Sunday, December 31, 2006

Whose bones do these stones break?

It's that time of year again--when Muslims stone the guy with two horns and a tail. Oh but they do so by pelting, uh, stone. That's basically what the yearly celebration of Hajj is.

The stoning of the Devil is one of the most important rituals of the Hajj. After standing on the plain of Arafat, pilgrims spend the night on a plain called Muzdalifah. There, they gather 70 stones with which to pelt three stone pillars representing the Devil. The next day, the day of Eid-ul-Adha, pilgrims stone the largest of the three pillars with seven stones. Then, for the next three days, pilgrims pelt each of the three stone pillars with seven stones. This, along with a final circumambulation of the Ka'bah, completes the rituals of the Hajj.

Pillars in place of the real McCoy? Why not stone the Devil himself? Wouldn't that be more to the point? (Don't you wish suicide bombers blew up their victims only symbollically as well?)

I guess the Evil One is kind of impotent--he doesn't have the power to go about taking revenge on the tens of thousands who dare cast rocks at him. Or maybe he isn't evil at all. Perhaps he forgives each and every person who participates in this stoning ritual. Or maybe, just maybe, Muslims are just stoned ... stoned out on mythology.

The year in pseudoscience

Ben Goldacre looks back on the baaad science of 2006 in the UK.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Just another day indeed

Notwithstanding the possibility that I'm committing a false dichotomy, either I have pretty deaf friends and relatives or pretty daft ones. (Ok, there is of course yet another possibility: They're declaring war on nonbeliever me.)

I related how a friend texted, "Please pray even if you're an atheist, for friendship's sake." Today, the 25th, I received SMS "Merry Christmas" greetings from several people. Among them a sister-in-law of mine. In part, I replied, "Happy Holidays. Sorry, am an atheist. I don't celebrate Christmas." She then texted back, "Be merry for this is the day the Lord has made for us to appreciate all our blessings. God bless." What?! Could it be that "atheist" isn't in her vocabulary? Or is she just teasing? It's one in the morning, I'm drowsy, and so don't want to drain my brain speculating. Right now I don't know how to react. Maybe a sigh will suffice.

I'm taking my cue from Tom Flynn. On random dates throughout the year I'm greeting people "Happy Just Another Day." And I just might text my Xian friends and relatives with "Happy Ramadan!" and "Holy Vishnu's Day!" and "Merry Saturnalia!" and ...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Is this from a slapstick?

Nope. And the Indonesian officers weren't doing an April Fools'.

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia: Enforcing Islamic law, religious police in Indonesia raided a dozen beauty parlors and arrested 13 beauticians for failing to wear Islamic attire and two male customers for having their hair cut by women, officers said Thursday.... The 13 female parlor workers were arrested because they wore tight shirts and jeans but no head scarves, while the two men should have known that Islamic Sharia law states they can only receive haircuts from male hairdressers, he said. All were released after being admonished by the Sharia Agency, he said.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The latest virgin birth

A London zoo Komodo dragon named Flora recently laid eight fertile eggs without the aid of a consort. According to the Chester Zoo, "[the] paternity test confirmed that all the genetic material in the eggs had come from Flora and that she was indeed both the mother and the father of the developing eggs." The clutch of eggs is expected to hatch around Christmas Day.

Parthenogenesis is a fact in some animal species. Besides some reptiles, earthworms are another example. Of course just because some species have this capacity doesn't mean that mammals including humans have it too. (This is despite the fact that a Japanese scientist was able to induce parthenogenesis in mice two years ago.)

So, Jesus and his mom were lizards?
Mary on is a tree stump.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Bogus insurance

Two days ago a friend lost her baby. During an ultrasound on the day she was about to go on vacation down under in land of Kiwis, she and her doctor were shocked to discover the 8-week old fetus showed no heartbeat at all. The week prior the tiny critter was doing just fine and developing normally, even as it began its journey with a rather poor heart rate.

I don't know what procedure her ob-gyn performed but according to my friend the doctors had to do a "forced abortion" while she was knocked out. Must've been something pretty routine since 24 hours later she was onboard the plane to her destination (with her doctor's approval, of course). But I don't think it's going to be the planned joyous Christmas vacation with her family. It's going to be a mournful holiday for her.

Much as we're good friends, religion-wise we growing poles apart. While I haven't moved, she has. She used to be a lukewarm Catholic with only one foot in it. I remember her telling me a year ago that she could no longer see the point of reciting the Apostle's Creed--it had become too difficult to buy into. But several months ago, she experienced a revival of sorts in her faith. That was after her trip to Malaysia where she and her relatives met a female Christian minister who, among other things, prayed for them and laid her hands on them. Soon after the laying of the hands, her uncle claimed that the chronic pain in his knee diminished substantially. My friend relates that after their encounter with this pastor (they bumped into her a couple more times) she felt "lighter" and noticed that her problems didn't emotionally affect her as it did before. Upon returning home she made it a point to go to church/Mass every Sunday. Born again? Sort of I guess.

Vis-a-vis her reinvigorated faith, I find it instructive that an implicit reasoning error has occurred. Just because the pastor and her words/actions had a positive psychological effect on her (and even her uncle) doesn't necessarily imply that the theology and supernatural beliefs she preaches are in fact true and real. I give my friend the benefit of the doubt, though. Maybe she does know this, but then desires to sustain the "high" and make it last (who wouldn't, right?) so she tries to preserve as best she can the conditions that triggered it. Sensible enough.

On the night she was in the hospital she sent me the following text message (SMS): "Hope I'll be ok to leave tomorrow. Please pray even if you're an atheist, for friendship's sake. " No, that wasn't tongue in cheek. She meant it.

Send a telegram to the invisible man above even if I don't believe? Hello?! The last clause sounds very much like arm-twisting: If you're really my friend then you're going to pray for my quick recovery. Well, had I been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and had asked her to light a couple of sticks of incense and to pray to the goddess Kuan Yin would she as a Christian--a monotheist--do so? For friendship's sake? You know what? I think she would! Inconsistency doesn't really bother too many people.

There's allegiance to ties and human relationships. And then there's superstitious beliefs such as the power of petitionary prayer and ritual. Well, some want to have their cake and eat it too: It won't hurt if you pray to this other deity, even if you don't believe in that god. Just as it won't hurt to hang a pat kua above your door, just in case there really are evil spirits. Just as it won't hurt to forward to everyone in your address book yet another chain letter even if your brain tells you these emails really belong in the trash bin.

Well, unfortunately for my friend she wasn't able to coerce any supplications from me. This time I wasn't going to be coerced into committing the sin of hypocrisy again.

Be that as it may, it did cross my mind to pray, but for the very opposite thing, asking the gods to curse her or something (q.v. when Randi was in the hospital). I'm so so baaaad! But you see how superstitiousness is so ingrained that we would rather not do this and judge it crass when reality is that it has the same physical effect as offering "positive" prayers--none? It should really not matter whether we (skeptics/nonbelievers) resort to voodoo and black magic or meditate and visualize white light cleansing and protecting our friend's body and soul. If we in fact have shed off our superstitiousness, then our putting a hex on loved ones should not elicit anything psychologically different from our praying to Osiris for their health. If we feel differently when we send out "negative prayers" then we ought to examine whether there could be vestiges of superstitiousness left in us. Of course, it would be wise for us to keep the person we're casting a spell on in the dark. If my friend ever finds out that I even entertained the idea of praying for her nonrecovery she probably won't talk to me for a decade! There are very palpable psychological effects in those who believe.

Was it Dawkins who said that rather than pray let's think of ways of addressing the problem? My friend wanted a magical solution to her situation. Too bad. During our phone conversation I didn't even bring up that request of hers but instead offered her questions she may want to ask her doctor regarding her capacity to go on with her planned trip, including any emergency medication she should take along during her 12-hour plane ride should complications (such as bleeding) occur. Brainstorming the situation is far more productive than taking out an insurance policy from Religion Inc. (You can probably hear the rejoinder: "But it won't hurt to do so." It isn't far-fetched to imagine my friend using that as her justification.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pizza from Hell

I hope Hell has 24/7 delivery in the afterlife.

A Catholic newspaper is calling for a boycott of Hell Pizza in response to a recent condom mail-out. To promote its Lust pizza, Hell distributed 170,000 condoms, along with explicit instructions on their use, to letterboxes around the country.

Doing a Rosa Parks

Some three weeks ago American-Israeli Miriam Shear was on her way to Jerusalem's Western Wall. But whilst on the bus

she was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of men who demanded that she sit in the back of the bus with the other women. The bus driver, in response to a media inquiry, denied that violence was used against her, but Shear's account has been substantiated by an unrelated eyewitness on the bus who confirmed that she sustained an unprovoked "severe beating."

What's even more appalling is that the other passengers considered her to be at fault, and didn't bother to help and defend her.

Before this news item I didn't even know Israelis practised segregation. How awful. I find it insufferable.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Font of hogwash

As scheduled I attended that pre-baptism seminar Tuesday night at Mary the Queen church. We arrived quite late so I didn't get the names of the husband and wife team who headed the catechesis. Minor correction: I arrived on time, while my sis and brother-in-law came 30 minutes late! As instructed I dutifully waited for them by the entrance of the admin building. In retrospect, given the BS we were treated to, I should've gone ahead and entered the conference room at 8pm sharp. I bet I missed a thing or two to nitpick and complain about.

In the first hour the two talked about their life as a Christian couple and as Christian parents. The last half hour was a crash course in the history and rite of baptism. I actually wanted to throw some questions at the speakers, particularly about what exactly they meant by "faith" as they used it. Strangely, the audience (some twenty to thirty of us) was never given the opportunity to ask anything. Or maybe we were expected to just butt in anytime.

In lieu of a blow by blow narrative, I'll just jump right to the points that either made me go ballistic or brought me to the edge of bursting out in laughter. Having talked on the phone (the day after) with someone in the know I have some idea of the names of the speakers. But since I'm not a hundred percent certain I'll just call them Mr. and Mrs. K. (Yeah, stupid of me not to have asked the other attendees that night.)

* One of the things that really knocked me over was Mr. K's call to go forth and multiply. In telling their story Mr. K recounted how he and his wife wanted to have some half dozen(!) children because having a big brood fulfills God's plan. When Mrs. K failed to get pregnant after their second child, they resorted to adopting one. Then five years later, she found herself on the way with their fourth kid (that must surely have been a miracle).

This "have as many kids as possible" is the very same mindset my Opus Dei guy tried to impress upon me years ago. Apparently, the Church is still blind to overpopulation, resource depletion, unsustainable development, and global warming problems. The Ks are either ignorant of the dilemma we as a species and a planet are facing or just so naive and egocentric not to realize how they're aggravating the problems instead of helping curtail them. What really got my goat was that they were telling the audience that it's God's will--implying it's a very good thing--for them to become baby factories. They were saying that it was their duty to have children. It totally escaped them that that's irresponsible. If there are still those who believe there's no harm in religious beliefs, they better open their eyes. Telling African nations saddled with an AIDS epidemic not to use condoms and telling overpopulated, poverty-stricken countries like the Philippines to keep cranking out humans is totally nuts! That causes real harm and suffering. It isn't the use of embryonic stem cells for research and medical applications that kills. Those are microscopic tissues for cripes sake! Those cells have no cortex, no consciousness. In fact, stem cell research will save lives and alleviate unnecessary suffering. As an obstacle to rationality and progress, the Church wins the gold.

* The K's 4th baby was a girl. And she turned out to be a feisty, sometimes conceited, certainly argumentative kid. I gather that this youngest of theirs is the oddball, the thorn in their neck. Oh but the Ks aren't complaining since according to Mr. K, "This is what God gave us." Since children are always God's gift, it isn't possible to say that God gave me a reject, that God is bad or mischievous. And herein is injected the classic "heads I win, tails you lose" argument. If I get a perfect child, praise the Lord! God has blessed me. And if I get a nasty, uncontrollable kid. Well, that's because God is testing my faith, or teaching me the virtue of patience, or calling me to push my parenting skills one notch higher, or whatnot. How peachy. Perfect nonfalsifiability. Every result obtained has a rationalization. So what happens when they get a gay kid? Well, whatever their rationalization may be that child is going to go through hell and will be racked with guilt for a very very long time. All thanks to his deluded parents.

* Which brings us to Mr. K's homophobia. Mr. Holier-Than-Thou had no qualms whatsoever in advertising his prejudice against, if not disdain for, homosexuals. What I'd really like him to do is to tell gay men and women, to their face, that homosexuality is wrong, that his deity does not approve of it. I don't think he's a Ted Haggard underneath since it appears he had a hell of a time screwing his wife in their bid to pass on their genes--they were doing it, as he bragged, "24/7." I think he's just a run-of-the-mill homophobe. (But who knows? We may yet find out he's bisexual.)

* Mr. K hogged the floor throughout most of the talk. When it came to the catechesis part, however, Mr. K turned the floor over to his wife. To help explain the sacrament of baptism Mrs. K drew a diagram on the whiteboard. On the left, she had this seven-step stairway leading down to a pit. On the other side of that baptism pool were seven steps leading back up to what I presume would be ground level. Back on the left stairs she drew a stick figure with a round torso. She said this person is fat because he hasn't been baptized yet and is full of sins. Being fat represents being chockful of sins.

What?! Does she have anything against obese people? What have fat people done to her to deserve being the metaphor/symbol for having a truckload of sins? Why at the expense of fat people? Apparently, she doesn't even have a sense of being PC. Why not portray these sinful blokes (like evil atheist me--who by the way is ectomorphic) with boulders or giant iron balls shackled to their necks and legs, for example?

* In the baptism rite itself there comes a point when the priest makes the sign of the cross on the child's forehead. The godparents follow suit (can't recall if the parents do so as well; they probably do). Mr. K explained that the sign of the cross on the child's forehead does not disappear. It's an indelible mark and stays with the child (for life I guess). And when Satan sees this (invisible) mark he recoils from it.

No, I didn't make that up. Mr. and Mrs. K are middle-aged adults. And yet they believe in a bogeyman. They might as well throw in Darth Vader and the Dementors too. I'm sorry but I just can't understand nor stand highly educated, 50-year olds, living in the 21st century still wrapped up in childish mythology. There's something very wrong here.

* Finally, on the table where the Ks were seated was a foot and a half tall cross with naked Jesus dangling. Mr. K pointed to it a couple of times when he was talking about Jesus. And secured to the wall behind them was a huge 5 or 6 foot version--a scantily clothed man impaled on two pieces of timber. I tell you, it was grotesque. Having attended a Catholic school I was treated to this artifact from kindergarten all the way to high school day in and day out. You 'd think I'd be inured to it. But that Tuesday night I found myself wincing at this exhibitionistic display of torture and physical suffering. It's like, isn't one life-sized depiction, there at the back, in the background enough?! Do you folks have some sadomasochistic fetish for nude men dying an excruciating death? What sane parent would bring a child up to become desensitized to something so gruesome and inhumane?

Christians are scandalized when they discover that Hindus venerate linga and yoni--stylized stone or metal sculptures depicting male and female genitalia and symbolizing the god Shiva. I think Hindus will return the compliment.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The atheist godfather

Here we go again. I've been recuited coerced to become a godfather for the fourth time, this time to my sister's second child. In so many words I've already told her no, but three weeks later she's still on my case. A couple of days ago she informed me there's going to be a pre-baptismal "seminar" for the parents and the godparents (at least one of the godparents should be present during the one hour session). I thought she was kidding when she said I'll be joining them at the church. She wasn't. This means war!

My sis and I have always been very close and she's been my confidante for years and years. She knows all too well how much of a nonbeliever I am and how religion (theism) makes me go ballistic. As young children both she and I and our brothers as well had been baptized Catholic. We all attended Catholic schools. While our two other siblings are pretty much church goers, she isn't a practising Catholic. The only time she and I ever find ourselves sitting on the pews is during weddings. To top it off her husband is even less of a Catholic. I doubt he even knows what that gobbledygook docrtine of the Trinity is supposed to be (not that he'd be better off cluttering brain space with all that theological nonsense).

So why in Kuan Yin's name are the parents having their child baptized? I haven't asked her directly and even if I do I don't think she'll be up front about it. One trivial reason is that it's traditional in this country to baptize children. Having been a colony of Spain for 400 years, Catholic Church tradition is deeply rooted, just as it is in Mexico. But given what I know about the couple I think the primary reason they're going through all the trouble is her husband thinks having their children baptized confers upon them some supernatural protection of sorts. He's quite a superstitious fellow and observes Chinese superstitions and rituals to ward off evil and court good fortune. He's into feng shui and auspicious dates for this and that. So it isn't far fetched to extrapolate that for him the rite of baptism has an important payoff--perhaps it's like some invisible talisman for life, a force field if you like, that protects his progeny from harm (real physical harm, not the intangible spiritual kind).

When my sis reminded me of the upcoming seminar I kind of got annoyed. I wanted to tell her, "Are you deaf?! I said no!" But then the other day I had a "change of heart." I don't know if you can call it a gestalt shift, but I suddenly saw it from the other side, so to speak, and realized that the one hour catechism course is going to be a perfect opportunity for me to find out what drivel the Catholic Church is currently dumping on its members. So, in a 180-degree turnabout, I'm now pretty enthusiastic to be there to hear the facilitator say her piece, and be entertained. It's going to be on Tuesday night. I'm so very tempted to let it drop that I'm an atheist. I just want to find out how the lady who's going to be leading the seminar and the priest(s) will react. Will it be a show stopper? Will they turn to the parents and say I can't possibly be permitted to be a godparent? It ought to be interesting. Of course, if it comes to that, I'll be breaking my sister's heart. So I'll have to mull over whether I'm going to let it slip or bite my lip and just be keep those faith-heads in the dark. Decisions, decisions.

As to why my sis and brother-in-law are so hellbent on getting me--the most strident atheist in town--as one of the godparents, I think it's because I'm so fond of their two kids. I just love them so much. But that precisely has been my point. Why do I need to be a godfather when I'm already their most visible uncle, when I can't help but shower those adorable nephews of mine with affection (and presents and chow every now and then)?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A not so bright reply?

Was just pondering. The reply "a Bright new year to you" may be construed as a move to (de)convert the other into nonbelief. I submit that is certainly a possibility. And if it is taken as such would I object and go on the defensive? I don't know. Probably not. I do want believers to see the irrationality of believing in supernatural claims and how a supernaturalistic worldview isn't that different from wishful thinking and fantasy.

I need to think more about this. Not that it's a terribly bad idea. I just want to further explore the possible cons of wishing people to be or become brights.

A goat per million sheep

It's December again. What I really like about this season is the respite from the oppressive heat, which for some meteorological reason is still, pretty annoyingly, lingering even this late in the year. There's the cool of the season. And then there's the apocryphal birthdate of that Jew Yeshua ben Yosef (or as Xians would probably rather have it, Yeshua ben Yahweh). Yes, it's that time of year again. Talk about trigger for anxiety disorders and this rant.

Well, this year I'm no longer even going to go around wishing people Happy Holidays. I don't celebrate Ramadan, or the birthday of Ganesh, or some Buddhist holy day. And I don't go wishing folks who observe these holidays. So I don't see why I have to bother greeting others for a holiday I don't observe.

But I must admit I've been a traitor by playing the stupid game when greeted by the herd out there who say "Merry Christmas!" And that's because I've for as long as I can remember reacted to that stimuli by bouncing back the same thing. Well, that may be about to change. This year I'm planning on putting an end to being sickeningly hypocritical, and so rather than just echoing that trite greeting I'm trying out various different things (depending on how many tacks I can brainstorm into existence).

Among the suggestions by fellow brights (brought out in the latest Brights newsletter) in response to being accosted by the ejaculation "Merry Christmas," are such things as "And a Bright new year to you." Well, I like that. It's a positive message and doesn't have any explicit antisocialness to it. The problem is of course, How many in that billion-flock of sheep to whom we address it understand what a bright is? How many will hear "bright" as "a person with a naturalistic worldview" and how many will hear "bright" in the ordinary sense of the word? 99.9999% in the latter's favor I suppose. If the idea is for Brights to simply to get a kick out of duping the unsuspecting then I don't see the point. That said, replying to such a greeting via email is another thing. I might very well fire off: "And may you have a Bright new year." I can only hope the recipient checks out the link. The uppercase B ought to help pique their curiosity.

One response that comes to mind is simply "I'm sorry but I don't celebrate that occasion. I'm not a Christian." It's factually true, but I just don't know if I can bring myself to say it. Given the questions that that will elicit, I simply can't give each faith-head I bump into this season a crash course on Atheism 101 and a rundown of why I am not (or no longer am) a believer like them. Now if they can all just gather in one venue, I'd be happy to offer them a primer. Nevertheless, I probably will use a variation of this with salespersons in shops and malls, and the like--not least because it is almost certain these people have been ordered to dump on everyone the perfunctory greeting. Because of the seller-client relationship I doubt they'll ask nosy questions. In fact in such cases I might take the opportunity and follow up the above up with: "Do consider that people who don't share your religious beliefs might not take too kindly to what you're foisting on them" (or something like that in the vernacular). Of course, that's hardly a rational suggestion to them since around 95% of the population is Christian! But at the very least I hope it will be consciousness-raising (as Dawkins likes to put it) for them. It ought to make them aware that what they've taken for granted isn't the whole truth.

As for the old "Happy winter solstice!", let's face it. It's pretty contrived. I certainly don't celebrate solstices nor equinoxes, just as I don't use the Chinese lunar calendar and celebrate the phases of the moon. Be that as it may, by accident I saw a near full moon around 45 degrees from the western horizon at around 2am several days ago. I quickly grabbed my digicam, went outside, set the cam to spot metering mode, zoomed it to its maximum, and snapped a couple of images--without a tripod mind you. The cosmos is beautiful. And we don't have to celebrate in any ritualistic, "periodistic" way the various celestial phenomena to appreciate them.

Yes, I have a problem with Christmas. I don't have a problem with the Hindu holy day of bathing in the Ganges. And that's because I don't live in India nor am I living in a community of Hindus. Thus my problem isn't really with Christmas per se but with Xians. Needless to say, we are flanked on all sides by them.

The North Americans and a majority of Europeans are ahead in this area (at least I think they are, relatively), with their consciousness pretty much aware of the multicultural status of their populace. You don't greet Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, ... and atheists with "Merry Christmas." That is at the very least a faux pas. You don't presume that people you bump into are necessarily Xians. On the other hand, the near homogeneity of religious affiliation in this country has made such (automatic) consciousness-raising difficult. When throughout your life you've seen and dealt only with sheep, you come to develop a mindset whereby you see and treat every animal you come in contact with as fellow sheep. Well, hopefully, if this goat can muster enough courage I will be initiating some mind-opening and consciousness-raising this season, jarring a couple or so sheep into realizing that there are in fact other species in the world, making them relativize what they've for so long taken for granted, and forcing them to reserve that knee jerk utterance of theirs for those whom they know are in fact fellow sheep. Hopefully.

Let's go dig us a well ... on Mars

If you haven't heard of it yet, check out the Bad Astronomer's report on the latest finding: flowing water found on Mars! I certainly find that exhilirating news.

Attention dowsers. Get suited up. We've got abig job for you.

What fries our brain

About half a year ago the residents of an upscale subdivision were embroiled in a heated argument whether to allow a cell phone tower to be built on their premises or not. The pros contended their neighborhood needed it to boost the weak signal they were experiencing. Those opposed, on the other hand, circulated a 10 or 20-page document alleging that (microwave) radiation emitted by such cell sites cause cancer.

I'm not sure what happened thereafter, but I believe the project pushed through.

I haven't done enough research on this although I'm inclined to be doubtful of the said link between cell sites and cancer. Presuming that transmitters emit microwaves with a higher amplitude than cell phone units, there's still the inverse square law to consider. The intensity of electromagnetic radiation decreases with the square of the distance to the source--doubling your distance to the source doesn't just halve the intensity, it quarters it. How many of us actually stand within a meter of the tower antenna for a couple of hours total per day, 5 days a week? I haven't done the math but it could be that we're not getting much more compared with that cellphone glued to our ears. If people are worried about cell sites, they may as well be concerned about owning a microwave oven.

And this just in. Physicist Bob Park shares the results of a Danish study.


A study in the current issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found no increased cancer risk from cell phone use over a 20 year period. This is an update of a Danish study in JNCI five years ago. The Danes keep good records. By just going to the computer they could compare cell phone use with the National Cancer Registry. I was invited to write an editorial in the same issue, JNCI, Vol 93, p.166 (Feb 7, 2001). I noted that cancer agents act by breaking chemical bonds, creating mutant strands of DNA. Microwave photons, however, aren't energetic enough to break a bond. Predictably, fear mongers said there must be an induction period. Still waiting. In 1993, a man whose wife died of brain cancer was a guest on Larry King Live. Her cancer, he said, was caused by a cell phone. The evidence? "She held it against her head and talked on it all the time."

If I read him right, given the particular frequency (range) of microwave radiation (regardless of amplitude?) it just doesn't have enough energy to hack the organic molecules in our body. (There's a simple equation--I can't recall it right now--that relates electromagnetic radiation frequency and energy.)

And regarding that lady who succumbed to cancer, I guess it means that the millions of other cell phone users who've been using their units for years and years but still don't have brain cancer doesn't count as confuting evidence. But worse, it means that there is an ominous probability that these cell phone users will sometime in the future develop malignant brain tumors. And those who live and die without cancer? Well, they're just the lucky ones.

This must be one of the most blatant post hoc ergo propter hoc argument I've ever come across.

CSI: Amherst

Just when I've finally memorized what that acronym CSICOP stands for and say it in two seconds flat they truncate it to CSI.

"Committee for Skeptical Inquiry" sounds so much more appropriate really. "Paranormal" in the old name stood out like a sore thumb. Great mission. Great job. Great articles. More power to CSI!

Now if they could only please establish a branch in my city here in Asia.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A web of reasons to believe in our Savior

Brent just shared insights and rock-solid arguments by Dr. Graham Cracker. Needless to say, I give them a thumbs up. I myself used to be an a-supervillainist. But after Dr. Graham sorted things out for me, I now firmly believe in the existence of the entire pantheon: Brainiac, Mr. Freeze, Joker, Scorpion, ....

Praise the SuperFriends! What hope could we have without them?!

I must confess though that I used to be a Marvelist. But then I was accosted by a charismatic DC evangelist who so moved me with his Holy Book that I promptly converted to DCism. Then years later with the rise of ecumenism I finally came to see the Light and so fully embraced every one of these religions, acknowledging all their deities and demons.

Now some may argue that believing in all of them results in flagrant contradictions. How, for instance, would Superman be in the jaws of death when Spiderman, Wonder Woman, et al. were just around the corner (sharing their latest adventures over at Starbucks) to give him a hand at disposing of Lex Luthor? Well, I say to these nonbelievers: That's why it's called Mystery! You're not suppose to understand it. You just have to believe! Just have faith! Just tense every muscle in your body and force yourself to believe. Don't use your head. In fact, force your neocortex out your aliimentary canal. (Constipated? Don't worry. Religion is a proven laxative. That's why it's called brainwashing--it flushes that demon-possessed organ out of your body.)

And to those critiques who say that their ancient Semitic deity gave them the only Word in town, the only True Word, then I ask them: How can your book beat The Holy Comics when It has pictures! Pictures!! Pictures say a thousand words! Pictures transcend the limits, barriers, and idiosyncracies of any and all human language, ancient and modern. Do you understand Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, or Coptic? On the other hand, do we have to learn Italian to grasp the meaning of Michelangelo's paintings? Now that is the True Sign that The Holy Comics is indeed the work of real gods, and in fact by Intelligent Deities.

Send in the clown

Hilario Davide Jr., former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, is gunning for the position of permanent ambassador to the UN. As part of the process he was at the Commission of Apppointments yesterday to answer questions by senators, and other oddballs. Among them, the judge with invisible midget friends.

At the hearing, an amused Senator Juan Ponce Enrile asked [former judge Florentino Floro] if he believed, saw and talked to dwarfs, Floro replied in the affirmative.

"[I’ve seen] three. Luis, Armand and Angel," he said, drawing laughter from the legislative staff, guests and spectators. "They are world famous because they are in Google. In fact they exist. The decision points to them."

"They were called dwarfs by our culture but they are really angels of God. They are angels, your honor," he added. "They have only one mission: to clean the judiciary. Those who are receiving bribes. That’s only my mission: to clean the judiciary and to heal the sick."

Floro admitted believing in "psychic visions" to see the future because of his power in "psychic phenomenon" and confessed he had a covenant with his "dwarf friends," and that he could write while in a trance.

In response to Floro's accusations, Davide, in part, replied:

"[T]he last pleading concentrates on the so-called three dwarves. I don’t think the committee should entertain the appearance of dwarves and I cannot be compelled to answer the supposed performance of dwarves," he continued, eliciting chuckles from the spectators.

Here's some insider information: The reason the Supreme Court did not order mandatory psychiatric therapy for this nutcase is that he's got too much entertainment value. Laughter is said to be the best medicine. And with an economy still in the pits the Philippines can certainly use the endorphin-raising services of a real clown.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Holy body of Christ, Batman! The Quebecois are so cool!

If I only knew French, I'd have a hell of a time listening to these folks all day long.
English-speaking Canadians use profanities that would be well understood in the United States, many of them scatological or sexual terms. But the Quebecois prefer to turn to religion when they are mad. They adopt commonplace Catholic terms -- and often creative permutations of them -- for swearing.


"You swear about things that are taboo," said André Lapierre, a professor of linguistics at the University of Ottawa. In the United States, "it is not appropriate to talk about sex or scatological subjects, so that is what you use in your curse words. The f-word is a perfect example.

"In Canadian French, you have none of the sexual aspects. So what do you replace it with? You replace it with religion. If you are going to use a taboo word, it would be anything related to the cult, to Christ, the Communion wafer, Jesus Christ, vestments, and elements of the altar like tabernacle. There's quite a few of them."

Earlier this year the Montreal Archdiocese embarked on an advertising campaign intended to raise people's awareness about what these religious terms they're bandying actually mean.
The campaign ended, but Lapierre said Quebecers continue to use the words in highly inventive ways -- as expletives, interjections, verbs, adverbs and nouns. One could say, for example, "You Christ that guy," to mean throwing a person violently. "I don't know any other language that does that so well," he said.

The French here also modify the oaths into non-words, depending on the level of politeness desired. The word "bapteme" -- baptism -- is used as a strong oath, but a modification, "bateche," is milder. The sacramental wafer, a "host" in English and "hostie" in French, can be watered down to just the sound "sst" in polite company. "Tabernacle" can become just "tabar" to avoid too much offense.

The oaths are so ingrained that one cannot converse fluently without them, said Lapierre. "I teach them in my class."

Now what a creatively terrific idea! Time to come up with expletives in English. For starters, off the top of my head:

"Good heavenly host! I nicked myself again."

"What the Virgin do you think you're doing with that!"

And a new F-word on the block:

"Fish you!"

Monday, December 04, 2006

Harris' romance with woowoo

I love Sam Harris' eloquence, his uncompromising atheism, how he tirelessly defends rationality. But while he's a no-nonsense, dyed-in-the-wool atheist, one who explicitly points out that belief without evidence is irrational, he's got at least some wacky beliefs of his own founded on what I would say are pretty weak evidence.

Back in February I said that I was taken aback by Harris' belief in ESP and associated phenomena. So I was amused that in Session 8 of the Beyond Belief conference (some 24 minutes into the program) he was still clinging to (and defending) this belief of his. And to boot it looked like he's also rather tendential toward accepting reincarnation as true. Duh! He said he's awaiting further evidence for these claims but somehow this show of rationality struck me as disingenuous. I gather that until there's a deluge of confuting evidence he's going to keep believing that there is something to these claims.

I wonder if Harris is ever going to get over his "romance with woo-woo," as Randi puts it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I declare that science is gender neutral but my unconscious says otherwise

Just took the Science-Gender test on Harvard's Implicit Association Test site. What I find interesting about the result is that my bias isn't as much as I feared.

Your data suggest a slight association of Male with Science and Female with Liberal Arts compared to Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts.

... Depending on the magnitude of your result, your automatic preference may be described as 'slight', 'moderate', 'strong', or 'little to no preference'.

(I've snipped portions of the interpretation which may give you more information than necessary if you plan on taking the test. )

Poles apart

I first heard of Stuart Hameroff a year or two ago and from some psychic-astrology-new age site at that (in hindsight, perhaps appropriately so). After visiting his site, I came out very skeptical of what he was proposing, not least because he was invoking quantum mechanisms for neurological activity. What stopped me from pigeonholing him as a complete woowoo was his stated collaboration with Nobel Prize laureate Roger Penrose. I know next to nothing about quantum mechanics and if, even implicitly, an eminent physicist as Penrose says there's something to what Hameroff is claiming, then there must be something there. Fine. Well, Hameroff never crossed my mind from then on. And I never had to entertain what to me were wacky ideas about the mind/brain.

That is, until Session 4 of the Beyond Belief conference. Lo and behold, he turns out to be one of the speakers. Actually took a couple of moments for me to remember and realize that this is the guy I stumbled upon sometime ago. Listening to his "quantum consciousness" hypothesis was an ordeal. Easily the most technical paper delivered during the conference. By the time he came to his point about consciousness, neurons, and going back in time, my skeptical mind just about had enough. I haven't seen all the Beyond Belief sessions but thus far Hameroff's proposal takes home the prize of being the zany one in the lot, one very sore thumb sticking out indeed. Joan Roughgarden's points in her own talk, even if kind of lame, were pretty run of the mill compared to Hameroff's.

So it was a relief (felt like a vindication of the running condition of my baloney detector) that after the presentation, physicist Lawrence Krauss burst out and told Hameroff straight from the shoulder that he was plainly wrong, that he'd misunderstood and misapplied quantum physics. I wish physicist Steven Weinberg could've stayed on and thus lent his opinion on the matter.

The camera never cut to V.S. Ramachandran nor to Michael Shermer. And neither made any comments during the Q&A portion. It would've been interesting (and edifying) to hear from the neuroscientist and the skeptic by trade.

I think this Hameroff vignette reinforces the heuristic that it pays to be wary and skeptical of a non-physicist who talks (authoritatively) about quantum mechanics and of anyone who starts blabbing about how quantum physics explains some pet macrocospic phenomenon of theirs. I think we should keep pointing the spotlight on (and even ridiculing) those who glibly and recklessly use the adjective as in Hameroff's "quantum consciousness" in the hopes that people leave "quantum" to the physicists.

What was never addressed and what I'd like to know is what Penrose actually thinks of Hameroff's hypothesis, what Penrose himself is suggesting vis-a-vis the mind and consciousness, and what his fellow physicists as well as neuroscientists think of these ideas of his.

Moving to the other end of the spectrum, Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji's short presentation (Session 7) is for me by far the most captivating. Human psychology is always a fascinating subject, particularly the various perceptual and judgment errors that we inherently are predisposed to, what Banaji calls "bugs in our mind." Just to summarize, she talked about the availability error; about a recent odor study which showed that people in a room sprayed with Lysol (without the subjects being told explicitly about this fact) tended to dine more neatly; unconscious biases in decision making; racial stereotypes/prejudices and how they've changed (at least in America, or more specifically Princeton) or so it seems in the conscious level but may still be lurking or even operative somehow unconsciously; how we have a gender-career bias and how it is very much correlated with age with younger people showing less of the bias; how it is that we all have unconscious biases albeit varying from person to person--even if we know what ought and ought not to be and subscribe to those beliefs--and how such seemingly deep-seated biases are actually, as Banaji puts it, quite malleable to change. Banaji treated the audience to a couple of fun psychological tests that demonstrated our use of the availability heuristic as well as our proclivity toward gender-role bias. For more of these pretty self-revealing tests she suggests visiting

Banaji's hope is that discoveries in (social) psychology including the ones she talked about, particularly unconscious biases that all of us have, would lead us to a better understanding of the phenomenon we call religion. I'm reminded of Daniel Dennett's 2005 work whose subtitle contends that religion is a natural phenomenon, implying that it is a legitimate subject for science and its methods to bear upon. To me at least it is a truism that religion is a natural phenomenon. I don't see how it can be otherwise. Deities may, by definition, be outside the natural realm, but religion per se--the act of believing, socialization into the beliefs of one's culture/family, the rituals, formation of institutions, etc.--are pretty much human activities and spring forth from us--evolutionarily, culturally, psychologically. My own personal bias is that psychology is one if not the most important field that can enlighten us about religion. The subdiscipline of psychology of religion has, of course, been around for over a century, although there has unfortunately not been that much progress in it (Dr. Michael Nielsen's site is one that I've been visiting for some years now for updates on this field of study).

I think Banaji's really lively and interactive presentation had an impact on how Richard Dawkins' own talk, which was right after hers, came across. Bluntly speaking, it was pretty dull. Two reasons I believe. One is that he ostensibly lacked enthusiasm and energy (or maybe the abrupt change in energy levels between him and Banaji was simply too jarring, while the difference in the level of alacrity couldn't have helped either). Another, perhaps more important, reason is that I've already heard the various points he raised either in other talks he'd given during his recent book tour or read them in The God Delusion. Except for the slides he showed (finally saw what I only heard in audio files) there was nothing new to me. Certainly not to pooh pooh the various things he raised. It is worth watching if you haven't heard or read these thoughts of his yet.

(An aside: I myself have no fashion sense at all, but what Banaji wore was pretty hard not to notice and train your eyes on. Inspired by some traditional Indian attire perhaps? Pleasing to the eye, I should say. I think the scarf (which I doubt has any Indian roots) she had on served beautifully to break the monochromatic monotony.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

This Enceladus is no myth

Carolyn Porco is the team leader of NASA scientists who are involved in the Cassini mission to investigate Saturn and its moons. In her presentation at the Beyond Belief conference, she reveals that sometime last year the Cassini probe took extremely close-up photos of Enceladus (hovering just 175 km above that small moon of Saturn). Pictures taken by Cassini revealed that Enceladus has an icy surface, has an active geology, that its south pole has many fissures and that these fractures contain organic compounds. Moreover, the Cassini team discovered that the south pole is the warmest region of the moon. This, she says, is as remarkable as finding that the earth's Antarctic is warmer than the equator. But the most incredible find thus far has been the discovery of jets of fine ice streaming out of these fissures and shooting tens of kilometers into space, with the ejecta actually forming Saturn's outermost ring (known as the E-ring).

Porco enthusiastically tells us that given the presence of liquid water, elevated temperature, organic compounds, Enceladus probably has the conditions for sustaining biological life as we know it, and that there is a (slim) chance that microbial organisms are happily inhabiting it. If the latter is true, then it's also possible that these denizens are being launched (all freeze-dried I guess) into space courtesy of the plumes being created by the geysers. She goes on to say that if life is present in Enceladus then this would imply that the universe is almost surely brimming with life (knowing that two celestial bodies in one solar system have life vastly increases the probability that life in the universe is ubiquitous). Furthermore, such a finding would impact heavily on religions--not least Christianity.

Much as we would want superstition and mythology (aka religion) to be completely obliterated by the discovery of any form of extraterrestrial life (even unicellular), it will, on the contrary, spur faith-heads to dig their heels in even deeper. Faced with such undeniable facts and the consequent experience of cognitive dissonance, these religionists would crank the theology mill and run it at record speeds. And in no time at all we would be treated to a dazzling array of rationalizations and explanations (all without a shred of evidence and all nonfalsifiable, of course), all emanating from that wonderful human faculty called imagination (rather than empirical investigation).

There are to date some 200 planets that've been discovered outside our solar system. Thus far only Jovian-sized bodies have been detected. But as we engineer telescopes and instruments that have greater magnification and better resolution we will soon enough be able to pick out and see earth-sized planets that are not too close to their suns (else they won't be hospitable to life) . And who knows, in perhaps just two or three generations we may even finally stumble upon one that unmistakably bears the signature of life.

This may very well be wishful thinking on my part, but I can hardly wait for the day when the last human provincialism and centrism will be hacked--when we finally discover sentient, intelligent life out there. Discoveries over the centuries have already dealt a coup de grace to our various comforting egoistic, anthropocentric beliefs--our planet is not at the center of the solar system, our sun is not at the core of the Milky Way, our galaxy is just one in billions, Homo sapiens is just one terrestrial species and one with a long lineage, with humans sharing over 90% of their DNA with chimpanzees. Now that one last refuge of our narcissism is just waiting to be forever dissolved. What a thrilling disillusionment it will be when that day arrives.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Weinberg, Harris, Krauss

Spent midnight last night (or should I say this morning) viewing the first session of the Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival conference held at the Salk Institute some three weeks ago. The topic of discussion for the first round of panelists was the conflict between science and religion. The first speaker was distinguished physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Steven Weinberg who made no bones about where he stood on the issue. He noted how for him the conflict is paramount, more important than science education or environmental issues, even as he believed that the public was largely not antiscience. Weinberg was explicit and succinct about respect of religious beliefs--they don't deserve it. And I gather that this is so because, among other things, "so much of religious thought seems to be nothing else than wishful thinking." He ended with the following words:
I think the world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief. And anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in fact in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.
That must be music to Dawkins. (And it certainly got the adrenalin going for me)

Sam Harris was another speaker in that session and as we know Harris is a staunch atheist (some may say extremist) who sees religion today as a very probable cause for what could be the downfall of civilization, or at the very least secularism and the scientific enterprise. I don't share Harris' paranoia, and I'm with Weinberg who sees Islam (rather than the world's religions as a collective) as the one to keep an eye on. In fairness, Harris is pretty clear that it would be a freezing day in hell before we see Buddhist suicide bombers, and that if there is such a thing as fanaticism in Jainism then the more fanatic a Jain is the more nonviolent he becomes (imagine one standing catatonically still for fear of stepping on tiny insects and hardly breathing for fear of inadvertently swallowing and killing airborne microbes). There is much in what Harris says about religion that we can only assent to. Any worldview that remains intractably anchored in Bronze and Iron Age mythologies must certainly be, at the very least, intellectually debilitating. I'm with Harris in underscoring the patently crazy beliefs that religionists have in their jam packed baggage. During the session Harris gave the example of someone waking up in the morning fully convinced that after chanting some Latin words over his breakfast cereal he was now about to dine on the body of Julius Caesar. Plain ludicrous, of course. Such a person would be rightly diagnosed even by a non-psychiatrist as suffering from a delusion. On the other hand, everyone who professes that a cracker similarly chanted over is the body of Jesus are deemed sane simply because these are Catholic beliefs. Yet both are delusions, only that the other has been institutionalized (won't we be relieved if it were in the other sense of that word). The problem Harris points out is that religious beliefs have been sheltered from criticism. It has been taboo to speak out and criticize religion openly. Needless to say, there is a difference between the free world and the Islamic nations where criticism and questioning of religion has pretty fatal consequences.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss also gave his opinion on the conflict. While being a person without faith, his stance on the conflict is closer to a proactive solution wherein he wants to teach and educate the public about what science is and share the discoveries of science. Ignorance of science for him is what needs to be addressed. Doubtless, education is crucial in waking people up. On the other hand, as Harris points out being scientifically savvy is sometimes just not enough. He gives the example of Francis Collins, the leader of the human genome project. I dare say Collins knows more molecular biology than Harris does. But Collins is completely head over heels over Christ and salvation. In his latest book Collins reveals he finally accepted Christ during one of his hikes up the mountain. When he saw this frozen waterfall he was completely awed by it and he then fell on his knees, broke down, and gave himself to Jesus (and he perhaps broke down because part of his grey matter accidentally fell out). Clearly, as Michael Shermer points out in Why People Believe Weird Things even very smart people (Mensans and those with PhDs) can fall for and adopt pretty strange beliefs (James Randi would split hairs here and say being highly educated is not the same as being smart). In Collins' case, his critical faculties vis-a-vis religion were swamped in part by the welter of emotions.


The nine Beyond Belief video files are huge--some 150 to 250 megabytes each. If you've got a broadband connection you can watch them via streaming video (the sessions last from 1 to 2 hours). If not, you can download the files as I did. In my case each file took 10 to 15 hours. I just love these types of lectures/talks.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The war on terror

Were I to keep a test tubes of virulent and tenacious strains of anthrax, E. coli, and other pathogens, and casually told friends and family about it and authorities ultimately got wind of it, do you think they would simply shrug their shoulders and let me be? Given how dangerous and life-threatening such microorganisms are were they get they ingested or inhaled, it's of course insane to believe for a moment that I would be left in peace to keep these "pets" even if I had no plans of harming others or myself with them.

Why of course cops would in no time have my home surrounded. My neighbors within a hundred meter radius would be evacuated. My abode would be raided by a biohazard team and quarantined with plastic wrap. The vials of pathogens would be quickly confiscated and locked in hermetic containers. Needless to say, I would be carted away and suited up in layers of plastic to make sure I don't spread any of the germs that I may have on my skin and clothing.

Cultivating or storing such deadly germs is enough reason to earn myself notoriety. So imagine how I would be branded and treated had I intentionally released even a minuscule amount of such deadly pathogens into a city, if I had contaminated the water system of a school with a kilogram of E coli, or introduced trillions and trillions of anthrax microbes into the ventilation system of a building. Would I not be called a terrorist? Should I be allowed to have the freedom to commit such acts? Should someone who commits such acts on a global scale--someone who has willfully swamped and littered the world with infectious germs of all sorts, viruses and bacteria that in fact have killed people--be allowed to go unpunished?

These are rhetorical questions. But the thing is of course, why hasn't the FBI, Interpol, and other agencies cracked down on the one who first set loose these pathogens and biological hazards in the first place? The entity spoken of in the bible, Yahweh, is said to be the creator of every single pathogen--ebola, AIDS, E. coli, anthrax, dengue.... Name the germ and he was the one who created it and made it thrive on earth. Just read the audacity of this murderer:

I am the one who kills and brings to life. I smash and I heal. And none can deliver from my power. (Deut. 32:39)

I form the light and create the dark. I make peace and create evil--
It is I, Yahweh, who do all this. (Isaiah 45:6-7)

This is no less than an Osama pompously appearing in media and boasting of his powers of tyranny and destruction. Ostensibly, according to what some consider historical record, the supremo up above had no compunction at all in whipping up deadly bacteria, viruses, and parasites that have claimed the lives of untold number of humans throughout history.

So why isn't this guy No.1 on every agency's Most Wanted? Why aren't the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons denouncing him? Why have we not embarked on a sweeping and concerted effort to hunt down and finally put away or take down the mother of all psychopaths, the serial killer who's directly responsible for the deaths of literally billions (not even counting flora and fauna)? At the turn of the 20th century alone his influenza virus killed over a million in the span of less than a year. Today, its cousin--the avian flu virus--threatens to attack and destroy the lives of who knows how many thousands or millions.

Why the complacency? Why in heaven's name do we continue to let The Terrorist get away with such wanton murder on an hourly basis? Go to any hospital. Those who are afflicted with infections are his victims, victims of his unremitting biological warfare on the world. Look real close. Those are his microscopic soldiers eating away at the body of infants, children, adults, and the elderly. They do his bidding. He has programmed their DNA such that it's their nature to survive, breed and multiply by preying on us and ravaging our bodies.

But while the all-out war on The Terrorist hasn't begun, there has been for at least a century been a steady movement to defend ourselves from the Terrorist's assault. That movement bears the name science and medicine. Though it is too pollyannaish to believe that we shall eventually end the victor, the battles won have not been trivial. The worldwide vaccination campaign has all but wiped out entire divisions that once caused epidemics. Everyday, antibiotics stem the onslaught and save millions from unnecessary suffering and certain death.

But The Terrorist has been too shrewd. For instance while antibiotics have been life-saving, he has from the very beginning imbued his soldiers with the ability to mutate at a staggering rate and evolve defenses to render themselves immune to our weapons. Like the Borgs what kills one also makes future generations stronger by allowing those with inborn immunity to the poison to multiply and eventually become the norm, ensuring that no single antibiotic we come up with can have perpetual efficacy. While our arsenal has been mostly effective thus far, new battalions of his Borgs have adapted and can no longer be so easily overcome. Day in and day out they mock us with their mantra "Resistance is futile!" So the war rages, and our defenders--the scientists--must keep pushing the frontiers, developing new countermeasures to thwart the The Terrorist's ceaseless offensive.


Of course, the real Terrorist (granting ourselves license to personify it) is ignorance, or as a friend is fond of saying, benightedness. Theism is not in any way an avenue toward enlightenment. On the contrary, it is always a freeway to fantasy. Theology allows you to spin your wheels to your heart's content while never getting anywhere epistemically. There are no facts to speak of, no real, testable understanding to be proud of; just pure fantasy. Scientific reasoning and allied rational ways of thinking and empirically-based discoveries, on the other hand, do lead to edification and progress.

Obviously, made in Poseidon's image

The caption reads: "A Fathead (genus Psychrolutes) trawled during the NORFANZ expedition at a depth between 1013 m and 1340 m, on the Norfolk Ridge, north-west of New Zealand, June 2003 (AMS I.42771-001)."

(via Pharyngula)

Japanese unearths fairy remains

In the second chapter of Flim-Flam! James Randi convincingly shows how the fairies in the early 20th century photos taken by two girls were merely paper cutouts from some publication. It really is a pity that the creator of Sherlock Holmes had been taken in by the pranks of children.

Be that as it may it now looks as if Randi will have admit that fairies aren't fiction and myth at all (not that he'd have to part with his million dollars just yet). Archeology has just provided us with incontrovertible evidence that fairies do exist. Rocks don't lie. The following fossil record finally vindicates Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's childish faith in flying nymphs.

(via Pharyngula)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Why don't I hear the male doctors present complaining?

Dawkins protested when the producers chose to call the tv program Root of All Evil? The question mark was the only concession he received. Dawkins rightly clarifies that nothing is the root of all anything. But then he also follows that up saying religion has surely been the cause of various evils. The following must certainly qualify.

RIYADH - Women at a hospital in the Saudi capital, including doctors and journalists, were forced to leave a lecture about Islam’s stance on organ donation because they were women, reported Saudi- based Arab News on Wednesday.

The sheikh who gave the lecture, a university professor, refused to enter the room until it was emptied of women. In the beginning, some women protested but in the end they gave in so the man could give the presentation.

In the same tv program Dawkins tells us that some people are ahead and some lag behind in moral development. Given his behavior this Muslim professor obviously kept receiving an F in Ethics 101.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

No need to empty himself. He already is.

Was in the doctor's clinic yesterday. While waiting I picked up the Inquirer on the table and found myself drawn to the latest enlightening piece by Jaime Licauco. Apparently he had the privilege of interviewing one of Tibet's spiritual leaders last week. Most of the article is devoted to the Karmapa's replies. Licauco concludes with the following revelation:

Now even quantum physicists believe there is really nothing out there. Everything is maya or illusion. When we desire something of this world, we are desiring or pursuing what is not there.

Quantum physicists discovered that when they started probing the ultimate component of matter, there was only empty space. This has led to a rethinking of what really constitutes the material universe. It is consistent with Buddhist philosophy that everything is maya or illusion.

Yes, indeed there are in fact vast spaces between the nucleus of an atom and the electrons orbiting it. If the proton-neutron core were the size of a pea, the electrons would be circling some hundred meters away. And we can easily prove that even the hardest, densest rock is just empty space. Let's have Jimmy do the honors. Jimmy, kindly take a minute off from that next article you're firing off on your computer and climb to the top of the Inquirer building. Now jump off the roof. There! I'm sure you'll just go through the concrete parking lot and out the other side of the planet since it's all only illusory, only maya, all just empty space. Come to think what really makes this amazing feat possible is that your brain is 100% empty space. It finally makes sense why some people are described as "empty-headed."

When you hear non-science blokes talking about quantum physics, you can be dead sure they don't understand the first thing about it. And when you hear them (airy-fairy, head-in-the-clouds New Agers like Deepak Chopra) prefixing "quantum" to words left and right, you can be certain they're dumping nonsense on you.

Licauco just tirelessly keeps jamming his feet into his mouth and further and further down his throat. So how does Jimmy's immovable presence reflect upon the intellectual acuity/integrity of the Inquirer?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The true religion

If you're religious the following should paint a grin on your face.
They desire to extinguish God’s Light with their mouths. But God refuses to do other than perfect His Light, even though the unbelievers detest it. It is He Who sent His Messenger with guidance and the True Religion to exalt it over every other religion, even though the idolaters detest it.

Did that give you an adrenalin rush and renewed optimism?

Well, if you're Christian, the competition just had the last laugh You see the above comes from the Quran (9:32-33) and is talking about the ultimate triumph of Islam.

Guess we now know who will inherit the earth. My advice to Xians: better start learning Arabic and observing Ramadan asap. You are scared shit of hell, right?

For the birds!

Why people who claim to have had a "personal experience" of the supernatural (and paranormal, we might add) should take their anecdotes with a chunk of salt.
One of the cleverer and more mature of my undergraduate contemporaries, who was deeply religious, went camping in the Scottish Isles. In the middle of the night he and his girlfriend were woken in their tent by the voice of the devil--Satan himself; there could be no possible doubt: the voice was in every sense diabolical. My friend would never forget this horrifying experience, and it was one of the factors that later drove him to be ordained. My youthful self was impressed by this story, and I recounted it to a gathering of zoologists relaxing in the Rose and Crown Inn, Oxford. Two of them happened to be experienced ornithologists, and they roared with laughter. "Manx Shearwater!" they shouted in delighted chorus. One of them added that the diabolical shrieks and cackles of this species have earned it, in various parts of the world and various languages, the local nickname "Devil Bird." (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London: Bantam, 2006, p.87)

To realize that he invested his entire life partly because he mistook a bird for some demonic entity--my, that should really gnaw at him for the rest of his life. (And to think that that bird was the Good Guy's creation. A pretty mischievous trickster, don't you think?)

Remember the lady who heard the voice of God tell her, "Go throw your children into the San Francisco Bay," and faithfully obeyed? She's now on trial for murder. Do Xians believe her, that God had spoken to her? But why not? Why don't they believe those who hear God in their heads and obey by taking a knife and binding their children, when the father of the three great monotheisms claimed and did the very same thing? Why excuse Abraham, call him a man of God, and say he in fact is someone to whom an actual supernatural entity spoke, but then brand as crazy and criminal everyone else who claims to hear God tell them they should slit the throats of their children? Why are the LaShuan Harrises of the world described as delusional and their acts criminal, while Abraham and Co. and their deeds are not, and on the contrary are held up as (gasp!) role models?

Xian brains are so compartmentalized they have apparently lost the ability to think clearly. They are so biased and dualistic, and subscribe to double standards that their capacity for ethical thinking has been compromised. Theism screws brains big time.

Hate: verb, to dislike intensely or passionately

As you may know, the Jesus Seminar was a late 20th century quest for the historical Jesus. Among other things, the biblical scholars who participated in the Seminar sifted through the canonical and extracanonical gospels (e.g., Gospel of Thomas), discussed, and then voted on which passages are and are not attributable to the historical Jesus. The results of that were published in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Harper San Francisco, 1993), a work that documents all the words that the gospel writers attributed to Jesus (including those in the Gospel of Thomas--from the Nag Hammadi find) and rated according to how the Fellows voted on them.

The Fellows voted by dropping colored beads into a ballot box. A vote of red meant the Fellow concluded that "Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it." Pink corresponded to "Jesus probably said something like it." Gray signified "Jesus did not say this but the ideas contained in it are close to his own." And black meant that in the Fellow's judgment "Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition." Each color also had a corresponding numerical value: red = 3, pink = 2, gray = 1, black = 0. After voting on a particular Jesus saying, the points were added up and the weighted average computed. The result was then reconverted to a color code. This then was the final* color rating a particular saying received. (The Five Gospels, p. 36)

The Seminar also produced an entirely new translation of the gospels known as the Scholar's Version. One of the goals of the team of translators was to produce a translation that would come as close as possible to late 20th century English, but of course remaining true to the spirit of the original. While definitely sounding contemporary, this translation is reliable because it is based on ancient languages (Greek, Coptic, etc.), i.e., the SV uses ancient sources--extant texts as historically close to the originals as possible--as its basis.

With that background take a look at Luke 14:26, the following translation taken from the Scholar's Version.

If any come to me and do not hate their own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--they cannot be my disciples (ibid., 353).

This saying garnered a pink from the Seminar. This means that it probably is quite close to what the historical Jesus had uttered.

That's point number one. The more important thing I'd like to underscore is Jesus' use of the word hate, a word which also appears in other translations of this particular passage (e.g. the Net Bible). Here's the Seminar's commentary for this verse:

Hating one's family. This saying, which must have been offensive to Jesus' audience when he first enunciated it, has suffered the fate of other harsh sayings in the tradition. Matthew softens it by making the love of family subordinate to the love of Jesus. But Luke and Thomas retain the rigorous form: hatred of family is a condition of discipleship.

The severity of this saying can only be understood in the context of the primacy of filial relationships. Individuals had no real existence apart from their ties to blood relatives, especially parents. If one did not belong to a family, one had no real social existence. Jesus is therefore confronting the social structures that governed his society at their core. For Jesus, family ties faded into insignificance in relation to God's imperial rule, which he regarded as the fundamental claim on human loyalty. (ibid., 353)

Keep in mind that a majority of the Fellows are versed in Greek and the ancient languages in which the books of the bible were originally written in. When they concur that "hate" is an appropriate (if the not the best) translation then we need not bother entertaining such rationalizations as "hate" is merely figurative or that hating one's family simply means that we should love Jesus/God more. As the Seminar's commentary above already tells us, Matthew had resorted to such blunting of what Jesus actually had meant in order not to scandalize his readers.

So in this saying Jesus instructs those who wish to follow him to hate their parents, spouse, children, even one's own self. Hate them all. Let that sink in for a while.

Julia Sweeney in Letting Go of God aptly points out, "Isn't that what cults do? Get you to reject your family in order to inculcate you?" Jesus doesn't just say, "leave your family and follow me." Even that would already be asking a lot in itself. He goes one step further and orders his followers to hate their immediate family, to dislike them intensely. It is a call for complete dissolution of emotional, psychological, sociological ties to one's roots, loved ones, including progeny. The reason? That the person may devote her entire self, all his energy to the founder of the cult, his ideology and agenda. And to those who may argue that Jesus wasn't directing his followers to himself but rather to God, it escapes them that what/who "God" is is according to what Jesus says it is. Jesus is promoting and selling his own brand of religion, else why be his disciple?

And this call for hatred of course is corroborated by Jesus' own behavior toward his mother. Time and again he snubs her. At one point he instructs his disciples to send Mary home, for he no longer considers her family. This guy openly shows contempt for his own mother and explicitly orders his disciples to hate their loved ones. Try drumming that into your teenage kids. Let's see how they turn out. "Mom, get away from me! Jesus says I should leave and hate you!"

The sea of faiths is populated by schools and schools of loonies. And Jesus? Just another fish in that ocean of deluded denizens, albeit a star nutcase.



* "Final" here means nothing more than that it is the rating that was published at that time. Should another round of voting be conducted it is not improbable that the weighted average of some sayings may change due to various factors including the composition of the Seminar Fellows.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Shermer on TED Talks

The TED Talks site has a host of audio and video recordings of past guest speakers including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Julia Sweeney.

Monday, November 13, 2006

I say it's mothman

While riding the ferris wheel in a South Carolina fair a mother and her sons took several photos with their digicam. They noticed the following figure only after they had gone home and reviewed their pictures.

My first reaction was moth, then bird.

But the mother identified it as something else.

"It looks just like an angel," Catherine says. "It even has a ray of light that comes from the bottom toward the body of the angel and it's centered right in the middle of the picture - and I believe in angels. It's just an angel."

Right, an angel. How about Pegasus?

The Bad Astronomer comments:

Look at the picture. It’s a bird! Maybe, just maybe I might be convinced it’s a moth. But I’ll take either one — both of which have heads, bodies, wings, can fly, and (and this is the clincher) are known to exist — over an angel.

Catherine's son Frederick had this to say: "It's got a head, wings, legs, and if that doesn't look like an angel, I don't know what does." Obviously, his teachers have been remiss in edifying him all about those organisms in nature that have heads, wings and legs, and that (surprise, surprise!) do occasionally make their abode in South Carolina.

Seriously, I'd like to work with more data. Why is the background so dark? Has this photo been enhanced? Has it been cropped and magnified? Can we please see the others photos they took? How about the various info their digicam recorded about this photo of theirs? Was it the onboard flash that illuminated this object?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A witch doctor

It's bad enough that there are doctors who advise patients and their loved ones to pray, but this one is totally bonkers.

A doctor at a family planning clinic told a patient that she needed an exorcism because there was something sinister moving around inside her stomach, a medical tribunal was told yesterday. Joyce Pratt, 44, allegedly told the patient, who was seeking contraceptive advice, that she might be possessed by an evil spirit and needed religious rather than medical help. She gave the woman crosses and trinkets to ward off black magic, allegedly told her that her mother was a witch, that she and her husband were trying to kill her, and suggested that she visit a Roman Catholic priest at Westminster Cathedral in London. During the consultation at the Westside Contraceptive Clinic in Central London the doctor was said to have told the patient that she had black magic powers that could help to alleviate the problem. (link)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Jesus saves? Apparently not.

Not only has Jeebus not cured this devotee, the all-loving, omnipotent creator failed to keep him from slipping, falling, and sustaining fractures and head trauma. (Go watch the video.)

Alipio Acosta, climbed the 45-foot tall statue on Ocaca, Colombia, asking his savior to be cured of epilepsy. After several moments on top of the statue, the farmer started to climb back down.

Due to rainfall at the time, the statue's surface was slippery, causing Acosta to lose his grip and fall.

According to Freddy Morales, the doctor who treated Acosta, he had "Craneoencefalico trauma, he has his left wrist fractured as well as his left hip."

Craneoencefalico trauma is a cerebral injury caused by external force, which can produce a diminished or altered consciousness and, possibly, a deficit of cognitive abilities and/or physical function.

Two years ago, Acosta climbed the sculpture Cristo Ray for the first time asking for the same miracle.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Supernatural power corrupts

Why is the Supreme Court allowing this certified screwball to keep wasting its time and therefore wasting taxpayers' money? Judging by the latest activities in Dwarfland, his mental condition has taken a turn for the worse. For how long will the SC tolerate this nut?!

BEGINNING this Sunday, three dwarves will work their powers against 14 of the 15 justices of the Supreme Court, a dismissed judge has warned as he filed his third motion for reconsideration for his reinstatement before the high tribunal.... In his appeal, Floro said his three dwarf-friends -- Luis, Armand, and Angel -- appeared to him last week and told him that the justices would suffer their wrath for dismissing him. Floro said the sufferings of the Supreme Court justices would start midnight of November 5, the eve of his 53rd birthday. Floro said he appealed to his dwarf-friends to spare one justice, which according to him had been put into a vote by the three. Floro did not name him. "Voting en banc with full authority, Luis voted negative, Armand conditionally positive, upon full appointment of Judge Floro to a higher or equal position by virtue of the eliminated magistrate, while Angel voted neutral," Floro said. Because the voting was a tie, Floro said Luis agreed to spare one justice if he would spread oil on any part of the justice's house before November 5. Floro said he would follow the dwarves' advice and start praying every Friday so that the curse on the justices would work. "I will devote my entire life, Fridays, until my last breath, towards the fulfillment, execution, and coming to pass of this curse. With absolute faith in Luis, Armand and Angel -- Angels of God, I will fulfill my destiny: spell and karma upon them, all their loved ones, up to the 4th generation," Floro said.

Argumentum ad baculum? A gun to their heads? Floro's ego has been so trampled upon by the Court's previous denials for reconsideration that he's now issuing an out-and-out threat (albeit a ridiculously crazy one) to coerce the justices to approve his third motion for reinstatement.

Back in September Floro doomed corrupt judges to plagues of sorts. Not content with leaving it at that he made sure punishment also awaits their descendants born in the coming decades and until the 22nd century! And now even the family of the SC justices have been damned. This lunatic truly has no qualms in punishing even the innocent and yet-to-be-conceived. If for nothing else, his inhumanity, his failure in ethical judgement, his warped sense of justice is enough reason to bar this looney from being reinstated.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Rubbing it in

When gay hooker Mike Jones first came out and accused Haggard of regularly having sex with him over the past three years and buying meth (shabu), Haggard denied the allegations on radio and television, and even claimed not to know Jones. Shortly thereafter, perhaps realizing how the evidence Jones had in his possession (including voice mails left by Haggard) was just too damning, Haggard suddenly changed his tune and admitted to having in fact bought drugs and getting a "massage" from Jones.

An innocent back rub, not from his wife, not from a masseur in a legitimate health spa, but from a gay prostitute. And of course, Haggard bought $100 of meth and then promptly threw it away as he claims. Hey, we believe you, dear pastor! How can we six-year olds ever doubt the almighty, sent-by-heaven, immaculate-as-Mary man of God?

Haggard is one stinking, loudmouthed, bible-thumping, through-his-teeth liar.

From Haggard's own New Life Church:

We, the Overseer Board of New Life Church, have concluded our deliberations concerning the moral failings of Pastor Ted Haggard. Our investigation and Pastor Haggard's public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct.

You don't really know what to make of these self-appointed deputies and ministers of god. They slap The Book on you, they preach fire and brimstone for those who commit "abominations," and yet behind the scenes they're carousing with the devil.

Is it all just for show? Is it just a numbers game of beating the other guy in raking in the most number of old ladies? Or the bottom line? A scripted marketing ploy to clean out the congregation's purses? Do these harbingers from on high even believe any of the holier-than-thou, damn-you-fags drivel pouring out of them?

Haggard's closet

You might remember Pastor Ted Haggard as the asshole who scolded Richard Dawkins for being arrogant after talking so decisively about evolution during his interview with Haggard in Root of All Evil? When was the last time you accused your cardiologist of being arrogant because she spoke so authoritatively about cardiovascular disease? That's the same Haggard who drove up to Dawkins and the film crew and evicted them from his church's property and who even threatened to confiscate their footage.

Well, what do you know? Less than a year after that show aired on UK tv, Haggard has been exposed as having bought meth and having had a "massage" from a male prostitute.

One of the nation's most influential evangelical leaders admitted Friday that he visited a male prostitute for a massage and bought methamphetamine for personal use — though he said he threw the drugs away without using them.

The Rev. Ted Haggard denied the prostitute's allegation that the two men met for sex as often as every month for the last three years. But he did say that he had visited the prostitute for a massage and later called him more than once to buy methamphetamine — a drug used in some gay circles to heighten sexual sensation.

The Don must be really pissed. I think you better fess up Haggard, I mean spill it all. Or would you really rather He skewer, roast, broil, and burn you to cinders Himself?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Don't ever call him dumbo again

It may be too early to celebrate, but I am so thrilled that it looks like we're finding more evidence of mammals possessing cognitive abilities we thought were exclusive to humans.

Elephants can recognise their own reflection, showing self-awareness seen before only in humans, great apes and bottlenose dolphins, scientists say. US researchers made the discovery by studying the behaviour of Asian elephants in front of a tall mirror. One of the animals repeatedly touched a white cross painted on her forehead - a classic test used to assess mirror self-recognition in children and apes.... The mark could only be seen in the mirror, and the elephant ignored another mark made with colourless paint that was also on her forehead to ensure she was not merely reacting to a smell or feeling. While only one elephant passed the mark-touching test, the researchers note that fewer than half of chimpanzees tested typically pass this test.

Certified fruitcake

The Book of Revelation is, hands down, the Bible’s most deranged. It was written by the apostle John, and if his epistles can be seen as John on pot, then Revelation is John on acid

--Ken's Guide to the Bible

Nearly twenty years after the Satanic Verses

I think I'm still floating on cloud nine. Just listened to a most enthralling talk by Salman Rushdie on Point of Inquiry. Go listen asap. Go! Rushdie is so articulate. Among other things he talks about religion, freedom of speech and the right to ridicule religion, the niqab (women's veil), the Danish cartoons, multiculturalism and the inanity of cultural relativism, Islamophobia, and Kashmir.

When you wish upon the bible...

Sometimes you get what you want.

A teenager carrying a Bible and shouting ''I want Jesus'' was shot twice with a police stun gun and later died at a St. Louis hospital. (link)

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Listening to religion may be hazardous tor your health

Leave it to religions like Catholicism to screw up the world. Here's part of the results from a study of over a million men and women from 59 countries.

[T]he countries where people have the most multiple sexual partners – the developed world – are those with the lowest incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies. These countries also have by far the greatest condom usage, [Kay Wellings at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine] explains. This suggests that social factors such as poverty, mobility and gender equality may be more relevant to sexual ill-health than promiscuity, she adds.


Religion is a real problem in reproductive health, says Joy Phumaphi, Assistant Director General of the World Health Organization. People are still having more children than they can afford to support and the lack of provision of contraceptives and safe medical abortion facilities is harming thousands of women, she said, citing Nicaragua’s proposed ban on all abortions, in particular, as a “huge threat to women’s health”.

But it is a mistake to lay all the blame on Catholicism and other major religions,” Phumaphi says: “The biggest problem is the many independent churches that have huge influence, and some very extremist views.

She points out the success of Brazil, a Catholic country, where risk factors such as multiple partners and low age of first sex, are coupled with low HIV infection rates. This is mainly due to "joined-up thinking" between various health agencies so that, for example, condom use is encouraged.