Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On the side of the angels?

I have fond memories from the 15 years I spent in the United Church of Canada -- unlike the fundamentalist churches, no one really cared about doctrinal orthodoxy, they didn't dump big guilt trips on people, didn't have trivial scruples about things like alcohol or "approved" entertainment, and they actually tried to grapple honestly with the results of Biblical scholarship and modern science (that, and I loved being in the choir). It was a good place for a refugee from fundamentalism to have a community and think things through. In the end, of course, I thought myself all the way out the back door into atheism, but that's another matter.....

So, for nostalgiac reasons if nothing else, I'm pleased to hear two items about the UC of C that came to my attention this week.

Item #1: The denominational magazine The United Church Observer is helping sponsor the travelling Darwin exhibit that opened this month at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. From the official press release:
"We were dismayed to learn that the exhibit had been unable to secure corporate sponsorship in Toronto or in any of the other North American cities where it has been mounted," said Editor/Publisher David Wilson. "Our support is modest but symbolic. If a small church-based operation such as The Observer doesn't fear a backlash from those who oppose Darwin's theory of evolution, then secular corporate entities with much greater resources shouldn't fear it either."
Good on them, I say; and shame on all the chicken-$#!* big corporations that were afraid of bad PR. (BTW: the Humanist Association of Canada, of which we are members, is also a sponsor).

As to the Darwin exhibit itself: we saw it at the Field Museum in Chicago, and highly recomend it. We may even make the trip to TO to see it again, if say there were to be a get-together of like-minded folks, with beer....

Item #2: Some of the most liberal folks in the UC of C seem to be trying to do away with God:
There is no authoritative Big-Godism, as Rev. Gretta Vosper, West Hill's minister for the past 10 years, puts it. No petitionary prayers (“Dear God, step into the world and do good things about global warming and the poor”). No miracles-performing magic Jesus given birth by a virgin and coming back to life. No references to salvation, Christianity's teaching of the final victory over death through belief in Jesus's death as an atonement for sin and the omnipotent love of God. For that matter, no omnipotent God, or god.
In place of all that, Vosper wants to rework the traditional language and ritual into very human, down-to-earth values:
She wants salvation redefined to mean new life through removing the causes of suffering in the world. She wants the church to define resurrection as “starting over,” “new chances.” She wants an end to the image of God as an intervening all-powerful authority who must be appeased to avoid divine wrath; rather she would have congregations work together as communities to define God – or god – according to their own worked-out definitions of what is holy and sacred. She wants the eucharist – the symbolic eating and drinking of Jesus's body and blood to make the congregation part of Jesus's body – to be instead a symbolic experience of community love.
Of course, this does prompt me to wonder why they don't all just go off and join the Unitarians, whom it seems to me have been there for years. Or even more: it sounds a lot like secular humanism dressed up in traditional religious language.

Nonetheless, if they keep this up, I might have to rejoin the place in about 20 or so years ;-).

Expelled: The Canadian Connection

Over at Monkey Trials, Scott Hatfield reports on the background of the people behind the ExcretedExpelled movie. That they all turn out to be evangelicals is no big surprise -- scratch an IDist, and you'll find a Christian creationist nine times out of 10. What's a little more interesting to me is the Canadian angle. I already knew that geek gazillionaire Walt Ruloff, who bankrolled the film, lives in BC, but this is news:
Co-founder A. Logan Craft is identified as a minister and TV producer on the American board of the Canadian Center for Cultural Renewal.
I'm a little puzzled why a Canadian center would have an American board, but the Centre's website shows it as having two boards -- a Canadian one and an American one. The whole thing looks a bit like a branch-plant operation of the Seattle-based Center for Science and Culture.

Perusing the Endorsements page I had a little shock: I found the name of someone I was in a fellowship group with, about 15 years ago (no, I won't tell you who, except to say that she was one of the more conservative members of that group).

Friday, March 21, 2008

When life imitates farce.....

Someone, please tell me this isn't just an effect of the bottle of Merlot I consumed tonight while watching the second Terminator movie. It's just absurd enough to be a dream occurring while Under The Influence. Here's the situation:

It seems that the ID propaganda movie Expelled: No Itelligence Allowed was shown tonight at the Mall of America in Twin Cities, WI.

It further seems that PZ Myers, flame breathing atheist and evo-devo-ist extraordinaire, together with renowned Trophy Wife and Blogging Daughter decided to see it.

To put the icing on the cake, Richard Dawkins happens to be in the neighbourhood on his latest book (and general rabble rowsing) tour. Being acquainted, they all (ie. famille Myers+Dawkins) decide to go see the movie together. Note that:
  1. Both PZ and Dawkins were interviewed under false pretences by the oh-so-truthful-Christian makers of this flick.
  2. Advance screenings of Expelled have been careful to, um, screen the attendees. Like, we wouldn't want any bad reviews, would we?
So they get to the cinema. And the rent-a-cop controlling the queue pulls PZ out and tells him he is persona non grata. That's right: PZ was Expelled from the cinema.

WTF? Someone who is in the movie can't go see the movie?

However, PZ's Trophy Wife and Blogging Daughter are, apparently, not on the the no-fly list, and are allowed in. But it gets better: since the icing is already on the cake, this would be like, the sugar swirlies around the edge, the pink roses in the corners and the candles: they didn't tell the rent-a-cops to look out for Richard Dawkins. Richard "Screaming Atheist" Dawkins.

So he got in. Dawkins. Got. In.

The combined stench of hypocrisy and incompetence wafts clear across two-and-a-half states, two Great Lakes and a good chunk of southern Ontario all the way to here where I can smell it. And I toddle off to bed with a belly laugh at these people. As Larry Moran says: now you know why we call them IDiots.

Tomorrow, I will awake to discover it's all a wine-induced dream, right? I mean, things that crazy don't happen in reality....

Sunday, March 9, 2008

12 days to spring?

Here in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada), it started snowing on Friday, and by the time it had stopped, early this morning, we had 51 more cm of snow, on top of the metre or so already on the ground. 2007-2008 has been the first "serious" winter for at least 10 years, and, while it may not end up being the greatest total snowfall, it certainly is the most accumulation I have seen since I moved here in 1980.

Here is the view out my front door; in the centre of the picture is a white globe - that's the top of a 5' high post mounted light.

Here's Eamon, finally tall enough to touch the roof:

The cats are normally kept indoors, but we let them out for a bit to check out the snow:

Unfortunately, we didn't have any snowshoes in the right size.

The good news is that all the extra winter precipitation is expected to replenish the Great Lakes, which have been at record low levels for the past few years - this photo was taken on the shore of Lake Superior in September 2007.

The bad news is that I can just hear all the AGW denialists: "51 cm of snow in March? So much for global warming, eh?"

Happy 51 to PZ

In honour of PZ we have just had 51 cm of snow dumped on us. (Doubters and infidels will claim confirmation bias, but in combination with the fact that 51 in base 133 is 666, clearly this is numerological proof of the existence of God.)

Here he is, having dropped in on his cephaolopodmobile to grace us with his presence:

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Vermont: Creating Problems on the Cheap

The citizens of Brattleboro, VT, have passed a non-binding referendum proposition directing the Town Attorney to "....draft indictments against President Bush and Vice President Cheney for crimes against our Constitution...[and]...arrest and detain George Bush and Richard Cheney in Brattleboro....". Sounds good to me: and after Brattleboro is done with them, they can be impeached by Congress, and when that's settled, they can be shipped off to the Hague for a war crimes trial.Hey, I can dream, can't I?

Reaction from certain quarters is predictable:
But a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee denounced the article.

"It appears that the left-wing knows no bounds in their willingness to waste taxpayer dollars to make a futile counterproductive partisan political point," said Blair Latoff. "Town people would be much better served by elected officials who sought to solve problems rather than create them."

First, Brattleboro's "elected officials" haven't done anything yet, and likely never will -- the article is non-binding (and probably non-enforceable). But hypothetically supposing that the town council did act on it, let's do a little arithmetic:

Let's assume that it cost as much as $3000 for the town's lawyer to draw up the indictments.

That is one billionth the amount that certain other "elected officials" (the ones, as it happens, who are the targets of the hypothetical indictment) have spent, or otherwise cost the American taxpayer, to invade Iraq -- and "create a problem" that, one way or another, the whole world will be living with for decades. And that's not even counting several hundred thousand people dead.

But yeah: a few American citizens exercising their democratic right to place a question on the municipal ballot are troublemakers who are "wasting taxpayer dollars to make partisan points" and should just STFU.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Fall of Marsdust

This is very cool: the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter just happened to capture this photo of an avalanche in progress, on the Martian north polar icecap. What are the odds? The article at the MRO site is worth reading for the details, so I won't bother summarizing it here. If you have high-speed internet (or lots of patience), have a look at the high-res version.

To me, it brings home that Mars is a world, not just a red dot in the sky. And unlike the moon, it's a world where stuff happens -- landslides, weather, erosion -- and happens now, not just a billion years ago. By complete coincidence I just happen to be re-reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Red/Green/Blue Mars SF trilogy, which covers the first about 150 years of Martian colonization. It's a great story, with strong characters, strong social and political themes, with the planet itself -- its environment, its geology, its history -- being overwhelmingly present throughout.

I want to know: when are we sending humans there to explore the place? When are we sending humans there to live?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Skeptical Sort of Weekend

....and related themes like science and rationalism.

Zimmer Zinger

The fun actually started last Wednesday, when we got to see Carl Zimmer deliver Carleton U's annual Discovery Lecture. The talk was great, ranging over creationism, a crazy Aussie biologist who plays with some of the most venomous reptiles on earth, science tatoos, the new Encyclopedia of Life, and the joys of science journalism. The most memorable nugget was his account of the phylogeny of venomous reptiles and their diverse toxins, all acting in different ways. It turns out that the genes that make them are each coopted from some other gene that produces a product used elsewhere in the body; eg. cytotoxic venom from a digestive enzyme and things like that. To top it off: afterwards we got Carl to sign our newly-purchased copies of Soul Made Flesh and At the Water's Edge. The only sour note was when the faculty person introducing Zimmer made some remark implying that us over-30's aren't hip to Web 2.0 stuff like blogs. Hrumph.

It occurred to me that I missed my calling: being a science writer would be the perfect career for a dilletante like me. The only problem is that I don't think I'm a good enough writer to sustain a marketable level of prose for a few decades (or even a few hours). Well, maybe when I retire.....

Freaky Friday

Friday night was the HAO meeting, this month being held jointly with the Carleton Secular Alliance and the newly-formed University of Ottawa Skeptics. In celebration of Darwin Day, the theme was evolution vs. creationism. Gilles Messier lead off with a brief presentation on evolution, followed by three "creationists" -- actually Xander Miller, Chuck O'Dale and Your Humble Narrator presenting real creationist arguments. I think Xander's presentation was best, as he rattled off a string of Hovindisms like a genuine charlatan. My own spiel felt a bit disorganized -- I just find it damnably difficult to take a mass of irrational bullshit and compose it into a coherent, connected narrative.

After the presentations the audience had a chance to shoot us down, with prizes for the best and worst refutations. The "good" prizes were books about evolution, of course. The booby prize (awarded to a guy who -- tongue-in-cheek -- just called us idiots) was a Bible.

Perpetual Saturday

Saturday morning found six of us from the Ottawa Skeptics back at the U of O (where at least, I now know where to find parking) for a demonstration of Thane Hein's Perepiteia generator -- rumoured (though denied by its inventor) to be a Perpetual Motion Machine. Theo and I will be writing a longer report for the Skeptics site later, so for now I'll provide just a brief summary of my impressions:
  • We did witness the motor acceleration as claimed, together with a reduction in input power.
  • He denied that he was building a PMM -- but continued to insist that it violated energy conservation, apparently unaware that that is practically the definition of one type of PMM. He also talked a lot about "violating Lenz's Law", and "regenerative acceleration" (by analogy to regenerative braking used by electric vehicles), and how it "takes energy to stop a car" (no it doesn't: you have to make the kinetic energy possessed by the car go somewhere else).
  • Between the above and other pieces of the conversation, I take Thane to be sincere -- but very, very confused. He really doesn't seem to understand the terminology he tosses around.
  • My undergrad degree is in electrical engineering, but I took no more than the basic rotating machinery courses -- and that knowledge now has three decades of rust accumulation. Thus I really can't speculate what causes the effect he is seeing, without a bit of remedial study (OK: I can speculate -- but nothing I want to trot out in public just yet).
  • However, the attention this is apparently getting from serious academics suggests Thane may have stumbled on something interesting -- a method of increasing induction motor efficiency, or creating a novel speed-torque characteristic -- but I flatly don't believe he's doing anything that would re-write all of modern physics.
Sunday Skeptics

Today was the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Skeptics, held at our house. I only mention it to point out how much time we spent on this kind of activity (and with a bunch of the same people) this last week. Other than discussing Saturday's demo, the only occurrence of interest was that Lieutenant Kizhe bit our new member. Stupid cat.