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!

Favorite Headline of the Day

Click here.

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!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

How About Those Gasoline Prices? The Ike Effect

Like I suppose the rest of you who drive have been doing, I have been drawing some modest satisfaction from the recent dip in gasoline prices. While the lowest price in my neighborhood was 3.70 per gallon, still a dime higher than when I first blogged about the rise in gasoline prices back in April, it was still a welcome relief from the 4.30 plus per gallon I was shelling out during the better part of the last three or four months.

Imagine my shock then when I was riding my bicycle to my mom's this evening and I saw the price of regular unleaded at the Exxon at the corner of South Oyster Bay Road and Old Country Road had shot up to 4.10 a gallon, after having been as low as 3.70 just a couple of days ago.

"WTF?" I thought to myself. What was really weird about it though is that the Hess station right across the street from the Exxon station was charging 3.74 for a gallon of regular unleaded, the same as the BP station up the road at the corner of South Oyster Bay Road and Woodbury Road. I can't imagine that there were many people who opted to fill up their tanks at the Exxon station.

I surmised that the price increase might be due to the Hurricane Ike, which recently hit the Texas coast, along with the after effects of Hurricane Gustav. Sure enough, I found confirmation from this article in Newsday, which reported that:

Some big refineries along the Gulf Coast had been shut for nearly two weeks following Hurricane Gustav.

Power outages caused by Ike threatened to keep millions of gallons of gasoline output idled for at least several days.

I feel bad for motorists who have to drive long distances to go to work or tend to ill family members and such. After getting a little bit of relief in their wallets, it would be a shame to see the recent trend in declining gasoline prices come to an end. If it is a temporary spike, I hope to be able to ride it out, as I drove a lot less this past week and still have over three quarters of a tank in my car. The price spike might also serve as a dash of cold water in the faces of those who started getting complacent in their fuel conservation efforts in the wake of the recent price decline.

Day of the Muslim Women

Last Tuesday, as I mentioned here, was the first day of school and my daughter's first day of kindergarten. Because it was my daughter's first day of kindergarten, I wanted to be there at the bus stop to see her go on the bus.

My wife and son were already with her at the bus stop, which was in front of a neighbor's house that was about eight houses or so down the block from us. I was still wearing the same clothes I slept in, a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, when I started walking on the sidewalk towards bus stop, where my wife and kids were gathered along with several other moms and their kids. And one of those moms was a Jordanian woman whose family rents the upstairs of a house about halfway between our house and the bus stop. I spotted her easily because she wears a scarf wrapped tightly around her head so that only her face can be seen, and baggy clothing.

Normally, it would not be a problem, but it just so happened that the t-shirt I was wearing from the night before was the one I mentioned in my post here, which features a drawing of two Muslim women garbed in a niqab, along with the caption "THANK YOU FOR NOT PROVOKING MY UNCONTROLLABLE LUST." I stopped in my tracks and pondered for a moment, wondering what I should do. I thought to myself, "Do I go on dressed as is and let her see me as I am, or do I go back in the house and change my shirt?"

After a few seconds, I decided to go back in the house and put on another shirt. Yeah, I know, I'm a chicken shit. But it occurred to me, it was her child's first day of school too, and it would probably have been in poor taste for me to have spoiled the moment for her just so I could make a personal statement against her religion (CORRECTION: in retrospect, I should have written "personal statements against a particular aspect of fundamentalist Islam that I find abhorrent, namely that women should be forced or brainwashed into dressing a certain way). She is my neighbor after all, and I certainly don't want to go out of my way to generate any ill will against her. Don't get me wrong, if she happens to see me wearing that particular t-shirt on a given day, say if I'm doing work in the front yard or chasing after one of my kids riding their bike down the block, then tough shit for her. But I felt that particular moment, with her standing there with her children and in front of some of the other moms, was the wrong time for it.

But that was not to be my last Muslim woman moment of the day. Later that morning while I was riding on the train to Penn Station, I noticed a young woman sitting across the aisle from me, a row ahead, but with the seat facing towards the back of the train (my seat facing forward). I briefly made eye contact with her. She had big brown eyes and a rather average face. Then I started reading a book I had recently bought, The Canon by Natalie Angier.

A short while later, I looked up, mentally digesting what I had read, when I noticed again the woman sitting in the aisle across from me. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be muttering. "What the fuck is wrong with her?" I thought to myself. I wondered for a moment if she was in some kind of distress. She raised her hands to her face and rubbed them over her face as if she was washing herself, and then she placed her hands back on her lap and held them palm side up and slightly cupped. She kept moving her lips, mouthing words silently, and then about a minute later she repeated the movement with her hands to her face. I realized then that she must be a Muslim woman saying her morning prayers. Otherwise, there was nothing obviously Muslim about her, as she could have passed for a woman from just about any Mediterranean country.

I went back to my reading, but raised an eye towards her here and there. At one point, when the train stopped at one of the stations along the way, she had to momentarily stop her prayers because an incoming passenger wanted to sit in the unoccupied seat next to her. Finally, about the time we reached Jamaica station, she stopped praying and took a book out of her purse. I, being the curious guy that I am, looked at the cover of the book. To my surprise, it was a book about self esteem by Nathaniel Branden, a noted author of a number of books on self esteem and a former lover and acolyte of Ayn Rand. For those interested, his website is here.

I was a bit baffled by this Muslim woman's choice of reading. Branden, to my knowledge, is an atheist with a Jewish background. One would hardly expect any of his works to be at the top of a Muslim's required reading list. And the smart ass in me couldn't help but ask in rhetorical silence, "What's the matter, doesn't Allah provide you with all the self esteem you need?" Then again, like many religious people, she is probably engaging in an act of mental compartmentalization. On further reflection, I suppose I should be glad that she at least does look for some inspiration for herself outside of the realm of Islamic religious doctrine.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

I Think My Wife Is Starting to Get It

This morning, my wife was sitting on the couch in the living room area when she mentioned to me that our next door neighbor Tricia told her that she was sending her son to catechism class on Saturdays, our neighbors being Catholics. My wife said that maybe we should enroll our kids in catechism class as well.

I groaned audibly, as I had thus far managed to dodge the issue. As I discussed in previous posts, I was once Catholic and my wife, who emigrated here from the Philippines, was also raised Catholic. However, she has not attended Mass at the nearby church for years and does not manifest any demonstrations of religious devotion. She does not wear a crucifix nor do we have any religious displays in our house. In stark contrast, when we visited the house of one of her Filipina friends a couple of years ago, this lady had crucifixes and Virgin Marys in practically every room in the house, as well as a miniature shrine in the corner of the upstairs hallway.

As lucky as I am in this regard, I grudgingly accepted that I had to go through with having our children baptized. Besides, my kids were just infants at the time. It's not like they were being indoctrinated into anything. But I resolved that I would not put my children through religious education and have to go through with communion and confirmation.

But back to the conversation, I told my wife that my dad made me go to catechism on Saturdays when I was a kid and I hated it. I said that children should not be indoctrinated into a religion. Rather, they should be given the opportunity to make a choice when they become adults.

For a moment, I feared that the discussion would degenerate into an argument. But then things took an interesting turn. My wife paused a moment in thought, and then she said, "When I was a child, my mom went to church every morning and then she died in an accident when she was only 37 years old. What good did it do her?"

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at her insight. I followed up her remarks by pointing out to her how many religiously devoted Catholics there are in the Philippines who pray and go to church every day and yet look what bad shape the country is in. My wife voiced her agreement with this.

As an aside, my wife's step mom is very religious. When we stayed at their home when we visited the Philippines in 2004, she went to mass at 6 a.m. every morning at the church that was located conveniently next door to them!

I also mentioned to my wife that one of the problems that the Philippines suffers from is overpopulation, because the Catholic Church, which is very influential there, staunchly opposes all forms of artificial contraception. Stardust has a post up about this here.

The Guardian has a good article here about the consequences of overpopulation in the Philippines, focusing on a Filipino rice farmer named Marlon Tayabon, along with a companion video that is worth watching. Below are some excerpts from the article.

Just after dawn, Marlon Tayaban makes his way down the terraced paddies in Banaue, in the northern Philippines where the rice farmer has his home and fields.

The farmer is on his weekly trip to the market, where he has to buy more food than he sells because his ability to produce children has far outpaced the capacity of his land to feed them.

Thirteen years ago, when Tayaban started tilling the paddies, he had two fields and two mouths to feed. Today he has no more land, but six children. The producer has had to become a consumer. That was not a problem when grain was cheap. But in the past year, global prices have tripled.

Longer term, the challenge is to grow enough rice for an expanding population. The Catholic Church - a powerful force in the Philippines - is predicting rice instability for at least three more years. A solution will depend on improved technology, new hybrid strains, more efficient irrigation and measures to tackle the demographic drivers of demand. (Underlined for emphasis)

That part of the solution will only come about when the Filipino people are ready to throw away the mental chains that shackle them to the Catholic Church in the Philippines and reject the notion that an institution made up of celibate men and women should have a stranglehold on matters of sexual reproduction.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Fatwa

A number of news outlets have picked up on the story of "Saudi Arabia's top judiciary official [who] has issued a religious decree saying it is permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV networks that broadcast immoral content." I think that is a bit harsh, though maybe the geniuses who inflicted all of those Pauly Shore movies on us deserve some form of retributive violence.

According to the 79-year-old sheikh cited in the story, "satellite channels cause the 'deviance of thousands of people.'"

"Al-Lihedan is chief of the kingdom's highest tribunal, the Supreme Judiciary Council. Saudi Arabia's judiciary is made up of Islamic clerics whose decrees, or fatwas, on everyday issues are widely respected. Their fatwas do not have the weight of law. In the courts, cleric-judges rule according to Islamic law, but interpretations can vary."

The article also notes that Al-Lihedan had previously issued a decree declaring that it was permissible for Saudis to fight against American military forces in Iraq. While I was against the decision to invade Iraq, I hope that any Saudis who took up the sheikh's advice found themselves on the fast track to Allah.

Personally, I am getting sick of these sheikhs and imams saying it is permissible to kill this person or that person because they don't like what that person said or wrote. If Allah is pissed off about it, then let Allah strike the person dead with a bolt of lightning or something. Of course, we all know that's not going to happen because there is no Allah.

Anyway, I think it is time to teach these people a lesson. I mean, I'm a tolerant, peace loving guy, but that does not obligate me to extend tolerance to the intolerant. Therefore, I hereby announce my first fatwa and declare that it is permissible to kill Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan and any other cleric who issues a fatwa declaring that it is permissible to kill someone simply because they don't like what that person is saying or doing.

Of course, I don't expect anyone to carry out my fatwa. It's just a matter of reciprocity. Besides, given the sheikh's age, one can hope that he will kick off before long.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Premature Friday Funnies - Family Guy Edition

In this first clip, baby Stewie discovers unintelligent design.

And proving that nothing is sacred and exempt from satire, here is the song "Prom Night Dumpster Baby."

I Rode The Subway With Randall Flagg Today

Well, I'm pretty sure it was him I saw today, actor Jamey Sheridan that is. When I got on the subway at Rockefeller Center this afternoon to go to Penn Station, he was standing near me talking with another man that I did not recognize. Sheridan was dressed in plain clothes and wearing a Yankees baseball cap. Of course, he looks much older now than he did when he played the diabolical Randall Flagg in the tv miniseries adaptation of Steven King's The Stand, with his short hair now completely white. Sheridan is also familiar to fans of the television series Law & Order: Criminal Intent for his role as Captain Deakins for a couple of seasons.

I was probably the only person in the subway car, apart from the guy Sheridan was riding with, who recognized him.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

I Know Who I'm Not Voting For in November

After watching the video below, by way of Pharyngula, all I can say is that John McCain has threw away any chance of getting my vote two months from now.

What were you thinking Senator McCain? Or were you thinking at all? Sarah Palin might make a decent Sunday school teacher, but she does not belong a heartbeat away from the presidency of the United States. Or perhaps this is some kind of ploy to stick it to the Evangelicals by picking someone so awful that there will be an outcry for her to step aside and you can say "See, I tried one of your kind and it just wasn't going to happen." Then you will have the green light to choose Joseph Lieberman or Mitt Romney. Romney at least has shown that he knows how to run things. Then again, maybe I am giving you too much credit.

And another thing, how can any believer say they are "saved" since they are not dead yet? Whether you are 10, 20, 30, or 40, you still have your whole life ahead of you. Anything can happen. Murder. Theft. Rape. Sex addiction. Unless you die in a state of belief, you can fall at any time. Like Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over until it's over."

And Sarah Palin, the vampire visitor to Alaska in the clip below is right about at least one thing:

First Day of School

My little princess ready for her first day of kindergarten.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Oh The Irony

By way of John Amato at Crooks and Liars comes this clip from the movie The Bells of St. Mary's, in which the students of the school recite the Pledge of Allegiance. As the movie was filmed in 1945, you might notice something missing from the Pledge.

The irony in it for me is that The Bells of St. Mary's is the kind of movie that cultural conservatives complain isn't made by Hollywood anymore because it depicts religious figures and religious faith in a positive light.

It wouldn't surprise me if a future dvd edition of the movie was edited to slip the "under God" part into this scene.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Pet Peeve of the Day - September 1, 2008

It's been a while since I really felt the need to complain about something. Well, the time has finally come again.

Since yesterday evening, there has been an awful stench in my bedroom. My wife and I searched all around the room and found nothing that could plausibly be the source of the odor. My wife is convinced there is a dead mouse somewhere (we have had problems with mice off and on over the last six years). I checked to make sure there were no dead mice between the basement ceiling squares and the floor with a negative result.

I put down scented powder and vacuumed the bedroom carpet. For a short time it seemed to make a difference, but the smell returned. I have to admit I am at a loss here. Maybe a dead mouse will turn up in one of my wife's shoes or something. You can be sure I will be sleeping with the window cracked wide open and the fan on oscillate mode tonight!

Backyard Visitor

I took this picture of the cotton tailed rabbit I spotted in our backyard this past weekend. Having lived in my current house for the last eight years, it seems to me that these rabbits have been becoming more numerous in the last couple of years. They're cute and basically harmless.

Long Island's Volunteers for Wildlife has a fact sheet about cotton tailed rabbits here.