And now if a student considers it prudent
It’s there as a major or minor
In an oddly strange quirk, it is clearly the work
Of a truly intelligent designer

Of course, that intelligent designer is, in this case, Phil Zuckerman. The secular studies major was announced a short while ago, but the NY Times has a nice story up as of yesterday, on how Zuckerman put it together.

You may remember Zuckerman from this paper, a tremendously useful resource when combatting negative stereotypes of atheists. If you haven't seen that paper, you may want to bookmark it; if your experience is anything like mine, you'll run into the same "arguments" again and again, and Zuckerman's paper is a handy weapon tool to have.

Oh, and...

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Have No Fear--Underdog Is Here!

One of the many useful features
Of social creatures

Is the ability to band together to do what cannot be done
By one

It doesn’t take a Confucian
To see that if you have enough people working together, it doesn’t matter if they are small, tiny, or downright Lilliputian

So long as each does their bit
And does not quit.

And so, I join with the members of Team Underdog, and raise my voice with theirs to say, although it won’t be easy
Beat PZ!

If you want more information about Camp Quest, and why it is worthy of support, click here. Or you could just trust me. And at this point, frankly, it's mostly about seeing how many midget wrestlers it takes to bring down Andre the Giant. Having been PZ for a day, I have some idea of the amount of traffic he gets, so when Greta Christina asked if I would join Team Underdog, my first thought was "You're gonna need a bigger boat", but my next thought was "I wonder if it can be done?"

So, it's an empirical question. And we love empiricism around here. And even though I just got back from spending 5 hours and 1000 dollars fixing a car, and would much rather have a fund raiser for myself, I can't resist all those godless kids. Well, I can resist them one at a time, but when they gang up on me... well, that's kinda the point, I guess.

They Will Be Leaving

The rapture is coming on May Twenty-First
And the man with the sign is expecting the worst
He gave me a pamphlet that tells me I’m cursed
And I’m shocked at the news I’m receiving
The earthquakes are coming; the dams will be burst
The believers, they will be leaving

It’s a tale of God’s glory, and a tale of God’s wrath
And the terrible justice and judgment God hath
With humanity here on a difficult path
We must always be true, but we’re weaving
We’ve crunched all the numbers and done all the math
The believers, they will be leaving

So wives leave your husbands, and husbands, your wives
And it’s too late to care about your teenagers’ lives
And remember, it’s better if no one survives
For the ones who remain will be grieving
We’ll know it when May twenty second arrives
The believers, they will be leaving

So leave your possessions; abandon your jobs
Go proselytize to the uncaring mobs
Their laughter today very soon will be sobs
As with sorrow their sides will be heaving
You’re a beacon of hope for the atheist snobs
The believers, they will be leaving

Go tell all your family; go tell all your friends
To pray for forgiveness and make their amends
There’s limited time till the universe ends
And no more that they should be achieving
They should grasp for the hand the lord Jesus extends
The believers, they will be leaving

There are some who look forward to that terrible day
When told of the Rapture, they solemnly say
Just don’t let the door hit your ass on the way
If you’re stealing away, then get thieving
And the ones left behind will shout hip hip hooray
The believers, they will be leaving

We've seen it before in other media; this time it's NPR's turn to report on the end of the world. Well worth a read or a listen--it puts a human face on an unbelievable story of belief. In a story we've seen scores of times before, somebody "crunched the numbers" in the bible and found that the rapture is upon us. In just a couple of weeks. Confident predictions have been made before, but that does not stop people from leaving jobs and families to hit the streets warning us that the end is near. Some families believe together; some families are torn apart by differences in their belief.

If you, like me, read comment threads like others read the comics, please note a couple of things. First, the number of calls for interviews on the 22nd. If history teaches us anything, it is that a great many of these people will have their faith strengthened by disconfirmation--I predict that their great show of faith is what saved us. Second, note the number of predictable comments. It's the law.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Not Just A Good Idea...

...It's The Law

It was not my intention, but I like the way it sounds: "the law of the predictable comment". My little verse, referred to as canon. Well, internet canon.

I approve.

In fact, I encourage one and all to police comment threads for similar malcontents, ne'er-do-wells, and trolls, and to slap their wrists with "the law of the predictable comment". You know you've seen them everywhere--now you have a response!

(Ok, in truth, I'm just envious that my pal Kylie has her own well-deserved Wikipedia page, and I probably never will, so I'm aiming for a bullet point in "internet rules", well beneath Godwin and Poe...)

There are dozens of internet laws
Which police our rhetorical flaws
All I want is one more
So I beg and implore
Won't you please lend your weight to my cause?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Emergence Of Mind

“The emergence of mind” is a devilish question;
The way that it’s phrased is a trick in itself.
We’re looking for something that’s somehow “emerging”
Not merely complex, but a difference in kind

So take a step back, is my humble suggestion,
From dualist analyses filling the shelf
The hidden assumptions could use a good purging
That lay in the phrase “the emergence of mind”

The mind in inferred from what people are doing;
(A skull’s not transparent—we don’t look at brain)
An answer depends on the question we’re asking:
The way that we look may distort what we find

Reductionist models are just misconstruing;
They merely describe, though they claim to explain
To look at our neurons may merely be masking
The real explanation of “emergence of mind”

Over on NPR's 13.7 blog, one of my pet peeves is on display, if only as a small part of the post. The big question is one of the influence of technology on our ability to observe; clearly, technology expands our senses hugely--allowing us to see spectra far beyond what evolution allows us, for instance, or to curve that radiation and focus on objects too small or too far away for our own eyes. Technology can let us hear, smell, or taste things (rather, detect the existence of pressure waves or molecules in air or water) beyond our own senses. We may have a tough time feeling the difference between 10 pieces of paper and 11, but technology can build us a scale that can measure even the weight of the ink it took to sign one of those papers.

Some problems are easier, some more difficult--some more linear, others chaotic.
As I tell my students, most of the easy problems (those that can be solved analytically) have been dealt with. Now, we must move on to the tough, nonlinear domain. Among the many open problems in many fields, here are three: the climate, the emergence of mind, and the origin of life. Not too shabby. None will be thoroughly understood without computers or, as scientist Katy Börner of Indiana University calls them, our "macroscopes."
And there we have my pet peeve. The emergence of mind, being written about by a theoretical physicist. Now, I don't mean to imply that "mind" is necessarily an easy thing, but it does not help that we continually ask the wrong questions about it. The very phrase "emergence of mind" (sometimes other, similar phrases are used, like "gives rise to consciousness") implies a qualitative difference, a difference in kind between the biological meat puppet and the controlling mind. Even when this is not intended, the language gets fuzzy, and possible answers are entertained or denied in part due to how they fit this fuzziness (quantum consciousness, anyone?).

In the discussion at 13.7 (as, it seems a law of nature, with similar discussions wherever the question is raised), the complexity of the brain is trotted out, and it is implied that mind somehow emerges (or cannot, depending on your stance) from the workings of the brain. This view is so commonplace now that to question it seems heresy. But it is wrong.

We infer mind from behavior, not from brain activity. My car has a mind of its own, as does my computer--I say this because neither acts the way I want them to, and the real explanation for what they are doing is beyond my personal knowledge. When the external causes of X's behavior are unknown to me, I put the causes inside of X; this "theory of mind" allows me to predict what a person, an animal, a car, a computer, will do. Imperfectly, of course, from which I infer that it has a will of its own (rather than just admit my ignorance of causes).

Our observation of the behavior of others, combined with our vocabulary describing this, is what leads to an understanding of "mind", and indeed to "mind" itself. Aaaaand, I think I'll leave this here for now. I can unpack it more, and have done so, but I'd have to start charging you for tuition. Bottom line is, a given problem can seem more intractable than it actually is, when you pursue it by asking the wrong questions. We are complex enough when we ask the right questions.

Oh! and I almost forgot-- for one of my all-time favorite discussions (for my money, it is the best comment thread in all of the history of blogging) of this topic, take a look at the comment thread on this post from a couple of years ago, in which my commenters clearly outclass me.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Right All Along

From the simple gut reaction that's dependent on your faction
(Everybody wears their heart upon their sleeve)
We can see, with no confusion, how you came to your conclusion:
What is true depends on what you first believe

And it's hip, hip, hooray
For the thing I learned today!
That convinced me I was always right
     and you were always wrong
And it's cheer, cheer, cheer
Cos it couldn't be more clear
I'm not boasting, I'm not bragging,
     but I knew it all along!

All around our mighty nation, finding brand-new information
Makes us more convinced of what we thought before
There's no need for a detective; every comment is projective;
Dr. Rorschach, we don't need you any more!


Simply take a look around you, and it's liable to astound you
The objective world has all but disappeared
With our inner thoughts projected, we see just what we expected
And the problem is exactly what we feared


Our opinion of the President's not tied to his accomplishments
Instead, it's based on what we think of him
If some Teabag son or daughter saw Obama walk on water
They'd complain because "the President can't swim!"


Ok, so I'm not 100% happy with this one, but I had to say something. Regular readers will both recall that I loves me some comment threads. After the Bin Laden news, comment threads have been both a delight and a source of tremendous frustration. Every bit of information that comes in seems to have the effect of strengthening the positions people held before that bit of information showed up.

 Republicans are praising the president for his actions which led directly to the death of our #1 enemy... that's president Bush, of course. Democrats, though, somehow see no reason to credit W at all. Go figure. The president's decision was tremendously brave and embarrassingly cowardly, depending on whom you ask. Torture was and was not useful. Hell, Bin Laden was or was not killed, and Obama was or was not born in the US.

I am reminded of the time my mother-in-law cheered for Reagan when he said he wanted prayer in school.  The dyed-in-the-wool Republican that she is, it must have slipped her mind that she is an atheist.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Sandwich Less Traveled

Two buns diverged from a breaded mass,
And sorry I could not, like a snake,
Unhinge my jaw to let it pass
Took one small bite, affecting class,
And thought it likely a mistake.

Then took another, as just a tease
And knowing I could not eat it all—
The deep-fried patty, stuffed with cheese—
I gobbled up with seeming ease
Until the point I hit the wall

And, gut distended, there I lay
With melted cheese upon my shirt
Oh, I lived to eat another day
And try again? Perhaps I may,
When I’ve recovered from the hurt.

I shall be saying this, with a sigh,
When fever fades, and I’m making sense:
Two buns diverge, and I will not lie,
This Heart Attack could make you die
And that would make all the difference

If you have never seen "Wait Wait... Don't Blog Me!" and their regular feature "Sandwich Monday", then you are missing one of life's great joys. Today's sandwich is the Heart Attack On A Plate, which is... well, hey, go take a look. When you read their first paragraph, you'll see where my verse comes from.


“Justice” is a funny thing
Unless I am misled
It acts like restitution
But it can’t bring back the dead
When lives are lost, it’s horrible;
There is no greater price
But Justice cannot pay it back—
Instead, it’s losing twice.

I know I'm not alone in this, but I get the feeling I am in a small minority. I can't celebrate someone's death. I hope last night's news brings peace to those who have lost loved ones, and I hope (in vain, I suspect) that there will be a positive effect on peace, at least in the long term. But I can't celebrate this death any more than the thousands of others connected to it, before, during, and after 9/11.

If (and it is a legitimate "if", not a given) we hold Bin Laden responsible for the actions of our own troops and allies, by the logic that "he started it", then we must look at how and why he came to be in the position to "start". By the same "if", our own actions supporting "Afghanistan's Freedom Fighters" against the Soviets, and our actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere over the decades, are also causal strands in a grand web of interconnected influences.

Yes, he was very bad. Sadly, he's not alone in that.

"Justice has been served." What a strange phrase. I am far more concerned with preventing future loss, than in whatever justice means. Calling this justice allows us to paint ourselves as the good guys, and him as a bad guy. And yeah, I've been told that my view "lets him off the hook." Well, no. He's on the hook. His actions are not ignored. But if we want to prevent, rather than simply avenge, future actions, we must look at all involved. Including ourselves.

And self-examination is not something that leads to cheers, chants, and dancing in the streets. But it is something that might lead to peace.