Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Legend of Hatuey: A Taino Pagan With Cojones

I am currently reading Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan by Hugh Thomas.

One brief story from the book that caught my interest was the capture of the Taino cacique (chief) Hatuey by the Spaniards on the island of Cuba. Having led a band of Tainos against the Spanish invaders, Hatuey faced execution.

According to the legend, before he was executed, Hatuey was told that if he converted to Christianity, all of his sins would be forgiven and he would go to heaven. Hatuey asked, if he accepted the religion of the Spaniards, would he encounter Spaniards in heaven? When told that he would, Hatuey allegedly spurned the offer and said that he would rather burn in hell then spend an eternity in heaven with the Spaniards. Having rejected their offer, the Spaniards proceeded to have Hatuey burned at the stake, as depicted in the picture above.

As horrible as Hatuey's fate was, if the story is true, one cannot help but admire his bravery. If it was me in his place, I probably would have opted for faking a conversion to Christianity in order to meet a quicker and less painful death.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Really Dumb Anti-Abortion Argument

Abortion is one of the biggest hot button issues in the United States and has been for many years. I personally come down on the pro-choice side of the debate, though my intention here is not to initiate a debate about abortion itself, but rather to address a particular argument I have seen put out by some in the anti-choice crowd.

The gist of this particular argument was expressed not too long ago in the Letters to the Editor section of the December 10, 2008 issue of The New York Times by one Elinor Hite of Carrolton, Texas:

"A nation that runs out of people cannot perform the activities of a sophisticated society.

We have a shortage of primary care doctors. There are other skilled-worker shortages. You cannot kill the future population of a nation and then wonder why that nation does not have the people it needs to do the jobs it requires to function.

Our nation needs to face up to the 48 million lives lost through abortion since 1973. I think at least some of that number would have become the skilled people we need now and will need even more as our population ages."

In a nutshell (with the emphasis on "nut"), Mrs. Hite is treating pregnancy as a form of national service, in which women dutifully crank out babies to provide the country with a future labor force.

But the implications of her assertions aside, Mrs. Hite is just plain wrong on the facts. First, let's look at the big picture. In 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, the population of the United States was over 203,302,000. The population of the United States today, some 35 years after Roe v. Wade, according to the United States Census Bureau, is nearly 306,000,000. So while Hite is decrying some 48 million people who were never born, the population of the United States has increased by nearly 100 million since Roe!

Hite also portrays the 48 million number as a zero-sum game. In other words, she assumes that if all the women who have had abortions were instead forced to carry their pregnancies to term that we would then have had a net gain of 48 million people plus their descendants. But that is not necessarily the case. It is safe to assume that a significant percentage of women who have had abortions in the last 35 years have went on to have children later on in their lives. However, if these women were prevented from terminating their pregnancies earlier in their lives, they might have ended up having fewer children in the future. That means that some of the people alive today would not be alive if abortion were not legal. (Emphasis mine)

Regarding the shortage of primary care physicians that Hite decries, it can take seven to eight years to earn a medical degree. When you consider that Hite's phantom children who were aborted within a year of Roe would have only graduated high school in about 1992, the small fraction of them who would have gone on and earned a medical degree would have only entered the medical profession within the last 8 years. But that still does not address the problem of the shortage of primary care physicians.

The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that "[p]rimary care specialties have lost their appeal to U.S. medical school graduates, and specific primary care specialties are seeing young physicians look to more lucrative sub-specialization." According to Gail Baldwin, M.D., medical director of the Lake Superior Community Health Center in Duluth, Minn., public and private payment rates for primary care services lag behind those paid for services provided by many other specialties, discouraging physicians from pursuing a career in family medicine. So, the problem is not a shortage of doctors so much as a lack of incentive for medical school graduates to go into primary care practice.

Furthermore, Hite does not seem to realize that if her scenario of an extra 48 million children being born became reality, it would have exacerbated the labor shortage she bewails. These extra children, ironically, would have required an increase in the number of pediatric physicians, not to mention the building of more schools, and the hiring of more teachers and support staff. Where would they have come from?

Well, it just so happens that a good chunk of our labor force within the last two decades has come from abroad. From the report Rise, Peak and Decline: Trends in U.S. Immigration 1992-2004, the Pew Hispanic Center notes that "the foreign-born population grew from 9.6 million in 1970 to 19.8 million in 1990. In the last decade of the 20th century the numbers jumped dramatically by 57% to 31.1 million in Census 2000." From 2001 through 2007, according to the 2007 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, annual levels of immigration have for the most part exceeded one million. So immigration alone has virtually cancelled out Hite's missing 48 million, not even counting the American born descendants of post-1973 immigrants. Furthermore, unlike those missing 48 million, most immigrants have had the costs of their education borne from their countries of origin rather than by the American tax payer. My own wife is an example of this. She was able to immigrate to the United States in 1990 owing to a temporary nursing visa program, which enabled her to immediately participate in our labor force and contribute to our tax base. Of course, my opinion in this regard is highly biased, but it is clear that my wife and other immigrants like her represent a net gain for the United States.

One can of course object to abortion on moral grounds, and it is not my intention to get into that topic with this particular post, but I submit that Hite's argument, which is that we have a labor shortage in this country because of the selfishness of women who have had abortions, is either ignorant or dishonest.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Open Thread: Caption This Edition

The first atheist to retrieve the cross wins a date with Salma Hayek.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Philippines and the Curse of Catholicism

By way of Al Jazeera, of all places, comes this report, with accompanying video below, about the influence of conservative Catholicism in preventing poor families from access to birth control in the Philippines. This one is sure to set your blood to boiling.

The chief villain in this report is Lito Atienza, the current environmental minister and former mayor of Manila who "issued an order eight years ago that effectively banned city-funded health centres from providing modern contraceptives such as condoms, birth control pills and sterilisation."

"The central government has been more intent on promoting natural methods of family planning then modern contraceptives, for which services are left largely to the whim of local councils."

It baffles me, this Catholic insistence on "natural" methods of family planning, like the "rhythm method." If these whackaloons like Lito Atienza are against artificial methods of birth control, like condoms and pills, then why not extend such consideration to all aspects of their lives? Maybe they should refrain from riding in cars or airplanes. After all, automobiles and airplanes are not a "natural" way of getting around. Try walking instead. And you might want to get rid of those telephones and cell phones too. Those are artificial means of communicating with people. Oh, and don't even get me started on e-mail and text messages! But seriously, why should matters of contraception and sexuality be the only realm where human invention may not be applied?

In defense of the high rate of population growth in the Philippines, Atienza cites the booming economies of China and India. Is this clown seriously suggesting that the Philippines needs a billion people to become an economic success story? And to think he is the country's minister for the environment! Evidently, Atienza has never heard of China's "One Child Policy" or of India's efforts to control its population growth (though I wish to point out that I personally do not condone the coercive aspects of China and India's population control programs.)

Then there is this amusing nugget from Atienza:

"So it's not within the powers of man to prevent the birth of a child simply because of material reasons. Who knows – the life you are preventing could be the saviour of not only the Philippines, but the whole of mankind."

This is stupid on so many levels. By simply abstaining from sex, one is preventing the birth of a child.

Besides, the last so-called savior of mankind was supposedly conceived when the creator of the universe impregnated a virgin Jewish teenage girl in the Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. If some Filipina woman is designated by God to be the happy recipient of the next savior, is Atienza seriously suggesting that a birth control pill can thwart the will of this all-powerful deity?

Muslims for Sanity

Those of us here in the atheist blogosphere, like my friend the Spanish Inquisitor, often find the Islamic world to be a veritable gold mine of stories that make us sigh and roll our eyes, such as the recent fatwas in Malaysia against yoga classes and women dressing like "tomboys".

But as batshit crazy as these edicts seem to us, it is easy for us to forget that it is the many moderate Muslims who are the ones who actually have to live under these religious rulings. I recently read a humorous take on the impact these fatwas have on Muslim women in Indonesia by a Julia Suryakusuma in the English language Indonesian daily The Jakarta Post. Below are some excerpts, but I recommend reading the entire column, which you can read here.

Yesterday morning I woke up early as usual and got ready for my early morning meditational yoga. It's something I've been doing since 1981, clearing my mind and reinvigorating myself for the day ahead. It's like getting your cell phone recharged, as simple as that. But then I remembered reading that the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) is thinking of issuing a fatwa declaring yoga haram (forbidden), inspired by the Malaysian National Fatwa Council which has declared yoga haram because it "goes against the teachings of Islam".

So, okay, I thought, I'd best skip my meditation. I donned shorts, T-shirt and sneakers and stepped out of the house for my morning walk instead. Then I remembered I was wearing a bra. Another fatwa, yikes!

The growing conservatism among hardline Muslims in Malaysia, Indonesia and other parts of the world suggests some Muslim leaders want to halt modernity, even turn it back. And if they can't make the world get in line with their regressive fantasies, then they want to destroy it. They share this with their more extreme terrorist brothers (and a few suicidal sisters), as we have seen again and again in recent years, most recently in Mumbai.

It starts with a few ridiculous fatwas. Do we want it to end in more mindless, tragic massacres? Surely it is past time for all Indonesians who believe Islam can be a religion of the modern world to start saying no to this nonsense while it is still a laughing matter.

And while I have an entire series of posts bashing Islamic fundamentalism (with an emphasis on mental) in Malaysia, that southeast Asian country is not without its own voices of sanity. One such organization, which I believe I have mentioned in a previous post, is Sisters in Islam.

Sisters in Islam "is a group of Muslim women committed to promoting the rights of women within the framework of Islam." They have, among other things, publicly condemned the fatwas banning yoga and "tomboys," and they can reliably be counted on to speak out against the forces of misogyny and intolerance in Malaysia.

As we say here in America, "You go, girls!"

Sunday, December 07, 2008

UPDATED: How About Those Gasoline Prices? - The Dream Has Almost Come True!

Since my last post on this topic on November 2, the price of gasoline has continued to drop. If you recall, in the dream I had this past August, the price of regular unleaded had fallen to $1.75. At the time, and until quite recently, I thought there was absolutely no chance of my dream coming true.

Well, I am happy to report that as of yesterday morning, the price of regular unleaded gasoline at the BP station at the corner of Woodbury Road and South Oyster Bay Road has dropped to 1.99 per gallon. The price need only drop another 24 cents per gallon for the dream to be realized. We shall see.

UPDATE: As of December 12, the price of regular unleaded has fallen to $1.89 per gallon. Just 14 more cents to go for the dream to come true!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Sanitizing A Tale of Genocide for Children

As you all know, we're in the middle of another holiday shopping season.

Last week, when I was shopping for gifts for my children in a local toy store, I saw on one of the shelves a Noah's Ark toy set. I had seen them before, not only for sale in toy stores and toy catalogs, but in businesses that would have toys set aside to offer a diversion for children while their parents were trying on clothes or something.

Since young children tend to be interested in animals, I suppose it is only natural that a toy boat filled with little animals would be popular with them. But I have to admit that I feel a measure of, shall we say, discomfort at the thought of marketing Noah's Ark toys to children. As I expressed in the title for this post, what is happening here is that a story about an angry god committing mass murder is turned into a harmless children's toy featuring a boat, cute animals, and a kindly looking old man. That just strikes me as fundamentally dishonest.

The Ultimate Absurdity of Islam

In case you don't know, the annual pilgrimate, or hajj, to Mecca is currently underway. And according to this article from Al Jazeera, it looks like Saudi Arabia is going to experience a record turnout.

"More than 100,000 security guards have been deployed to cope with the three million people expected in the city of Mecca, when the Islamic pilgrimage gets under way on Saturday."

The article notes that "It is a religious duty for every able-bodied Muslim with the necessary financial resources to make the pilgrimage at least once during their lifetime to cleanse their sins."

Reading this article reminded me of a thought I have had a number of times before. The annual hajj is a logistical nightmare as it is already. Millions attend annually, and it is not uncommon for people to die in stampedes, in some cases in the hundreds, and once well over a thousand.

As with any other proselytizing religion, it is no secret that the followers of Islam want the entire world to convert to their religion. As it currently stands,
there are somewhere between one to one and a half billion Muslims in a world with an estimated global population of 6.7 billion people.

Even more sobering,
world population in 2050 is expected to reach a peak of approximately 9.2 billion.

If by some bizarre miracle (or rather, nightmare) every person on the planet became a convert to Islam within the next 50 years, it would literally be impossible for every able-bodied Muslim to make the pilgrimage, which is one of the five pillars of the faith. To reiterate, expand the number of Muslims beyond a certain point and there will be no way of accommodating all of them in order to fulfill one of the most important requirements of their faith. It would be interesting to hear what the Muslim faithful have to say in response to this potential conundrum.

Then again, as I pointed out in
this post two years ago, Mecca during the hajj could become a disease incubator that sets off a pandemic in the Muslim world. The Economist article I linked to noted that "one in three pilgrims suffers respiratory symptoms during the pilgrimage, and overcrowding (in tents accomodating up to 100 people) provides ideal conditions for illness to spread. The risk to families of pilgrims was highlighted by a study in Malaysia, published in 2002: among people sharing a house with a returning pilgrim, about 8% were carrying traces of the bacteria associated with meningitis."

And therein lies the ultimate absurdity of Islam: carrying out one of its most important requirements is quite literally dangerous to Muslims.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Is Bill Clinton Out of His Mind?

Former President Bill Clinton visited Malaysia recently. According to The Star Online, "Clinton has expressed admiration for Malaysians, saying that their ability to respect other people’s faiths should be emulated by all."

Apparently, Exercise in Futility is not on Clinton's reading list. If he had, he would have learned about the "respect" shown by Malaysian Muslim authorities towards Lina Joy and Revathi Massosai.

Or how does Clinton feel about the recent fatwa against "tomboys"?

While the "Tomboy" fatwa is not legally binding, it should not be surprising if self annointed gangs of brainwashed Muslim Malay youth start assaulting Malay women who are deemed to be in violation of the fatwa. Because that is what public pronouncements like that do, they contribute to a climate of intolerance and oppression that encourages and empowers fanatics.

Bill Clinton had a chance to speak out against this kind of religiously sanctioned bigotry and passed.

Nobody Expects the Byzantine Empire

Who knew there was still nostalgia for the Byzantine Empire?

I came across the video below last night while searching for a clip from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

The profile of the person who put up this video, who goes by the name of Orthodox Dog, reads thusly:

I'm: Serb and Russian, Ultra Orthodox Christian, Slavic nationalist, White patriot, not fucking nazi!!!

Orthodox Dog evidently looks forward to a revived Byzantine Empire via a union of the Orthodox Christian countries of Russia, Greece and Serbia that will recover Istanbul, if the end of the video is any indication.

A number of commenters to the video also write of their lament for the fall of Constantinople as if May 29, 1453 was only yesterday. One of them bitterly decries the Hungarian engineer who designed the cannon used by the Ottomans to batter Constantinople's walls, asserting that if the "traitor" Hungarian had not done so, then the Turks never would have taken the city.

These people really need to chill out. Like all empires, the Eastern Romans, or Byzantines as they are more popularly known, had their time and then faded away. The Byzantines were living on borrowed time for the last five decades or so of their existence, and would have fallen fifty years earlier if the Ottomans did not have to end their siege of Constantinople to deal with Tamerlane. The Byzantines owe their decline and fall as much to their own internal disputes as they do to the sack of 1204 by Latin Crusaders sidelined from their journey to retake Jerusalem or to a Hungarian cannoneer offering his skills to the highest bidder.

But I couldn't help but overlook one really delicious piece of irony. Does Orthodox Dog realize that his beloved Serbs themselves, particularly during the reign of their mid-14th century ruler Stefan Dušan, played an important role in the decline of the Byzantine Empire and the ability of the Ottoman Turks to get a foothold in Europe? A few choice excerpts from the Wikipedia article linked to above:

In the first years of his reign, Dušan started to fight against the Byzantine Empire (1334), and warfare continued with interruptions of various duration until his death in 1355.

Dušan exploited the civil war in the Byzantine Empire between regent Anna of Savoy for the minor Emperor John V Palaiologos and his father's general John Kantakouzenos.

There has been speculation that Dušan's ultimate goal was no less than to conquer Constantinople and replace the declining Byzantine Empire with a united Orthodox Greco-Serbian Empire under his control.

Faced with Dušan's aggression, the Byzantines sought allies in the Turks whom they brought into Europe for the first time.

Yeah, what this world really needs is the revival of a Greek Orthodox theocratic empire. Heck, let's restore the Carthaginian Empire too while we're at it!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Shame of Long Island

From Newsday comes this sad story:

Jdimytai Damour of Jamaica, Queens, was pushed to the ground by the 2,000-plus crowd just before 5 a.m. as management was preparing to open the store, which is located across from the main Green Acres Mall building. Hundreds stepped over, around and on the 34-year-old worker as they rushed into the store.

"Nobody was trying to help him," said shopper Nakea Augustine, who was in the line. "They were rushing in the store, rushing, rushing, rushing."

Was this just a case of the "madness of crowds", or was something else at work here?

Social critic Morris Berman, in his book Dark Ages America, devotes a few pages to the lack of community in the United States. After providing several examples from personal experience, Berman writes, "It is not merely that these vignettes reflect how callous much of American life is; what is so striking is that this behavior is largely unconscious, not perceived as callous by those engaging in it."

Several paragraphs later, Berman describes "an incident that occurred here in early 2003, in which a man was shot at a gas station and those present had no reaction. The store videotape shows these witnesses not fearful, but completely indifferent, as the body lay bleeding on the pavement. One man actually drove up, inserted the gas pump into the tank, briefly looked over at the body, finished pumping the gas, paid for the purchase, and drove off."

Berman mentions the last episode of Seinfeld, wherein Jerry and the gang are arrested for violating a Good Samaritan law. Berman quotes Jerry's lawyer telling him, "You don't have to help anybody! That's what this country is all about!"

To be fair, I don't believe this is just an American pathology. After all, death by stampede is a frequent occurrence in Mecca during the annual hajj, examples here and here. But it is sickening nonetheless that a man should die needlessly from being trampled by a crowd of people who were so intent on buying stuff because it was on sale.

I am reminded of a line from the movie Aliens, wherein Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley responds to the callous denials of the greedy villain Carter Burke by comparing him to the alien creatures that are besieging them.

"You know Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage."

Star Wars - Episode 26: Attack of the Memes

I've been double-tagged with the latest meme by Brian and Tina.

Okay, here are the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you. Did it.

2. Post the rules on your blog. Done.

3. Write six random, arbitrary things about yourself. See below.

4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them. Don't feel like it.

5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog. See previous comments.

6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. Oh, alright!

Okay, here we go with six random and arbitrary things about myself.

I. I once wanted to be a Social Studies teacher, but a semester of student teaching quickly disabused me of that notion. Now, I am a trademark paralegal.

II. Whenever I shop at the supermarket, I almost always choose to go on line for the register that has the cutest looking register clerk. My favorites at the Shoprite on Woodbury Road: Jocelyn, Maria, Jennifer, and Arianna. The exception is if I am in a terrible hurry, whereupon I choose the register that has the shortest line or no line at all, regardless of who is manning the register.

III. I order the Iced Mocha Espresso with soy milk at my local Cosi so often that the regular staff there just ask me "Do you want your usual?"

IV. While I don't believe in the existence of a supreme being, astrology, tarot cars, and extraterrestrial visitations to Earth, I have this unrational belief sometimes that I cannot be seriously harmed. To be specific, it does not mean that I can drink a jug of Clorox or jump out of an airplane with no parachute and not die. It's just that sometimes it seems like I have this luck about me that makes things turn out alright for me in the end.

V. I am deaf in my right ear and have apparently been that way since shortly after child birth. My mom told me that when I was still an infant, I came down with a bad fever. When I was in kindergarten, I thought that hearing in only one ear was normal, sort of like being left handed or right handed.

VI. I absolutely hate Star Wars I, II, and III, and VI.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Updated - The Shield - Final Episode Tonight

Shane Vendrell realizes he left his sunglasses in Mackey's car.

I meant to do a serious post this evening (yeah, I know I've been terrible lately, but I've been busy!), but one of my favorite tv shows, The Shield, is finally coming to an end tonight.


It turns out that Terry Crowley's murder at the end of the first episode of Season 1 is faked. Vic Mackey gets all charges against him dropped and he retires to the Caribbean with a full pension. Dutch Wagenbach finally admits his love for Claudette Wyms and they start to get hot and heavy on the desk in her office, until Dutch shoots his load too early.

But seriously, I don't know what is going to happen tonight (updates at the bottom). With regard to Vic Mackey, there are three possible scenarios:

1. He dies, either by murder, gun fight with Shane (who also dies) or by suicide.

2. He lives but goes to prison.

3. He lives and avoids jail time, but he loses everything, his family, his friends, and any chance of ever making an honest living.

Oh wait, I shouldn't rule out another possibility:

4. Mackey gets away with everything, gets another law enforcement job, and gets back together with Corinne.

Yeah, I know it's not likely, but Mackey always seems to find a way to come out on top, so I have to keep my options open! Anyway, I will find out what happens to Mackey and the rest of the characters of the show in an hour and forty minutes.

Gratuitous picture of Paula Garces as Police Officer Tina Hanlon.

Well, as I noted in the comments, Vic's fate is mostly Option #3. He loses everyone in his life. His wife is in protective custody and his former friends are either dead or they despise him. He still has a job in law enforcement, albeit as a desk-bound clerk on a tight leash, which he has to endure for the next three years, or else he will be in violation of his immunity deal and will go to prison.

Like the end of the last episode of The Sopranos*, The Shield ends on a rather ambiguous note, with the answer to the question "Where is Vic going with that gun and what is he going to do?" being left up to the viewer's imagination.

* As an aside, I never really watched The Sopranos, but having looked at the final scene, I tend to agree with the possibility that Tony was whacked, and that the sudden fade to black means that he was killed right at that moment.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quick Thoughts on NOVA's The Bible's Buried Secrets

I just finished watching NOVA's program The Bible's Buried Secrets about 20 minutes ago.

All in all, I found it to be an interesting and balanced program that for the most part confirmed what I had already believed, that some of the events in the Bible described from the time of the kings are largely historical, whereas earlier events are either uncorroborated or legend. The website for the program is here.

I do have a few criticisms about what was not discussed in the program, though in part it might be due to the fact that only so much could be packed into two hours.

One glaring omission from the discussion of the development of the Old Testament is that there is no mention of the books of the prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, which are dated prior to the Babylonian Conquest. To what extent can it be determined that these books fully predate the Babylonian Conquest or if they were meant to be cautionary tales to impress upon the Jews that their kingdom was destroyed because the prophets were not heeded during the time they were said to have lived?

Since the program supports the scholarly consensus that the Israelis who were polytheistic prior to the Babylonian Captivity had become monotheistic Jews after their liberation by the Persians, I would like to have seen some attention given to the possible influence of Zoroastrianism on monotheistic Judaism. The website I linked to above has a link where you can send an e-mail with questions about the program, and I inquired about this. I will post a follow-up if I receive a response.

Near the end, when they talked about how the Torah achieved its final form during the Babylonian Captivity, there was mention about how the Jews would have found or drawn a parallel between their current situation and the exiles described in Egypt, including Abraham's sojourn there, and that Abraham had originally come from Mesopotamia. I was expecting them to mention what to me seemed so obvious, that the story of Abraham betrays its 6th century BC origin because Abraham is said to have come from the city of Ur of the Chaldees, and the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar is also referred to as the Chaldean Empire.

Al-Qaida Covers for Stealth Muslim Barack Obama Again

In al-Qaida's ongoing campaign of deception, Osama bin Laden's right hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri has put out a new tape in which he derides President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama as a "house slave."

This is obviously just a clever ruse by the Islamic terrorist organization to get the rest of the American public to rally around Obama, thus making it easier for him to impose sharia law on us when we least expect it. Don't be fooled people!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

God Punishes California For Banning Gay Marriage

Sorry, I just couldn't resist. Because you just know that if Proposition 8 had been defeated, the Holy Rollers would be saying that God was punishing California for permitting gay marriage.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Barack Hussein Obama Elected As First Muslim President of the United States

75 days to go until sharia law is imposed on the United States.

Seriously, can Bush and Cheney just step aside right now before they screw anything else up?

This Is What Real Anti-Christian Persecution Is

American Christians are constantly whining about how they are being persecuted for their faith here in the United States. And how are they being persecuted?

"The cashier clerk wished me 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas'."

"The legalization of gay marriage is an assault on my values!"

Well, that seems quite trivial to me when you look at what is happening to the Christian population in Iraq. From the BBC article:

"Ikhlas is one of an estimated 12,000 Iraqi Christians who fled the northern city of Mosul earlier this month following a wave of murders and threats targeting their community.

It was the most concerted campaign so far against the Christians, although they have had their share of fallout from the Iraqi upheavals that followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Since the 2003 invasion, Iraq's Christian population is believed to have fallen from around 800,000 to about 500,000, with many emigrating for good.

They come from some of the world's oldest Christian communities, including Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syrian Orthodox and others.

Some of their languages, both liturgical and everyday, go back to biblical times, including variations of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus Christ."

We currently have some 140,000 troops still in Iraq. Why aren't we helping to defend these people?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Open Thread: Did You Ever Have A Dream That Came True?

Writing my last post in which I reflected on a dream I had about the price of gas falling to 1.75 per gallon at some point in the future made me remember a dream I had which did sort of come true.

I don't recall exactly when I had this dream, but it was some time in the early 1990's when my oldest brother Bobby, his wife, and their first two kids were living in an upstairs apartment in East Meadow. In my dream, I was in my mom and dad's den at their house trying to get Bobby to watch the movie Mississippi Burning. For a bit of background, my brother is a bit of a racist who habitually refers to blacks and people of other races with vulgar epithets. In the dream, I wanted him to see Mississippi Burning because I was hoping it would affect him in some way and cure him of racism.

A week or so later, I dropped Bobby and his family off at their apartment. For some reason, I went up to their apartment for a few minutes, I don't recall why. But when I was in their living room, I noticed a video cassette sticking halfway out of the slot in the VCR. Out of curiosity, I walked over to the VCR to see what it was, expecting it to be some lame comedy or something. However, to my astonishment, when I pulled the cassette out of the slot, it was Mississippi Burning!

In addition to being an atheist, I also am a skeptic when it comes to things like psychic powers, astrology, tarot cards and so forth. But at the time, the incident above made me consider the possibility that we do have the capacity to foresee the future. I had another incident in which I was standing with a friend outside of Planet Hollywood in Manhattan a couple of years later. She and I were talking about what celebrity items they might have on display in the restaurant. As a joke, I remarked that they had the sneakers that Johnny Depp wore in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? The reason it was a joke was because to my recollection, there was nothing notable at all about the sneakers Johnny Depp wore in that movie and there was absolutely no reason to expect that they would be on display anywhere.

When my friend and I finally were admitted after waiting on line for a while, we looked around at some of the celebrity paraphernalia they had. Up ahead on the wall, I noticed a pair of sneakers encased in glass. I walked up to it to see what the caption read underneath the display, and to my complete surprise, it identified the pair of sneakers within as those worn by Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?

So, did I have a psychic vibe going on, or was it pure coincidence like the dream about my brother? I had one or two other instances where a thought that popped into my mind seemed to come true in some way. But the fact that they were so few leads me to believe that it was all sheer coincidence and that if I really did have some kind of psychic powers that I should be experiencing them on a more frequent basis. Still, when it happens, it does make one wonder about what is possible.

Did any of you ever have any similar experiences? If so, how do you explain it?

How About Those Gasoline Prices? - Will The Dream Come True?

Back on August 17, 2008, when the price of gasoline was starting to inch down a bit, I wrote this post, in which I described a dream that I had.

"In that dream, I went out of my house one day and noticed something that completely astounded me. If I recall correctly, in the dream I was walking with my wife up the road to nearby Woodbury Plaza, and in the distance I saw the price sign on display at the BP gasoline station. What caught my attention was the price that was advertised for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline. It read $1.75 per gallon."

As I wrote at the time, the chances of that happening were extremely far-fetched. A little over a month later, on September 28, 2008, I commented again on the decline in gasoline prices. I ventured the following:

"I am going to go out on a limb a bit and predict that we will continue to see a decline in the price of gasoline, absent some catastrophic event, in the next 3 or 4 weeks. American motorists are driving less, and the prospect of a prolonged downturn in the economy will also serve to depress demand. I believe it is possible that the price per gallon here in my part of Nassau County might even dip below $3.50 per gallon for a brief period."

Well, in the month that followed, prices have fallen even further than I would have dared to hope for. There are gas stations in my neighborhood that are now selling regular unleaded at 2.69 a gallon. The price for a gallon of regular unleaded need only drop another 94 cents in order for my aforementioned dream to come true. Still, I am doubtful the price will fall that far, though it would really blow my mind if it did.

One of the concerns I have, as I wrote before on this topic, is that as welcome as the drop in price is, it could also result in the public going back to its old carefree driving habits. People might even start buying Hummers again in the mistaken belief that things are "normal" again. That would be a big mistake, as a rise in fuel consumption will cause gasoline prices to rise above $4.00 per gallon once more. As I also wrote before, conservation efforts will slacken as colder temperatures descend on us. How many people want to ride their bicycles on a cold, windy day, or even worse, during a freezing rain?

I don't know how long gasoline will continue to fall or stay where it is, though I would venture a guess that by winter, regular unleaded will be back over $3.00 a gallon again. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, but not by going on joyrides!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

You Belong in Church on Sunday

A couple of weeks ago I did a post titled "The Game Comes First" commenting on an article in the Long Island Press about the conflict between church attendance and children's sports.

Well, the October 23, 2008 edition of the Press features a letter to the editor from a reader named Sandra Plate, who writes:

"I find it very disheartening every Sunday morning while on my way to church to see entire families out on the soccer field instead of worshipping the Lord. If only they knew what they were truly giving up. If your church observes on a Sunday, you should be there. The Bible specifically states that man is to congregate together for worship. It's a commitment to God. The sad truth is that people have gotten so far away from the Lord that they make sports the idol they worship."

Oh, the horror! Families together on a soccer field! And after soccer is over, they probably go to Friendly's for lunch and ice cream. Why we're on the verge of witnessing the complete moral collapse of society!

So, because Sandra Plate chooses to believe that she needs to go to church every Sunday, therefore it becomes incumbent on all of us to be right there in the pews with her. And note how she refers to sports as an "idol they worship." Utterly lost on her are the positive benefits that children can derive from participation in sports. Below are some excerpts from this web page.

Fortunately for parents, as research can attest, exercise and sports are rare institutions that offer tremendous social relationships, physical challenges, and honest competition. There is even evidence that sports can increase a child's self-esteem and academic performance while decreasing the likelihood of disease and drug use.

According to researchers at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, kids that play sports actually do better in school and have enhanced social skills. Sports also help prevent drug and alcohol abuse, and children that participate in sports are less likely to smart smoking and, if they do smoke, are more likely to quit.

The Women's Sports Foundation has also found that females participating in sports are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers and they suffer less depression. Furthermore, there is evidence that athletic activity can decrease the likelihood of developing breast cancer and osteoporosis.

The social benefits are almost too many to count. How can you possibly measure the value and satisfaction derived from working hard and mastering a skill? We've all done it, and the feeling is exhilarating, regardless of age. With sports and exercise, a child has the opportunity to experience this on almost a daily basis. On the same note, proficient skill acquisition allows children to value the accomplishments of their body and mind, making further challenges all the less daunting. These are attributes that simply can't be measured. Neither can developing a sense of community through sports, bonding with new friends and teammates, and improving relationships with adults. Sports also allow children to take on leadership roles, handle adversity, and improve their time management.

But for the Sandra Plates of America, it is more important for people to be cloistered in a building on Sunday mornings to pay homage to her invisible sky daddy. Sorry m'am, but some of us have better things to do with our time.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Birds of Long Island: The Bluejay

It's been a while since I did a Birds of Long Island post. I selected the bluejay because I have been seeing a lot of them in my neighborhood recently. It used to be I would have maybe at most a handful of sightings per year. But in the last few weeks it seems a whole pack of them has settled in the area and it is unusual not to see them now. Even when you don't see them, you know they are in the area with their loud "jay!" call.

My wife tells me that the bluejay is her favorite bird. It is very beautiful with its sharp blue plumage. It is also noticeably larger than other common birds in the area such as cardinals, robins and sparrows.

Losing Afghanistan

It seems like it was not so long ago that the war in Afghanistan was the "good" war and Iraq was a clusterfuck. Even as recently as 2006 Ann Coulter could claim with a straight face that things were going "swimmingly" in Afghanistan. But somehow, in a bizarre turn of events, Iraq is starting to look like a success story in comparison to Afghanistan.

In a depressing but eye opening article in Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Nir Rosen writes about the war in Afghanistan and his encounters with the Taliban. Below are some excepts, though I recommend you read the entire article.

Until recently, Ghazni, like much of central Afghanistan, was considered reasonably safe. But now the province, located 100 miles south of the capital, has fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture to Ghazni often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Farmers increasingly turn to the Taliban, not the American-backed authorities, for adjudication of land disputes.

By the time we reach the town of Salar, only 50 miles south of Kabul, we have already passed five tractor-trailers from military convoys that have been destroyed by the Taliban. The highway, newly rebuilt courtesy of $250 million, most of it from U.S. taxpayers, is pocked by immense craters, most of them caused by roadside bombs planted by Taliban fighters. As in Iraq, these improvised explosive devices are a key to the battle against the American invaders and their allies in the Afghan security forces, part of a haphazard but lethal campaign against coalition troops and the long, snaking convoys that provide logistical support.

The numbers tell the story. Attacks on coalition and Afghan forces are up 44 percent since last year, the highest level since the war began. By October, 135 American troops had been killed in Afghanistan this year — already surpassing the total of 117 fatalities for all of 2007. The Taliban are also intensifying their attacks on aid workers: In a particularly brazen assault in August, a group of Taliban fighters opened fire on the car of a U.S. aid group, the International Rescue Committee, killing three Western women and their Afghan driver on the main road to Kabul.

To return to Kabul from a feudal province like Ghazni is to experience a form of time travel. The city is thoroughly modern, for those who can afford it: five-star hotels, shiny new shopping malls and well-guarded restaurants where foreigners eat meals that cost as much as most Afghans make in a month, cooked with ingredients imported from abroad. If you can avoid falling into the sewage canals at every crosswalk, and evade the suicide bombers who occasionally rock the city, you can enjoy the safety of Afghanistan's version of the Green Zone.

But the barbarians are at the gate, and major attacks are getting closer and closer to the city each day. Upon my return to Kabul, I discover that the Taliban have fired rockets at the airport and at the NATO base; the United Nations has been on a four-day curfew; and President Karzai has canceled his public appearances. The city is being slowly but systematically severed from the rest of the country.

Officials on the ground in Afghanistan say it is foolhardy to believe that the Americans can prevail where the Russians failed. At the height of the occupation, the Soviets had 120,000 of their own troops in Afghanistan, buttressed by roughly 300,000 Afghan troops. The Americans and their allies, by contrast, have 65,000 troops on the ground, backed up by only 137,000 Afghan security forces — and they face a Taliban who enjoy the support of a well-funded and highly organized network of Islamic extremists. "The end for the Americans will be just like for the Russians," says a former commander who served in the Taliban government. "The Americans will never succeed in containing the conflict. There will be more bleeding. It's coming to the same situation as it did for the communist forces, who found themselves confined to the provincial capitals."

But if you don't want to take Nir Rosen's word for it, the U.S. State Department's travel advisory page for Afghanistan tells a similarly bleak story:

Kabul, in particular has seen a rise in militant attacks, including rocket attacks, vehicle borne IEDs, and suicide bombings. The number of attacks in the south and southwestern areas of the country continues to be high as a result of insurgent and drug-related activity, but no part of the country is immune from attacks. Over 100 attacks were reported in Kabul over the past year, although many additional attacks were thwarted by Afghan and coalition forces. An additional 4,400 attacks occurred nationwide during the same timeframe.

Foreigners throughout the country continue to be targeted for violent attacks and kidnappings, whether motivated by terrorism or criminal activity. In January, gunmen attacked the Serena Hotel and killed eight people, including an American contractor and a Norwegian journalist. In April, an assassination attempt against Afghan President Karzai showed the continued desire of the insurgency to destabilize the Afghan government. The July 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in downtown Kabul, near many western embassies and Afghan Government institutions, demonstrated the ability of the insurgents to undertake assaults within Kabul itself. Rocket fire and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) attacks have occurred with increasing frequency. In August, three female western non-governmental organization (NGO) employees, along with their male Afghan driver, were gunned down as they traveled south of Kabul. An American NGO worker and her driver were kidnapped in Kandahar in January. Other Americans were kidnapped in Afghanistan in February and August 2008.

In the wake of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, the rationale for invading Afghanistan was clear to the American people. Osama bin Laden and his organization had established themselves there and were sheltered by the Taliban regime. We could not continue to allow them to use the country as a place to train their adherents to launch future attacks against us.

For secular minded people such as myself, the war in Afghanistan had an added rationale. We were appalled at the theocratic intolerance of the Taliban, which included among other things, forcing women to wear burqas and denying them the right to go to school or to work, and the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan. This was a war not just against terrorism, but against a regime that to atheists was the very embodiment of the worst excesses of a state ruled by religious fundamentalists. Destroying the Taliban would strike a blow for secularism, pluralism and tolerance, whereas in Iraq, the overthrow of the brutal but secular Baathist regime created a vacuum exploited by Islamic fundamentalists.

Therefore, the deteriorating state of affairs in Afghanistan is doubly troubling to me. Not only have we failed to catch or kill Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, our failure in Afghanistan is providing renewed inspiration for the forces of militant Islamic fundamentalists. It is like the return of a cancer that was in remission and now threatens to metastasize even further.

Honestly, I don't know now if we can win in Afghanistan now. I generally tend to be an optimist, but my optimism is tempered by realism. If we can win in Afghanistan, then we must. I never supported the war in Iraq and look forward to the day we withdraw our forces from there. But I just cannot stomach the prospect of returning Afghanistan to the rule of a group of people inspired by Islamic zealotry. Civilization and enlightenment cannot be allowed to be in retreat.

Addendum: Of course, civilization and enlightenment needs to be advanced here in the United States as well.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead

Is it possible to hear from the Dead? That is question asked at the top of a three quarter page ad taken out by the Forever Family Foundation in the October 15, 2008 edition of the Shopper's Guide.

The advertisement is for a conference sponsored by the Forever Family Foundation that is being held in nearby Woodbury on November 8, 2008. The conference purports to be an "extraordinary opportunity to learn about and experience a world beyond this physical experience."

And what exactly does the Forever Family Foundation do? According to the organization's mission statement, its purpose is:
  • To establish the existence of the continuity of the family, even though a member has left the physical world
  • To stimulate thought among the curious, those questioning their relationship to the universe, and people who are looking for explanations of certain phenomena
  • To financially support the continued research into survival of consciousness and Afterlife Science
  • To provide a forum where individuals and families who have suffered the loss of a loved one can turn for support, information, and hope through state-of-the-art information and services provided by ongoing research into the survival of consciousness and Afterlife Science

And what is "Afterlife Science"? It is defined as "the study of phenomena associated with survival of consciousness after death; including near death experiences, after death communications, life after life (death), and reincarnation."

First up on the roster of speakers is Dr. Claude Swanson, a physicist and author of the book The Synchronized Universe. Below are some excerpts from the Introduction:

A closer examination of the world’s religions reveals that, beneath the conflict and cacophony of dogma, there are certain universal truths. It is these universal truths which make religion powerful and satisfying to people. They may have different names for these truths, but in each religion, there is prayer and meditation, and these are powerful and healing. In each religion, an afterlife of some form exists, and a soul which survives the death of the body is an article of belief. In every religion there is a belief in superior beings, invisible, but very wise, to whom one can communicate.

There is no place in modern science for a view such as this. Modern science does not allow for the possibility of the soul, or invisible beings, or have any laws of force which can account for the power of prayer. But what if modern science still has a few things to learn? What if present-day physics is leaving out a few important truths about the universe, as well?

Even more dramatic conflicts are seen in the areas of consciousness studies and paranormal effects. "Paranormal" is often viewed as a pejorative term, but it usefully categorizes a broad class of phenomena which defy the present scientific paradigm, and for which there is good scientific evidence.

One of these is "remote viewing". This is a process by which a person goes into a light trance and can describe distant objects or events. It has been demonstrated to be successful in a two-decade program conducted by the U.S. military. Despite public disclaimers that it did not work, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, as we will see in Chapter 1. How it works is a mystery which defies our present understanding of space and time, and of physical laws.

Part of the power of remote viewing is its ability to examine targets which are truly "remote" in space and time. One of the great anomalies of this new science is that time and distance do not seem to matter. The target can be ten feet away or ten thousand miles away. And even more surprising, a target event in the past or in the future can be examined just as easily and accurately as one in the present. The consciousness of the viewer seems able to "go" there with equal ease.

One of my first reactions to Dr. Swanson's claims that the U.S. military has had success in a two decade program with remote viewing was to ask rhetorically "Why haven't they found Osama bin Laden yet?" A surefire way to set off my personal bullshit detector is when someone says that the U.S. government or the U.S. military has these special powers or technologies (e.g., acquired from crashed alien spacecraft) that somehow never seem to translate into any beneficial real world applications.

Next up are Tom and Lisa Butler of The American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena. From their website:

Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) concerns unexpected voices found in recording media. It is a form of after death communication. ITC is a newer term that includes all of the ways these unexpected voices and images are collected through technology, including EVP. Of the many hypotheses designed to explain these phenomena, the Survival Hypothesis has been found to be most effective in answering the evidence.

The Survival Hypothesis holds that we are nonphysical entities who are able to exist in the physical aspect of reality because of our physical body, but that when our physical body dies, we as Self, change our point of view to nonphysical reality. In effect, we exist before and after our current lifetime. The working hypothesis supported by AA-EVP is that these messages are, indeed, nonphysical in origin and that the Survival Hypothesis is essentially correct. It is the goal of AA-EVP and its membership to find ways to improve the reception of these messages and to better understand their origin.

I must confess I have not really read much about EVP, though I understand that the Michael Keaton film "White Noise" is based on this alleged phenomenon. In fact, the ad for the conference mentions that Tom and Lisa Butler served as consultants for the film. Regarding the above-mentioned "Survival Hypothesis," I would have to ask that if we are in fact nonphysical entities, then why do we have physical bodies at all? Since human beings result from a male sperm cell joining with a female egg, from whence does this nonphysicality arise? Is it a product of the union of the sperm cell and the egg? Or, are there nonphysical beings out there waiting to swoop in and take residence whenever a newly formed zygote is created? And are people who are assholes in their physical bodies still assholes in the afterlife?***

Rounding out the morning portion of the conference is a "Research Medium" named Janet Mayer. On her website, she addresses the question how mediums can speak with the dead:

The truth is that each medium has their own unique way of receiving information. Although often they may be similar or seem the same you have to keep in mind each person is unique and so each reading will follow in its own personal pattern. As for me, I am blessed with a visual ability as my strongest connection, which is called Clairvoyance. It is like watching a silent movie or seeing lightning flash in the sky that leaves an imprint in my mind of a loved one's message. I also hear words that sound androgynous every once in a while, which is referred to as clairaudience. And lastly, sometimes I feel pressure that comes into my body or I just feel spirit around me, this is known as Clairsentience.

According to the ad for the conference, Ms. Mayer "will deliver a channeled message from the Yanomami." The Yanomami, for those who may not know, are a tribe that lives in the rainforests of South America. The tribe numbers approximately 32,000 people.

So, will Ms. Mayer be channeling a message from the entire tribe collectively, or one particular individual from the tribe? I mean, it's not like there is going to be a live webcam set up in a Yanomami village so the audience can see which member or members of the tribe she is supposedly channeling. Otherwise, it's not really much more credible than if I were to claim that I was receiving messages from an extraterrestrial living on a planet orbiting a star in the constellation of Orion.

After the morning's enlightening discussions there follows a "Gourmet Luncheon" wherein you can "call upon your deceased loved ones to join you for an afternoon of Spirit Communication conducted by nine Certified Mediums." (Italics mine)

If I had $200 to burn (the cost of the full day package for non-members of the Forever Family Foundation) and enough vacation days left for the remainder of the year (I'm saving them for the week of New Years, because my kids schools will be closed) I might actually consider attending this conference and posing my aforementioned questions to the speakers. Heck, maybe I could have even written an article for Skeptical Inquirer magazine about it. But alas, I will have to pass on this one. However, I would be interested to hear from any of you who might have challenged some of these people and what their responses were.

*** I would like to point out that these questions would be equally applicable to the claims of Christians, Muslims and members of other religions about the concept of the soul.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Batshit Crazy in the Middle East

A balanced twofer from the BBC tonight.

First off, from the Gaza Strip:

The black flag of Islamic Jihad was pinned on the wall behind her and two Kalashnikovs were carefully placed in camera shot. Her husband, an Islamic Jihad fighter himself, tied on her "martyr's" headband.

Umm Anas - not her real name - had just graduated from a programme to train female suicide bombers in Gaza.

When she spoke of becoming a suicide bomber, Umm Anas's voice was strong and steady: "This is a gift from God.

"We were created to become martyrs for God," she continued, her eyes burning behind the full face veil.

The use of Palestinian women as suicide bombers was once thought of as immodest - and therefore un-Islamic - but that changed, the militant groups say, because of shortage of male candidates and because women were better able to get close to their targets.

It seems rather paradoxical that Palestinians like Umm Anas are increasingly embracing religious fervor as their plight worsens. These people worship a god that they believe to be all powerful, and yet they have to resort to brainwashing teenage girls to become suicide bombers. If Allah is so powerful, why doesn't he just cause all of the Israeli Jews to spontaneously combust? Face it Palestinian people, Allah is a loser! Want to end your suffering? Embrace Buddhism and non-violence and all of your problems will go away.

For the sake of balance though, I turn to Acre, Israel, where "Jewish youths attacked [an Arab man] after he drove into a conservative area in the east of the town" during Yom Kippur.

Religious Jews fast and refrain from driving on Yom Kippur, regarded the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

An Israeli-Arab mob subsequently rampaged through the streets after the rumour spread that Mr Jamal had been killed.

In the days that followed, crowds of Jews and Israeli Arabs tried to attack each other, and each other's property. At least three Israeli-Arab homes were torched, police said.

I have to confess that I am getting sick and tired of this shit and the negative reverberations that it has worldwide. Sometimes I feel that Israel and the Palestinian territories should just be walled in for ten years. Let the Israelis and Palestinians have one long cage match until either one side or the other is wiped out, with the understanding that the rest of the world has to accept the winner.

Either that, or come to accept the obvious. The Palestinians will never get 100% of all of the land and the Israelis will never get 100% of the land. The only solution where everybody wins is to share 100% of it. And that's all I have to say about that.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Game Comes First: The Greatest Threat to Church Attendance in America

What is giving our churches and synagogues in America some real competition on the weekends? Childrens sports, according to this article from The Long Island Press.

Below are some excerpts, though I recommend you read the entire article.

A study concerning church attendance released by Southern California research company The Barna Group shows that across denominational lines, the percentage of families attending worship once each week has declined from 49 percent in 1991 to 43 percent in 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available.

"Our situation reflects the general trend [regarding the attendance decline]," says Ruth Dunn Widmann, pastor at the Bayport United Methodist Church in Bayport. "There are many reasons, and organized sports is a large one." Widmann makes it clear that she has nothing against sports, saying that they help to promote social connections and a healthy sense of competition. But she is eager to find a balance between the two.

But maybe LI parents are just as happy as their kids are to have a reason to skip services.

"Quite frankly, I'm a parent and I should put my foot down," says Cavallo. "But if there is a call between church and the game, the game comes first." The 44-year-old accountant is not alone in that school of thought. Many of the parents the Press spoke with at weekend games said that between homework, school clubs and sports, there's really no time for church.

"It seems that Mass is frequently losing out to sporting events," says Sean Dolan, spokesperson for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. "People have a priority and it is sports first, Mass second."

"[The Diocese] is not out of touch, we're not suggesting people stay home all day on Sunday, but there has to be a balance, and the Eucharist has to be a central part of Sunday," says Dolan, who adds that after Mass, families should bond, not just run off to a game or a practice.

Everyone from the pastor to the rabbi to the Diocese spokesman seems to agree that Saturday and Sunday mornings should be spent forging relationships with family, in worship. But many parents feel that soccer and football can be just as uplifting as religious services.

"People might look down on me for spending my Sundays on the field, but at least I'm spending time with my kids. You don't need to show up at church or temple to be a good person. It's how you live your life that matters," says Centereach mom Carol Sanchez.

Carol Sanchez is exactly right. You can sense the desperation in the religious figures quoted in the article. "The Eucharist has to be a central part of Sunday." "Saturday and Sunday mornings should be spent forging relationships with family, in worship." (Emphasis mine.) Because these people have deluded themselves into thinking that they have dedicated their lives to serving their sky daddy, they quite naturally need you to need them. Otherwise, their lives are quite wasted, aren't they? They are afraid of ending up like a troupe of actors getting all dressed up to perform a play on stage without an audience.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Christian Peoples Republic of China

There is an interesting article in this week's issue of The Economist about Christianity in China.

There are varying estimates as to how many Christians there are in a country of over one billion people. The Chinese government puts the number at 21 million, whereas unofficial estimates fall between 70 million to 130 million. While the Chinese government's figures are probably far too low, I also have a hard time believing that 1 out of every 10 people in the country is a Christian. It is not inconceivable though for Christians to eventually comprise 10% of the population at some date in the not too distant future.

Some excerpts from the article:

China’s new house churches have the zeal of converts: many members bring their families and co-workers. One Confucian Chinese says with a rueful smile that most of the pretty girls at university were Christians–and would date only other Christians.

Christianity also follows Chinese migration. Many Christians studied in America, converted there and brought their new faith home. Several of the congregation of the Shanghai house church studied abroad, as did Mr Zhao. In 2000, says one Beijing writer and convert, most believers were in the countryside. After 2000 they brought their faith into the cities, spreading Christianity among intellectuals.

All this amounts to something that Europeans, at least, may find surprising. In much of Christianity’s former heartland, religion is associated with tradition and ritual. In China, it is associated with modernity, business and science. “We are first-generation Christians and first-generation businessmen,” says one house-church pastor. In a widely debated article in 2006, Mr Zhao wrote that “the market economy discourages idleness. [But] it cannot discourage people from lying or causing harm. A strong faith discourages dishonesty and injury.” Christianity and the market economy, in his view, go hand in hand.

Is it possible that China will become a Christian nation? Perhaps, though I suspect that if China's long history is any guide, Christianity in China will be sinicized while China is simultaneously Christianized. A variety of self-proclaimed Christian cults might arise that would be just as bizarre to most American Christians as they would be to atheists, not unlike the messianic Hong Xiuquan, whose quest to spread his brand of Christianity led to the Taiping Rebellion and the death of millions of people in the mid-19th century.

I suspect that many atheists in the West would bristle at the thought of a Christian China, especially if its Christianity turned out to be of the Biblical literalist stripe. But does it necessarily have to be a bad thing? After all, the ideals of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries arose in Christian Europe. Or to put it another way, if you were a closet atheist living in Spain during the height of the Inquisition, could you even conceive of the possibility of a country like the United States ever coming into being? What if the spread of Christianity serves as a catalyst to improve China's human rights?

Of course, it is all just speculation for now, though I expect to find out the answers to my questions if I live another 30 or 40 years.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Sorry Senator McCain, But I Must Respectfully Refuse

A few days ago in the mail I received an "Emergency Telegram" from John McCain asking me, in rather hysterical language, for an urgent donation to his presidential campaign.

McCain's appeal warns that "if [Obama wins and] Democrats also retain control of Congress, they would control the entire federal government and would be unstoppable." Yeah, and like you Republicans did such a bang up job during the six years you were running the show. And how exactly would the Democrats be "unstoppable"? Let's pretend that Obama wins the election next month and the Democrats retain control of their majorities in the House and the Senate. There's nothing to stop the American people from voting out the Democrats in the 2010 elections. That's exactly what happened in 1994. And it's not like Bill Clinton got much done when he had a Democratic majority in Congress during his first two years in office. He couldn't even get his wife's health care plan approved.

Well, I'm sorry Senator McCain, but I cannot support your campaign, and my reasons can best be summed up in two words: Sarah Palin. That you would pick as your running mate someone who is woefully unqualified and unprepared to lead this country in the unfortunate event that you would be unable to complete your term of office if elected makes me seriously question your judgment and your commitment to putting the country first. Good luck in your campaign Senator McCain, but you shall have neither my financial support nor my vote on Election Day.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Sarah Palin Defeats Joe Biden in VP Debate

That's right folks!

Sarah Palin intentionally botched her debate with Katie Couric to make everyone underestimate her. But tonight, the Warrior Queen of Alaska will show her true self and make moose meat out of Joe Biden. I'm afraid to watch!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Snow On Mars!

Yep, you read that correctly!

From NASA:

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander has detected snow falling from Martian clouds. Spacecraft soil experiments also have provided evidence of past interaction between minerals and liquid water, processes that occur on Earth.

A laser instrument designed to gather knowledge of how the atmosphere and surface interact on Mars has detected snow from clouds about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) above the spacecraft's landing site. Data show the snow vaporizing before reaching the ground.

Sadly, the Phoenix mission will be coming to an end shortly. You can see from the short video at the link above that the sun barely rises above the horizon at the Phoenix landing site near the north pole of Mars.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Santhosh Paul Escapes From Prison - Exercise in Futility At Two Years

It seems like it was only a year ago that Exercise in Futility celebrated its one year anniversary, and the world hasn't been the same since!

A lot has happened since then. I finally got around to joining the Atheist Blogroll after being repeatedly badgered about it by the Bacon Eating Atheist Jew. I also joined Planet Atheism. I shot a couple of my own Youtube videos, one of me and one of my kids reciting the Pledge of Allegiance sans "under God."

My traffic has been rather consistent since the beginning of the year, and while Exercise in Futility has not changed the world, it has had some global impact.

Perhaps my most important post in terms of providing some kind of public service was my article about moldy globs that form at the bottom of ice tea bottles, titled The Jelly Fish in my Ice Tea Bottle. A number of people who encountered a similar situation found my blog while searching for an explanation on the Internet.

Exercise in Futility is also one of the top hits in Google for the search term "Malaysia Sucks," thus attracting a number of Malaysian readers to my series of posts titled and labeled Malaysia Sucks. It's nice to know that Exercise in Futility has a presence in Southeast Asia.

But nothing has caused more non-atheist readers to visit this blog than a couple of posts I did well over a year ago about Santhosh Paul, an Indian American man here on Long Island who went to prison for plotting to murder his wife. Amazingly, his wife insisted on his innocence even after being showed videotape of him speaking to the undercover police officer posing as a prospective hitman. This case must have caused quite a stir among Indians around the world, because according to my sitemeter, readers from around quite a number of countries visited my blog from searching for information about Santhosh Paul.

As an aside, the title of this post was inspired by an idea I had wherein I was going to write a fake news report in which Santhosh Paul escaped from prison with the help of his wife, only to have him murder her shortly afterwards. I ended up not doing it, mainly because my regular readers who come here for my posts on atheist and religious topics probably would have scratched their heads and not understood the joke.

So now Exercise in Futility enters its third year, with a presidential election around the corner and the awful prospect of Sarah Palin being a heartbeat from the presidency. Throw in an economy going down the toilet and the world going to hell in a hand basket and things are liable to get interesting. Happy Anniversary!

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Blessing of the Animals?

I was scanning the Community Events calendar of the October 1, 2008 edition of the North Shore Today this afternoon, and this event caught my eye:

Sunday, October 5

Blessing of the Animals. A Blessing of the Animals will take place at the Congregational Church of Huntington at 30 Washington Drive in Centerport at noon. Bring your pets on a leash or crated.

What the hell is the point of that? What do participating pet owners expect from this? Will their dogs live longer? Be less likely to piss on the daisies? Be friendlier to the mail man?

Talk about a ridiculous gimmick! The real absurdity is believing that whatever pastor is bestowing these blessings actually has some kind of connection to the creator of the universe and that his beseechments and intercessions will result in god bestowing something extra special on the animals being "blessed" that other animals will lack.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How About Those Gasoline Prices? Another Election Season Dip?

I'm sorry I haven't had anything new in over a week. Been busy. Today was a rather dreary day. Rain. Sun. Rain. Sun. More rain. At least the Yankees managed to beat the Red Sox (apologies to any of my readers who might be from the Boston area!).

The two year anniversary of this blog is coming up on September 30, so I will of course have to do the obligatory post on that.

But on to the topic at hand, which is gasoline prices. A couple of weeks ago, I noted a rise in the price of gasoline after having declined noticeably for the previous several weeks. The increase was attributed to the effects of hurricanes Ike and Gustav, which shuttered refining activity in the Gulf of Mexico. In that post, the most extreme rise in price was at an Exxon station down the road, which shot up 40 cents a gallon virtually overnight.

In the comments section of that post, I noted that a week or so later, the station suddenly changed from Exxon to Gulf, and the price also dropped. As of today, it is back where it was prior to the increase, at $3.70 per gallon. I stopped by there today and it only cost me $12 to fill the tank from three quarters to full.

The question now is, can the price at the pump get any lower? In 2006, there was a big dip in the price around October and early November. I recall that some conspiracy theorists claimed that it was done on purpose by the oil companies to help the Republicans maintain their control of Congress. Well, the Republicans lost their majorities in both the House and the Senate, so it didn't work, assuming the prices were artificially rigged. And sure enough, the prices did start to rise again shortly after Election Day. Then again, I also remember the price of gasoline noticeably dropped in the autumn of 2005, when there were no presidential or congressional elections going on, so it seems to me the fluctuation in price is more of a seasonal thing, though if that is the case, then last year bucked the trend.

Still, I am going to go out on a limb a bit and predict that we will continue to see a decline in the price of gasoline, absent some catastrophic event, in the next 3 or 4 weeks. American motorists are driving less, and the prospect of a prolonged downturn in the economy will also serve to depress demand. I believe it is possible that the price per gallon here in my part of Nassau County might even dip below $3.50 per gallon for a brief period. However, it won't last for a number of reasons. One reason, the approach of winter means that more of our petroleum supplies will be refined into home heating oil.

Furthermore, with the weather getting colder and the sun setting earlier, fuel conservation efforts will suffer. From my own perspective, it will harder to do errands by bicycle or walk to my local supermarket for food shopping on days that are cold and rainy. In such situations, driving is much more attractive.

If we have a very cold winter season, the price of home heating oil could go through the roof, and it will take a heavy toll on the budgets of many homeowners. Things could get ugly.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Center of Islamic Stupidity Part 2

Several months after I did this post mocking claims by some Muslims that Mecca was the center of the Earth, I finally got a response from an actual Muslim. His comments were incredibly long and long winded, amounting to a huge steaming turd. I won't reproduce it in its entirety here, you can click on the link above, but the gist of his argument is that plate tectonics proves that Mecca is the center of the Earth. The relevant comments are as follows in green text, as green of course is the color of Islam:

During her long time journey , the Arabian plate didn't cover along (sic) distance as it is the center of the circulation movement, it has moved within the shorter diameter. So it is clear that the Arabian plate is center of the earth plates ,and everywhere it goes , it is followed by the other plates going round it regularly , each plate keeps its constant direction towards the Arabian plate . It is well-established that Mecca where the Moslem Kabba lies is in the Arabian plate (figure -7)

Now , if we use the same approach applied on the Arabian plate , we can say that every thing on and in the earth directs its face to Mecca where the Moslem Kabba lies , this system will go on , according to God's will , to a certain time assigned by God , this accurate unwavering system can't be out of a chance ; it is a supernatural power that made it and is still keeping it going on – that is God , who rose the heavens with unseen pillars.

Also God says in the Holy Quran what means " So , now , since everything directs its face towards the Holy Mecca , and that the Holy Kabba is the center of Mecca , we can assuredly and scientifically say that Kabba is the center of the earth and that everything on or under it directs its face towards it in complete submissiveness and piety"

Well golly gee, let me go get my prayer mat right now and submit myself to Allah and beg for his mercy! How could I possible refute an argument like that?

Quite easily, actually.

You see, everything this Muslim commenter says about the Arabian Plate can also be said about the African Plate. Let's look at the visual evidence, shall we?

As you can see, this is a map showing the positions of the landmasses approximately 195 million years ago. Only a small portion of the Arabian Plate even sits above water, and that portion is attached to the north east part of the African Plate. As a matter of fact, for hundreds of millions of years, the Arabian Plate was part of the African Plate.

But here is what is really interesting. Three continents were also attached to Africa 195 million years ago, North America, South America, and Antarctica. And if you're really feeling generous, Australia was attached to Antartica, so it was part of a contiguous landmass that was attached to Africa. From a geological perspective, it looks to me that Africa was the "center" of the Earth.

But to be fair, let's look at a map of the world from a more recent period in our Earth's history.

14 million years ago, the Americas, Australia and Antarctica have broken off and have reached close to their present destinations. The Arabian Plate, which is just a minor plate, is only just breaking off from the African Plate after having been a free rider for most of its geologic existence. Notice how all of the other continents have taken up positions around Africa? Africa, unlike Arabia, also sits astride the equator. Africa is also the place from where the first humans emerged. So, as it seems clear to me that the Arabian Plate can't hold a candle to the African Plate.
So nice try there buddy, but I give you an epic fail.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Our Martian Junkyard

From NASA's web site, "The Phoenix Mars Lander's Surface Stereo Imager took this image of the spacecraft's crumpled heat shield (the snake-like looking thing center-left in the picture) on Sept. 16, 2008, the 111th Martian day of the mission."

Seeing this picture, it got me thinking, with all of the probes we sent to Mars that have either landed or crashed there, the Red Planet is amassing a growing collection of high tech American made garbage and all of the detritus associated with it. It's a good thing there are no Martians there, otherwise they probably would be really pissed off at us. Then again, maybe some ingenious Martians might like the chance to toy around with all of that free electronic gadgetry we've been sending them, courtesy of the American taxpayers!