Friday, November 30, 2007
Above are a couple of good clips from Beavis & Butthead®. The first one features the two cerebrally challenged teenagers trying to sell candy bars for their school (the babysitting clip is no longer available). The second one finds them faced with their greatest challenge of all, trying not to laugh at words that describe human reproductive organs. Unfortunately, the clip ends too soon and does not show Beavis & Butthead running out of the school at the end of the day, their faces purple from holding in their laughter all day.
The Long Island Rail Road station at Hicksville has long had a pigeon problem. Scores of them roost on wires, pipes, lamps, and just about any nook and cranny they can find. And the reason that is a problem is because the pigeons are pooping all over the place. Heedless commuters walking to and fro underneath the elevated track are unwitting targets for pigeon droppings that might fall on them. In some areas where the pigeons cluster, the droppings are literally piling up on the pavement below them. Not only is it disgusting, it is also a potential health hazard.
Admittedly, the train station is a convenient place for the pigeons to find shelter. But that is not the only thing that draws them there, as I discovered. Another reason why the train station serves as a magnet for the pigeons is because there are nitwits on the train platform who feel compelled to feed them!
This morning, because of where I parked, I ascended to the platform on the far west side. As I was walking eastward, I came close to a man who appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties at the edge of the platform by one of the rest areas. He had a box of crackers in one hand and was crumbling them with the other before tossing them onto the platform. I asked him, "What are you doing?", even though I already knew. He answered that he was feeding the pigeons, to which I shot back, "Don't you know they're shitting all over the place here?" He said, "Yeah." So I asked, "Then why the hell are you feeding them?" I didn't stop to hear his answer, all I heard was some inaudible mumbling.
He was not the first person I encountered feeding pigeons on the train station platform. Earlier in the year I challenged another person about it. What is the matter with these people? I guess they feel they are doing a kind deed and it makes them feel better about themselves. I see it all the time when I take my children to Mill Pond in Bellmore, where you get well meaning but not terribly bright people feeding bagels and crackers to the ducks and geese.
Whether these people realize it or not, crackers, bagels and bread are not part of the natural diet of these animals. It's like going to a Third World country and tossing candy bars to crowds of impoverished and hungry children and then patting yourself on the back for being such a generous person, when what they really need is a balanced and healthy diet.
So here's to the idiot at the train station today feeding crackers to the pigeons. You are my pet peeve of the day. I hope one of them shits on your jacket!
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Unfortunately, I have not had much free time lately for blogging, though things should pick up this weekend. Look for posts on Alan Keyes, Asian Fever, prostitution, and more on Rodney Stark's Discovering God.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Be forewarned that the clip below contains gratuitous use of the "F" word, so keep the volume down if you are in a place where it might post a problem. And, most of all, have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
The scene above is probably my favorite scene from the Clint Eastwood movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and is one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.
The message from the scene is simple but compelling. We can either fight each other or recognize that we each have the right to live. The message is also couched in humanistic language rather than invoking a god. The Indian chief Ten Bears tells Josey Wales that the "iron", or truth, "must come from men." Enjoy.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
"Lets face facts, you don't mock and deny creation science because of rational reasons. You launch your childish attacks, your silly temper tantrums, because you hate God and want to live a sinful life without God's perfect morality."
I want to live a sinful life, huh? Well, let's take a quick tour of my daily routine and see how filled with sin it is. Mind you of course that I am just one individual and cannot claim that my daily routine is typical of every atheist.
I generally wake up on weekdays around 7 a.m. While I eat breakfast, shower, and get ready for work, my wife gets my children ready for school. Around 8 a.m. or so I drive my daughter to her day care and then park by the train station and ride the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station. During my ride on the train, I usually read a book or a magazine, though sometimes I avail myself of a nap if needed. After arriving in Penn Station, I take take the subway or walk to my office, depending on the weather and how much time I have.
I usually get to my office around 9:30 a.m. and go about my relatively unexciting job as a trademark paralegal. Around 4:30 I leave my office to catch the express train to Hicksville. I arrive back at Hicksville an hour later and pick up in turn my daughter from her day care and my son from his after school program at his elementary school. We usually get home by 6 p.m. After getting settled in, I feed my kids dinner, go over their homework with them, give them snack to eat, bathe them, and put them to bed. Afterwards, I surf the net for a while, do some dishes, take out the garbage, write out some checks to pay household bills and such, and then go to bed.
Well, then how about the weekends? Surely I find time to some sinning then. Okay, let's look at my typical weekend. I wake up around 8:30 or 9: a.m., not so much because I want to, but because my kids are awake by then and I have to make sure they don't fight or cause any trouble. I often have to help my mom by taking her to the supermarket, picking up her medication from Walgreen's, or assisting her in some other way. I do errands and chores, including grocery shopping, bank runs, post office runs, folding the laundry.
See all of that sinning I pack into a typical day! Does that read like some anger filled rebellion against God to you? And yet in the eyes of many Christians, not only will I join the ranks of murderous dictators like Joseph Stalin and burn in hell after I die, they gleefully salivate at the prospect of it.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
The End of the World, Again
First up, members of a bizarre Orthodox Christian cult in Russia have holed themselves up in a cave. They believe that the end of the world will take place next May and they have stocked enough food and fuel to last them through the winter. What they are going to live on if the world ends next spring isn't mentioned.
The cult members have threatened to ignite their petrol supplies if authorities try to force them out. Hopefully for their sake they don't have any cigarette smokers among them.
But She Had it Coming
Out of Saudi Arabia comes another sad story of appalling treatment towards women. A young Saudi woman was gang-raped about a year and a half ago and was sentenced by the Saudi court to six months in prison and 200 lashes for violating the laws that forbid unrelated men and women from associating with each other!
Her sentence was actually increased after she appealed the decision! In its mercy, the Saudi court did sentence the seven convicted rapists of up to five years in prison.
Of course, conservative Muslims will draw the wrong lesson from this episode. From their point of view, if the woman had behaved like a good Muslim woman and not interacted with other men, she would never have been raped. This is proof, for them, of the wisdom of the laws she violated.
What they fail to see, being the retrograde troglodytes that they are, is that it is precisely these kinds of laws that convey the message that women who are in the company of men who are not their relatives or family deserve to be raped! (Italics mine) In other words, when a Saudi man finds himself in the presence of a woman who is a stranger, because of the conditioning he has received from his culture, he believes he has a right to rape her. And the best way to combat this mindset is to grant women full and equal rights to associate with whom they please in public and to put the blame for rape squarely on the rapist and not the victim.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Monday, November 12, 2007
And just moments after this picture was taken, the sound of a man's shouting caught our attention. One of the conference attendees was loudly proclaiming to all within earshot about Dershowitz's advocacy of torture. I made my way around to the other side and snapped a shot of Dershowitz responding to the accusations of the man, who appears to the far left, by saying that his argument for torture warrants was a way to bring accountability to the process of torture, which he believes is justifiable in certain limited cases.
After the verbal fireworks subsided, it was on to the last panel of the day, Secularism and Islam: The Next Islamic Enlightenment, moderated by CFI's Austin Dacey. The panelists were Paul Berman and Tawfik Hamid, who was involved for a while with militant jihadism in his younger days in Egypt. Ibn Warraq, an author and intellectual who left the Islamic faith, was also supposed to be among the panelists, but Dacey informed us that he had taken ill and could not attend.
Dacey opened the discussion by talking about Ibn Warraq's claim that there were three Islams. Islam One was the Quran, the Hadith, and the biographies of Muhammed, Islam Two was the interpretation of these texts, and Islam Three was how Muslims practiced Islam. According to Ibn Warraq, the problem was Islam Three, how the religion was practiced. Hamid disagreed with that, arguing that in fact the problem was with Islam Two, how the texts were interpreted. He related a personal anecdote. When he was younger, he read a Quranic verse that mentioned that infidels should be killed. He had a Christian girl as a neighbor, and he thought that as a good Muslim, it should be his religious duty to kill her. Seeking affirmation, he went to his local mosque, and the imam, a Sufi, told him that the verse needed to be seen in its context of its time, and that it should be read as the infidel at that time in history should be killed, and not that it was not intended to be a license to kill non-Muslims.
The panel discussion was most notable for its disagreement between Berman and Hamid. Berman argued that the rise of today's Islamic militancy can be traced back to the Post World War One period when a number of movements hostile to liberalism arose such as Bolshevism, Fascism, and Nazism, and that movements like the Muslim Brotherhood were inspired by and very much in the tradition of these movements. Hamid disagreed, contending that that is something that has always been within Islam.
Dacey asked Hamid if the militant or Salafist Muslims could be engaged in dialogue and Hamid argued that no, they could not be spoken with because they are so committed to their cause. If they believe that they are carrying out god's work as written in the Quran, then what grounds could there be for compromise or understanding? Berman shot back that Hamid himself is living proof that jihadists can change their minds. Hamid retorted that his own father was an atheist and his mother was a French teacher, so his background played a part in causing him to question the path he was on.
Hamid also responded to Dacey's question as to whether it was true that Arabs were oppressed, such as the Palestinians. Hamid got quite animated and he said that when you look at the freedom that Muslims in America have to worship and how well they are doing economically, whereas on the other hand in countries like Saudi Arabia non-Muslim faiths are forbidden. I don't recall his exact words on this matter. Hamid, in regard to Iraq, seems to partake in the Iraq as Terrorist Flypaper theory as a reason why there have been no terrorist attacks in America. Personally, I am unconconvinced, as our military presences in Iraq does not act as a barrier to preventing jihadists from coming here.
The panel then opened up to audience questions. Adam got to ask the first question directed to Hamid. Adam asked Hamid how to militarily defeat the jihadist ideology when it was not a centralized movement. I don't recall the specifics of Hamid's answer. I was in line behind Adam, though I first had to wait for questioners at the other two microphones to get their turn. When my turn came, I mentioned how Islamic fundamentalists seem to thrive in societies where there is a breakdown in civil society through government corruption and a failure to provied basic social services. I mentioned that Ayaan Hirsi Ali had also made this observation in her book Infidel. I concluded by asking to what degree, if any, American foreign policy could address this problem. Hamid acknowledged the point and said that what needs to be pointed out is that the Islamic militants, while purporting to address poverty actually make it worse. As an example, Hamid mentioned the murder of tourists in Egypt some years ago and how it harmed Egypt's economy because fewer foreigners visited and spent money in Egypt.
Mine was the last question and the conference was concluded. All in all I thought it was a worthwhile event with many engaging and interesting speakers, and I look forward to attending future CFI conferences in New York City.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
It also touches on what Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke about earlier in the day, when he mentioned the prejucides he had to overcome in pursuit of his ambition to become an astrophysicist. While the damage that racism, sexism and prejudice inflicts on those who are on the receiving end of such discriminatory treatment is almost universally acknowledged, what is rarely mentioned is the damage that is inflicted on the societies that practice discrimination. By thwarting the career ambitions of people because of their gender, race or sexual orientation, societies that sanction such discrimination deprive themselves of the contributions that the victims of discrimination might have made had there been a level playing field. Conservative Muslim societies, in failing to educate their female populations and giving them a chance to compete in the labor force, are stupidly depriving themselves of the brain power of nearly half their adult population.
After the Hitchens video, several members of the Center for Inquiry spoke to the audience about the Center, what it has to offer, and why it is necessary to support it. The first speaker was Paul Kurtz, the president of the Center for Inquiry (hereinafter the "CFI") and the eminence grise of secular humanism. Kurtz got a good laugh from the audience when he was talking about how Sunnis don't recognize Shiites, how Protestants don't recognize the Catholic Pope, and how Baptists don't recognize each other at Hooters. When I saw him today, I told him that I liked that line, and then suggested to him another, "Republicans don't recognize each other in public restrooms." That elicited a chuckle from him.
After Kurtz and the other CFI speakers did their part to tout the benefits of the CFI, it was time for the next speaker, Peter Singer. Again, I failed to take notes, so I don't recall at the moment most of what Singer said. One thing I remember clearly though was his taking to task American conservatives for the slogan "culture of life" as applied to restricting abortion and the right to die, when America's infant mortality rate is about the same as Cuba's and much worse than nations like Sweden or the Netherlands. Singer pointed out that if the United States reduced it's infant mortality rate to that of the Netherlands, that would result in saving the lives of thousands of infants every year in the United States. He also informed the audience that as tragic as the events of September 11, 2001 are for Americans, many thousands of people around the world die every day from preventable diseases.
The day's events were capped off with a live interview of Richard Dawkins by the CFI's DJ Grothe, who hosts CFI's podcast radio program Point of Inquiry. Interestingly, rather than lobbing softball questions at Dawkins as one might have expected in front of a rather friendly audience, Grothe actually asked him some rather pointed questions.
Dawkins compared his Out Campaign to the gay rights movement and expressed his wish that atheists would be able to achieve a similar success, though I couldn't help thinking that the gay rights movement has not quite yet succeeded in achieving its goals, and what success they have managed to achieve has served as a rallying point for the Religious Right. Grothe also told Dawkins that being himself gay, he had some reservations about Dawkins equating the atheist cause with the gay rights movement. Dawkins clarified his remarks by saying that he was inspired by what other minority groups have managed to achieved in spite of their small numbers, and that since the number of atheists in the United States was in many cases larger than the other minority groups, that it should be possible for them to achieve greater social acceptance. I could tell Dawkins was trying to choose his words carefully and that he did not mention Jewish-Americans as an example of a successfuly minority group, after he aroused some ire recently by telling an interviewer that the Jews had a monopoly on U.S. foreign policy
Hopefully the Point of Inquiry podcast of the interview will be up and running and when it is I will update this post with a link to it.
The panelists were Wendy Kaminer, Edward Tabash, and Michelle Goldberg, with the discussion moderated by Susan Jacoby. It was the consensus of the panelists that for secularists, the Democrats were clearly the better choice than the Republicans, as flawed as the Democrats were. For example, Michelle admitted that while she favored Barack Obama and was okay with him talking about his own religious faith, she was disturbed that he was touring with a gay basher in an attempt to appeal to conservative voters.
Ed Tabash, who grew up in a Jewish household, spoke of how he came to disbelieve in the existence of god when he was 4 years old. At that early age, he said, his mother took him into the kitchen and pointed to the oven. She told him that a few years earlier during the war, the Nazis put some of his family members in an oven at Auschwitz. Tabash's mom then showed him the scars on her back from the whippings she received. Then, upon hearing a Rabbi refer to the Jews as god's chosen people, Tabash told the audience "I did not like how we were chosen."
At the moment, I am drawing a blank on most of the discussion. At the end of the panel, I went into the main conference room. I wanted to say "hi" to Michelle Goldberg and mention to her about the picture of her and I at the Barnes & Noble where my head got cut off. But that was actually the moment where Richard Dawkins passed by me and I took the opportunity to pester him for his autograph.
I went into the lobby area to see if I saw any familiar faces. The conference was breaking for lunch. I recognized Adam because he had posted pictures of himself recently on his blog from his vacation to Puerto Rico. After greeting each other and chatting for a few minutes, we went out to lunch together. One of the downsides of the conference was that because of the cost of using the facilities, there was no money in the conference budget for food, so everyone was on their own when it came to eating.
I also managed to get Victor Stenger to sign my copy of his book God: The Failed Hypothesis. Stenger laughed when I showed him this picture on my digital camera.
As for me, unfortunately my schedule did not allow me to attend the opening of the conference on Friday evening. Part of my daddy duties for the evening included watching The Wizard of Oz with my children. Also, due to my having to commute to the conference, which was held downtown at WTC 7, I missed the first panel on Secularism Through History: from Spinoza to JFK, which started at 9:30 a.m. On Saturday mornings, it is a feat for me just to be able to wake up by 9:30!
I arrived at the conference around 10:45 and found a seat in the Spillover Room shortly after the second panel on Science and the Public had gotten started, as the main conference room where the speakers were was full. The speakers were Richard Dawkins, Ann Druyan, Victor Stenger, and my personal favorite, Neil deGrasse Tyson. What cracked me up immediately was that Dawkins and Tyson were seated next to each other, because of this exchange they had last year at the Beyond Belief conference.
In talking about how to convey the importance of science to society at large, Tyson proposed, to audience applause, that we need to rebrand science as "reality." What science does, through its rigorous process of examining evidence and putting one's conclusions to the test of peer review, is "to remove us as far as possible from the urge to delude ourselves." He reminded us that our senses can interfere with our interpretation. A strong example of this would be the once widespread belief that we lived in a geocentric universe where everything revolved around the Earth. To someone who observed the night sky, this would have been a rather logical conclusion. But as our ability to study the heavens increased with the invention of the telescope, Galileo was able to prove that we lived in a heliocentric solar system. Science, said Tyson, helps us to assess what is right so that we can make informed decisions.
Dawkins added to this, explaining to the audience that science as aesthetic benefits. He spoke of the majesty of the heavens, the geological record and its testimony to the sheer span of time the Earth has existed, and the complexity of a single cell. The methods of science have honesty built into them through the process of peer review and repeated experimentation.
Anne Druyan added that "science is the only discipline that has been able to wean us of our spiritually narcissistic need to be at the center of the universe."
The moderator, DJ Grothe, then asked the panelists to provide their opinions as to what they believed are roadblocks to the public's appreciation of science. Victor Stenger said that one problem was that science simply isn't taught well. He also observed from his own experience that many students who took his physics class were not interested in physics itself but were only in the class because they needed it for their engineering degrees.
Tyson made an important comment that if the particular problems the students have to learn in physics class (making reference to some pully thingamajig) do not seem to have practical applications in real life, just trying to figure out the problem rewires the brain in such a way that makes it applicable to solving real life problems. Tyson told Stenger that he should give himself more credit and mentioned a personal anecdote. Tyson recounted how several years earlier he gave former Clinton Administration ambassador Richard Holbrooke a personal tour of the Hayden Planetarium. During the course of the tour, Tyson was amazed at the depth of Holbrooke's questions and was surprised to learn that Holbrooke that had studied physics in college. Tyson asked Holbrooke how he applied his education in physics to his profession as a diplomat and negotiator. Holbrooke replied that he was able to tell who was "full of it" because their story was not constructed in reality.
The moderator brought up the topic of religion as an obstacle to the understanding of science. Dawkins mentioned several pertinent things. First, because of the human life span being a matter of decades, it is hard for humans to cope with the timespans of millions or billions of years, whereas the creationist belief in a 6,000 year old universe is more comprehendable. Secondly, when it comes to parts of the human anatomy, particularly the eye, our minds tend to think in terms of artifacts, hence a maker. Third, religion is a roadblock to the understanding of religion because religious fundamentalists offer a competing worldview and because they are well organized, they are actively engaged in a political process of subversion.
Druyan pointedly took issue with Dawkins methods (echoing Tyson in the Youtube link above) by saying that there is no reason to rub religious people the wrong way by telling them they are stupid. She said that "science has a better story to tell." Religious people, she said, have a part of themselves that is amenable to logic and that they can contain their internal inconstistencies. She brought up the landmark science program Cosmos, by her late husband Carl Sagan. Druyan attributed the appeal of Cosmos to the ability of Carl Sagan to bring people into the story by sharing his wonder of it rather than confronting the audience.
All of the panelists took issue with the late Stephen Jay Gould's argument that science and religion were "non overlapping magisteria." Stenger said that science does have something to tell us about the supernatural and religious claims, such as studying the efficacy of prayer. Dawkins agreed that he did not have any use for non overlapping magisteria and that a supernatural creator was something that science could study and test. In her comments following Dawkins, Druyan did a bit of fence mending with him by thanking him for "kicking open a rotten door."
Because the panel ran over its allotted time, there was time for only a couple of questions from the audience. The last question was from someone who raised the issue of the lack of representation of women in the sciences. Tyson addressed it, saying that as an African-American, his situation was comparable. He recounted how since he was a young boy he knew he wanted to become a scientist but that he encountered resistance throughout his childhood. Growing up as an African-American from the Bronx, he would be told that he would be better off going into athletics or something less challenging. I could sense the pain and anguish in Tyson's voice as he related his experiences and said with some sadness that while he had the inner drive or "fuel" to overcome these barriers, he wondered how many other children from his background had the same dreams as he did but who became discouraged and gave up.
At the end of the discussion, I went into the conference room because I wanted to meet Tyson and get him to autograph my copy of his latest book Death By Black Hole. Matthew LaClair, the New Jersey high school student who taped his history teacher proselytizing to his class was there. After a few minutes, without my having the chance to get the book signed, Tyson had to leave the panelists table because it had to be made ready for the next panel. I followed him and LaClair out to the lobby area where the two of them engaged in an animated discussion about LaClair's case and the teaching of science. I believe LaClair's presence there was being filmed as part of a documentary, as a cameraman was filming his conversation with Tyson. I was there too, though admittedly I was more of a hanger-on than an active participant in the conversation, though I did interject several comments that Tyson acknowledged and reacted to.
Tyson was visibly impressed with LaClair and thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. As their conversation concluded, LaClair got his copy of Tyson's book signed and then it was my turn. As he signed my book, I told Tyson that I was very glad that he had the inner drive to overcome the obstacles that had faced. He referred me to a chapter in his book The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist titled "Dark Matters", which I look forward to reading soon.
I am also happy to report that I was able to get Richard Dawkins to sign The Selfish Gene, which I plan to give to my co-worker Ray tomorrow. I caught him at an opportune moment, at least for me, though I have to admit that he seemed rather disinterested and made no attempt to engage me at all. I explained to him how I had lost Ray's copy that he had loaned to me and thought that it would be nice if I could replace it with a copy autographed by Dawkins himself. Dawkins cracked a bit of a smile, but when I asked him if he could signed the book "Dear Ray, please don't let Tom lose this book", he said no, that he was just going to write his name. I was a tad disappointed but understood. That being said, while Dawkins was clearly the headliner for the day's events, I felt that Tyson was not only the better communicator, but also that Tyson was a much more down to earth person who enjoyed speaking to anyone. If I had to choose which of them I would want to spend an evening with in a quiet pub, I would definitely want to hang out with Tyson.
I have another recommendation for the car. How about brakes that fail automatically once the car exceeds 65 miles per hour?
UPDATE: In response to a couple of comments from my readers, below is a demonstration of how an Islamic car might work:
And speaking of the Ford Pinto, this memo must have been the inspiration for the main character's job in Fight Club, in which he prepared cost estimate analysis for corporations to determine whether it would be cheaper to repair a defective part or to pay settlements to plaintiffs in the event of lawsuits over deaths and injuries resulting from the defective product.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
I am going to have to devote much more of my time at home to helping my son by reinforcing what he is being taught in school. The task is complicated by the fact that I am often alone during the evening with both my son and my daughter. Between feeding them, bathing them, and breaking up fights between them, it isn't always easy to set aside a significant block of time with my son so that I can give him the personalized attention that he needs. But given the circumstances, I will have to find a way. Consequently, for the time being, I will be cutting back on my blog time. Taking a more active role in my son's education must take priority.
That being the case, look for new posts this weekend as I share my observations of the Secular Society and Its Enemies conference in downtown Manhattan this coming Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
The Rivers of Belief
Age of Loneliness
Silence Must Be Heard
Saturday, November 03, 2007
The wait time at the registers can be greatly reduced when people bag their own groceries, so that by the time the clerk has scanned the last item, virtually all of the customer's groceries have been bagged and put in the shopping cart. Payment is transacted and then the next customer can be immediately rung up.