Sunday, September 30, 2012

What The Hell Is He Talking About?

The October/November 2012 issue of Free Inquiry magazine, which I read last week, contains an article by an R. Georges Delamontagne titled "Overgeneralization: The Achilles Heel of Apocalyptic Atheism?"

Unfortunately, while portions of the issue are accessible on the Free Inquiry website, Delamontagne's article is not one of them, so I can't provide a link to the article itself.

In summary, Delamontagne takes atheist luminaries such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris to task for making claims about religion that "are not substantiated by findings deriving from research applying appropriate social scientific methodology and, thus, are prone to serious errors, the most common and flagrant being that of overgeneralization."

Though I believe Delamontagne makes some valid criticisms in his article, in the penultimate paragraph he proceeds to drop this turd bomb:

"The direct, confrontational, no-holds-barred assault upon organized religion by contemporary atheists is misguided - a terrible waste of time, precious talent, intelligence, and energy that has little chance to help bring about the realization of a life for humankind guided by humanist ideals."

All I could think was "What no-holds-barred assault on organized religion is he talking about?"  To the best of my knowledge, no prominent atheist figure has beat up a priest or a rabbi, torched a church or a mosque or disrupted Bible study classes.  We're not forming human chains around houses of worship to keep people from attending religious services. 

Or does Delamontagne consider public criticism the equivalent of a "no-holds-barred assault" of religion?

Based on my recent observations, it is the actions of people who identify with one religion towards peoples of other religions that has reached the level of assault.  It isn't atheists who threaten to publicly burn the Quran like Pastor Terry Jones.  It wasn't atheists who attacked Christians and Ahmadiyas in Indonesia or Shia Muslims in Pakistan.  Atheists had nothing to do with the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in India.  I could go on an on (seriously, I could!) but I think I made my point.

Do some atheists overgeneralize or behave immaturely with regard to religion sometimes?  Sure, most of us have been guilty of it at times.  But does such rhetoric or behavior constitute an assault on organized religion?  I would reply with an emphatic no.  It seems to me that in criticizing atheists for overreaching sometimes, Delamontagne commits the same error himself.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Electric Eye

During my years as a teenager in the Eighties, one of my favorite metal albums was Screaming for Vengeance by Judas Priest. The album opens with an instrumental track called "The Hellion" that then segues into the song "Electric Eye," which is about an aerial surveillance device whose "lasers trace everything you do" and whose purpose is to "keep the country clean."

Earlier this year, I was at a fundraiser held at a bar where a Judas Priest tribute band played "Electric Eye." Listening to the lyrics, it suddenly occurred to me how prophetic the song turned out to be.

Surveillance drones such as the Predator first entered the public consciousness during the war in Afghanistan.  Their use rapidly expanded from just surveillance to actual combat capability, being armed with Hellfire missiles.

Drones have since become commonplace in what is commonly called "The War on Terror" here in the United States. In places such as the mountainous region along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, which were generally inaccessible to our soldiers, drones became both our eyes for tracking terrorist targets and our means of killing them.

Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was frequently flown over by drones in the months before Seal Team 6 dropped in to pay him a visit.  Drones were also instrumental in the tracking and killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Awlaki's death generated a bit of controversy, because he was an American citizen who was basically executed at the orders of the President of the United States.

Our heavy reliance on drones for striking at Taliban commanders in the mountains of Waziristan in Pakistan is also a sore point in our country's relationship with Pakistan, particularly when a drone strike results in the deaths of Pakistani civilians. 

The excerpt below from the website gives us an idea of what it is like to live in areas where our drones frequently operate:

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

One could make a good case that the frequency of drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen undermine the legitimacy of their governments, which are viewed by their citizens as stooges of the United States and at the very least tacitly complicit in the deaths of their own people at the hands of U.S. drone strikes.

While we Americans are used to looking at drones as something employed by our government abroad, there is also a growing concern that the potential use and abuse of drones by federal and local law enforcement authorities here at home.

The ACLU has a web page devoted to the issue of the use of drones in the United States here, including a link to the organization's report on domestic drones.

The ACLU advocates for putting in place rules "to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a 'surveillance society' in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government."

With the ubiqituous presence of cameras on our streets and buildings, I would argue that we are already living in a surveillance society.  Here in Nassau County where I live, there's hardly a major traffic intersection that does not have a red light camera.  Several years ago, I myself was a victim of one when I made a right turn on a red light at an intersection in Hicksville.  It was a Labor Day weekend and there was no cross traffic when I made the turn.  I had also mistakenly believed that the cameras only targeted cars that drove through an intersection when the light was red and that they did not target right turns.  Lesson learned.

In a sense, thanks to the prevalence of security cameras, drones, and even the huge numbers of mobile phones with photo and video capability that people carry around with them, we have become like God.  For millennia, many humans were told and believed that some deity watched ceaselessly over them and took note of everything they did.   You would be told that though you might be able to commit a crime without the knowledge of your fellow man, somebody up in the heavens would know and remember.  Now, we don't need to pay any mind to the unblinking eye of an invisible divinity when human technology has reached a level where we can now watch each other.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Little Cayman - July 21 - July 28, 2012 - Life Beneath the Surface

As with last year's Bahamas trip, I brought my Sealife 1200 underwater camera to take some pictures of the marine life and my fellow divers.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to take as many pictures as I had wanted to because I neglected to recharge the battery after one day's use.  The next morning, when I was getting myself ready, I saw to my dismay that the batter was low, so I managed to charge it for a few minutes before I had to leave.  The camera had enough juice for just a few pictures before it conked out again.

Still, I managed to get some decent underwater shots, the best of which follow below. 

First up, my favorite dive site of the trip, Jackson's Reef, which we visited on Thursday, July 26.  What I really liked about it was that it featured a large open white sand bottom surrounded by large coral formations with lots of cuts, nooks and crannies that I like to explore and swim through.

I like the way this one turned out, with fellow diver Bruce parallel in the photo with the barracuda. I have to confess that this was entirely accidental on my part, as Bruce just happened to be in the right spot when I pressed the button.

I spotted this lobster early on in the dive crawling in a narrow crevice bathed in shadow.  I attempted several shots, but due to the fact that I did not have strobes, the lobster was barely visible.  A few minutes later, I went looking for it again and found it out in the open.  The photo above is one of three I took of it from different angles.

Talk about a close encounter.  I was swimming above the coral when I found a narrow groove beneath me.  Being rather thin, I decided to descend into the opening.  When my fins touched down on the surface, I turned to my left and what do I see staring right into my face but this grouper you see above, with his mouth agape.  I fumbled for my camera as fast as I could and snapped this shot because I was worried he might swim away.  He was probably just as surprised by the encounter as I was.

On Friday the 27th, we revisited the Mixing Bowl, which we first dived the previous Sunday the 22nd.  I didn't take a lot of photos, but I was able to get a few interesting ones.

First was this sequence of shots I got of a Hawksbill turtle that I spotted after we had finished swimming along the reef wall.   I saw the turtle swim down towards this coral formation and stick its head deep inside as if it were trying to get something to eat.

I turned around and swam back to get a better view of it.  The turtle had by then changed position, with its body turned so that it was facing to the right of the direction it is facing in the picture above.  I managed to get right along side of it.

At that point, the turtle became aware of my presence and clearly didn't want to be in the presence of a large human being. 

And away it goes!

It took a lot of patience and failed attempts before I finally bagged this Yellowheaded Jawfish.  They're these cute little fish that dig holes in the ground, and when they feel threatened, they descend tail first into the hole.  Usually if you stay still and wait a few minutes, they'll come back out of the hole.

But the dive still had a surprise left in store for us.

A bunch of us spotted this Southern Stingray hiding himself undernearth the sand, with just his eyes sticking out.   I got myself into position and snapped this photo and then a split second later, the stingray shot up and darted away from us. 

I was able to get this photo of it as it was swimming away from us.

Besides the marine life, I also took a few pictures of some of my fellow divers under the water.

What should have been a good shot of David, Jeff's son, turned out poorly because on my first dive of the trip with the camera, I accidentally selected the option that you would use if the camera had strobes attached, so all of my shots on that dive were not properly lit.  David's turned out somewhat better than the others because he was closer to the surface than the other divers I photographed.

Susie, Larry's wife.  She was the one who organized the trip for us.  Even though Larry sold his dive shop, he and Susie still do dive trips with a bunch of us who were students or customers of his.

Like me, Tara became a regular starting with the Belize trip in 2009.  While she was a beginner like me back then, she has since gone on more trips and racked up more dives than I have. 

Here we have Ira, who I also first met on the Belize trip.

At the beginning of the dive at Mixing Bowl on the 27th, I spotted Larry above upside down blowing bubble rings out of his mouth while I was swimming some distance from the reef wall.  I got in a bit closer and hurried this shot because I didn't know how long he would keep doing it.  Had I been above him, the bubble rings would have been more visible.

I look forward to our next dive trip, which as I might have mentioned in a previous post, will likely also be in Litle Cayman, where I hope to improve my underwater photography skills.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Feeding the Hate Monster

This past Wednesday morning, I was walking up 7th Avenue to work from Penn Station.  When I was at Times Square, I glanced at a news ticker on one of the buildings and saw a headline that read that the U.S. ambassador to Libya had been killed.  I found myself doing a double take. 

When I got to the office, I went onto a news web site and read that the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other embassy personnel were killed in an attack by militants on the embassy in Benghazi. 

I had read about the crowd that had scaled the embassy walls at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt the day before in protest of a film supposedly being made in the United States insulting the prophet Muhammed, but what happened in Libya took it to a whole new level.

Now, in the wake of the Libyan attack, further riots have taken place in Muslim countries throughout the Middle East.

When I read about the attack on the Libyan embassy on Wednesday morning, I have to admit I felt an incandescent rage.  Here was a clear cut example of people committing murder in the name of religion.  It filled me with a desire to see Muslim people get hurt in retaliation.  "Why not fire missiles from Predator drones at crowds of crazy religious fanatics as they protest outside of our Middle East embassies?  It would teach them a lesson."

As an atheist, I can't understand how people can get so violent over religion.  I suspect that less than 1% of the Muslims rioting over the movie has even seen the trailer.  All they likely know is that someone in America made such a blasphemous film, which means in their eyes that all Americans are responsible for it.  Evidently, they don't understand the concept of free expression that we have in this country, a right that applies to American Muslims as well.  If they had not rioted and gone crazy, I doubt I would have ever heard of this movie, which by all accounts is a cheap and shoddy piece of crap.

After my anger had abated somewhat and I got to thinking about it some more, I recalled an episode from the original Star Trek series titled Day Of The Dove.  In the episode, the crew of the Enterprise find themselves locked in perpetual combat with a band of Klingons on the ship, unknowingly goaded on in their hostilities by an entity that draws strength and nourishment from hatred and violence.  Below is a clip from the episode where Captain Kirk tried to convince the leader of the Klingons that they are all being manipulated to fight each other by the alien entity.


Eventually, the Enterprise crew and the Klingons drive the entity off the ship with laughter.  If only life were that simple, but hey, it's a television show.

The lesson that can be drawn from the episode though is that there are forces at work in our world constantly trying to manipulate us.  Of course, I'm not talking about aliens, demons or supernatural forces.  Such things are not necessary, when simple human malevolence will do.  There are groups of people in the Muslim world who want to harness hatred towards the United States, Israel, "the West," or just non-Muslims in general, so they seek to push the emotional buttons of their fellow brethren to urge them to violence.  Likewise, there are groups of people who seek to manipulate us to hate all Muslims and support violence against them.  Thus, we find ourselves all locked into a cycle of animosity and death. 

Hatred is a monster that requires constant feeding.  Some people are happy to feed the Hate Monster willingly, while the rest of us feed it without realizing it.  Tragically, knowing that the Hate Monster is real is not enough to stop most of us from feeding it.  It is difficult to resist the temptation to think that if we just punish the "bad guys" hard enough, they'll cower in fear and no longer be able or willing to try and hurt us anymore.  But even if by chance it works, there will always be some other group of people who will fill the role of the enemy who must be fought, guaranteeing the Hate Monster with an endless supply of food. 

I don't claim to have the solution to all of this.  All I can do is diagnose the sickness.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Little Cayman - July 21-28, 2012 - The Pool's Open

Diving from a land based resort had its differences from the liveaboard experience I was used to, though I couldn't say if the way it was done at Little Cayman Beach Resort is representative of all land resorts.

Early on the first morning, they take the gear bag you left outside the front door of your room and place it on the boat to which you have been assigned.  Our group was put on a boat called Holiday Diver II.  For most of the week, our crew members would be Clive, who grew up in Zimbabwe, and Aly, from British Columbia in Canada.  On our first day of diving, Sunday the 22nd, Clive had the day off and his replacement was another guy named Craig.

When you get on the boat, your bcd and regulator are already set up, with the rest of the gear stowed away underneath the seats.  When I first got on the boat, I couldn't find my where my stuff was at first.  And then to my horror, just when we were getting ready to shove off, I realized I had forgotten to put my dive skin in the gear bag, so I notified the crew and made a mad dash back to my room to get it.  While I had did my diving in the Bahamas last year wearing mostly a shirt and shorts, the main deck of the boat where our gear was stowed was uncovered and I wanted to make sure my pale skin was not exposed to the hot sun, so I wore the new full body skin I had bought.

The day's first dive established the routine that would follow for the week.  The boat would head out and turn west past the western tip of the island, then turn north and then east until we entered Bloody Bay Marine Park, off the north central part of the island.  All of our dives would be at one of the sites within the confines of the park.  We would do two dives in the morning, head back to the resort for lunch, and then go back out again for one dive in the afternoon.  On the two liveaboards I was on, most days there would be up to five scheduled dives.  The resort's dive shop did offer a night dive and a dusk dive during the week for an extra fee, but they were contingent on enough people signing up for them.

Once the boat would be moored at the dive site, one of the two crew members would give a dive briefing on a small white board.   Upon the conclusion of the briefing, one of them would invariably announce, "The pool's open."  When you were ready to go into the water, you would walk to the back of boat and start putting on your fins.  One of the crew members would bring over your bcd, regulator and tank and help you put it on.  Then you would get up and go in.

That first morning, I was a little edgy, as I had experienced problems on my first dives on both the Belize and Bahamas trip.  The site we were diving at was called Sarah's Set.  Like all of the first dives of each day, it would involve going down to the reef wall where we were permitted to descend as deep as 110 feet.

Thing did get off to a bumpy start, though thankfully not for me.  David, Josh's son, was the first to giant stride into the water, and as soon as he was in, his regulator started free flowing.  Then another diver in our group, Dick, had problems with his bcd.  But once everything got sorted out, we were finally on our way. 

I don't really remember anything remarkable about the first dive, though it was great to be back in the water again.  Everything went rather smoothly for me, and when I got back on the boat, I was relieved that my first dive jinx had come to an end. 

We also adopted a new member into our group.  The first evening we were at the resort, during dinner, my wife and I noticed a young Asian female by herself, who I could have sworn was only a teenager.  She ended up being assigned to our boat, and on the way to our first dive, Ira and I struck up a conversation with her.  Her name was Jill, and it turned out she was actually from the Philippines (seeing her from a distance, I had thought she was Korean) and was now living in Canada.  She had noticed my wife the previous night and noticed she was Filipino as well. Jill was also much older than my initial impression, being a few days shy of turning 33.  She would be diving with us for a couple of more days before leaving to spend the rest of the week at Grand Cayman.  She had a low key but friendly and ingratiating personality to her and before she left for Grand Cayman, she had expressed an interest in joining us on our next diving trip in 2013.