Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review

Actually, this isn't, but that's what you're supposed to write on New Year's Eve, so stickler for tradition that I am....

I/we are obviously not the world's most prolix bloggers -- this post will be #37 for the year. I'm a dreadfully slow essayist, and have other hobbies. And it doesn't help when some of your output goes to another blog, in this case the Humanist Association of Ottawa (to which I really also ought to contribute more). Posts that went there and not here this year were:

They're So Cute When They Play "Science Museum": part 1, part 2, part 3; a series about our visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky back in August, in company of PZ Myers, Hemant Mehta, Ed Kagan and about 300 others. There is actually a Part 4, currently bogged down in the edit space.

A post-event followup to Blasphemy Day: Blasphemy: Free Speech or Obnoxiosity?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Newtonmass 2009

Today marks the 367th anniversary of the birth of Sir Isaac Newton, on 25 December 1642. Here is our traditional Newtonmass carol, with a new verse for 2009:

God rest ye merry, physicists
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Isaac Newton
was born on Christmas Day!
His gravity and calculus and "f" equals "m" "a"!
Oh, pillars of physics and math, physics and math,
Oh, pillars of physics and math!

A factor of big G - the same
for flea and giant star.
Then multiply the masses
and divide by square of "r".
The force that keeps us on the earth
and orbits moons afar!
Oh, pillars of physics and math, physics and math,
Oh, pillars of physics and math!

Now, calculus is math for those
who change things bit by bit.*
To figure out derivatives
and get the curve to fit.
Then integrate and you can find the area under it!
Oh, pillars of physics and math, physics and math,
Oh, pillars of physics and math!

*little bits, not computer data bits

[Yes, Newton was something of a religious nut, but nonetheless significantly advanced humankind's understanding of our universe.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

How We Are Celebrating the Season

My grown sons showed up last weekend, along with the partner of the older one and a college buddy of the younger one. So we spent a couple of evenings playing Dungeons & Dragons.

'Cuz hacking through a cavern full of kobolds with edged weapons is such a great, family-friendly activity, no?

And at a certain moment, a sacred rite was enacted. Dice were rolled. Tables were consulted. Libations were poured. Libations were quaffed. And poured again. And quaffed again. And where was I? Oh yes: Candles were lit. And one member of the party intoned an arcane incantation in the ancient holy language of her ancestors. And this was the scene:

So like, Happy (belated) Chanukah, eh?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

And then they go and spoil it....

It's that time of year again. I mean of course, the season when we wish each other good cheer and good ways which seem to be increasingly fraught with anxiety for some people. There's so many choices of occasion to observe: Christmas, Solstice, New Year, Chanukah, Kwanzaa...what to say?

Now personally, I don't much care what people wish me. Christmas as it has come down to us is a syncretistic mish-mash of ancient European pagan winter solstice rites, Christian legends about the Nativity and Saint Nicholas, heavy overlays of Victorian sentimentalism, hours of music of highly variable quality, and a good helping of modern commercial consumerism. If you want an excuse to party this time of year, there's plenty in there to pick from. Thus my agnostic family-of-origin celebrated a basic Western-cultural sort of Christmas with a tree, presents (whether they came from Santa or Mom and Dad was often somewhat ambiguous), carols on the stereo, and a big dinner with friends. I have happy memories of all that, and tried to give my kids some of the same.

So: "Merry Christmas" works for me, both personally and with respect to my ancestral culture. "Happy Chanukah" picks up my wife's ancestry, so that's good too. But in the unlikely event someone wishes me "Happy Kwanzaa", I won't know what's expected of me (aside from a non-plussed "Um...sure...and the same to you"). I won't be offended (it's too small a thing to get worked up over, and presumably the speaker means well), but I really won't understand what I've been wished. If I respond in kind, am I comitting myself to something? It would feel socially awkward. So it would seem, at the least, courtesy to bestow good wishes in the name of a festival the recipient actually celebrates -- in much the same way as you try to pronounce their names correctly.

Now imagine you're an overworked, underpaid retail employee trying to be polite to (frequently obnoxious) customers during the busiest time of the year. And as part of that you're required negotiate the mine-field of cultural sensitivities contained in an apparently simple greeting. Some stores try to finesse this by mandating the generic "Happy Holidays", but somehow it doesn't have the same ring to it. If only you could read minds....

....and someone has come up with what, at first sight, seems like an excellent idea: sell little buttons bearing the reassuring message "It's OK: Wish Me A Merry Christmas". I like it: it cues the poor store clerk on your preferred salutation, in a light, friendly way. I can see a whole line of these, for Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, etc, etc. It could be great ecumenical outpouring of mutual respect and understanding! Peace on earth and goodwill to men! Why, one might almost say that it's, well, very much in the spirit of Christmas....

....until you go read the rest of the website. "Happy Holidays"? Did you think it was just a way to be culturally inclusive? (Or even, just a convenient abbreviation signifying Christmas, New Year, and the week in between?) Guess again: it's the "....forces of darkness that are attempting to silence the good news...." (cue scarey music). And I bet you thought "Merry Christmas" was just a customary way of expressing hope that the recipient's last week or so of the year would be a safe and happy experience of spending time with family, attending congenial social gatherings, relaxing at home, and maybe getting some cool new toys, right? Nope. What you're really doing is "....telling them that there is good news and that the God of the universe has put into motion a wonderful plan to offer them salvation...[It] is indeed nothing less than the first step in opening a door to offer someone salvation." Well, golly: all that time when I was growing up godless, I never realized I was actually preaching the occasional Gospel sermon all through December. Who knew?

Of course, no good evangelistic crusade would be complete without a little Shoppin' For Jesus:

[Wearing the button] tells people you are not just shopping for a winter festival, but what you are buying is celebrating your Lord’s birth.

Which irresistibly reminds me of this fleeting shot from Terry Gilliam's dark comedy Brazil:

Seriously, shopping as sacrament? Only in America.... Whereas Jesus cast the money-changers out of the temple, these folks want to bring the temple in to the shopping mall -- Baptisms in the Jacuzzi store? Men's Bible Study in Home Depot; Women's in the Kitchen & Bath department? (For lulz, check out the joy on the "Kudos" page, in honour of adverts for the "Christmas Super Saturday sale" and other great proclamations of faith).

And, Mr. Merchant, if you dare wish us "Happy Holidays", we will be offended (PDF), offended I say! Because the phrase "Merry Christmas" is very very special, and the organizers of this campaign want everyone saying it to each other, all the time (but especially in stores):
As the cycle of wishing and being wished a “Merry Christmas” begins, the forces of darkness in our nation will be affected. Light will be proclaimed. Hope will be announced, and the spiritual atmosphere will be changed.
Kind of like Harry Potter casting a spell, only you don't need to wave a wand to make the magic happen.

Like I say, on the whole I don't care how people choose to express good wishes to me. But if I get the feeling that there's more going on than a simple exchange of human goodwill, that there's an agenda being pushed, I am....inclined to push back. So on the off chance that someone wearing one of those buttons walks up to me, says "Merry Christmas", and stands there expectantly, I shall be very tempted to paste on my biggest smile, and reply in my loudest, cheerfullest voice:

...because some people really, really need to get over themselves.

Hat tip: Friendly Atheist

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Seeing the Forrest

Readers of may have run across a poster called Richard Forrest, a British palaeontologist specializing in plesiosaurs, and also author of a hilariously, um, revisionist history of evolutionary science.

Now you can see the man himself, enthusing over the skull of a monster pliosaur recently discovered in Dorset.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

That's a lotta money!

I learned a new word yesterday: "yotta". Strictly speaking, it's not a word; it's the SI prefix indicating 10 rasied to the power of 24 (abbr: "Y"). That's a thousand times bigger than the largest SI prefix I previously knew about (zeta), and is currently the largest official prefix. Really, it's a useful unit to have. For example, the power output of the Sun is 383YW. By comparison, the province of Ontario consumes about 25GW on a hot day when everyone is running their air conditioners. Which means the Sun is equivalent to about 15 peta-Ontarios.

Borderline-Asperger geeks like to know these things. We'd be loads of fun at cocktail parties, except we never go to any because we hate people. (That, and no one ever invites us more than once. I don't care; you're all boring. Yes, all of you.)

The way I found this out is weird: it seems that, in what has to be the record-holder for ridiculous damages claims, someone is suing the Bank of America for 1784 billion trillion dollars. Yes, that's 1.784 yotta-bux.

That's a lotta bux (as in: waaaay more than are in the picture at right).

OK, just to raise the intelligence quotient of this post above of the yocto-level, here's Monty Python's Money Song. Enjoy:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Day of Two Books

So, I'm on the bus this morning, reading Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth, and he spends a couple of pages explaining how, before Darwin, everyone thought species had essences; they were natural kinds, which of course makes it very hard to imagine how one species could turn into another. But Darwin showed us how to think of species in terms of populations containing lots of variation, and the average of the distribution can shift over time until it's so different we no longer call it the same species. This narrative about how the idea of "species" changed (as opposed to the species themselves changing, if you get my meaning -- like, I'm talking in a meta-level here...oh, never mind), Dawkins credits to biologist Ernst Mayr, who explained it all to us back in the 1950s.

Then the bus gets to work, and I spend a few hours doing workish things.

And when I return home this evening, there is awaiting me a padded envelope which opens to reveal this book: this guy.

And of course John wastes no time (as in: right in the Prologue, before we even get to Chapter The First) telling us that Mayr got it all wrong, in fact the whole book is about how wrong he was, almost no one was an essentialist, ever.

It's fun when that kind of thing happens.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Today's the Day

....which is to say, my mother's 89th birthday. Well, except that she sort of missed the occasion by three years and a few months. So I guess that means she won't be wanting any cake or candles.

What, you thought I meant some other kind of day? Well, Mom was never much of a blasphemer. I mean, she was an agnostic all her adult life, which I guess counts for something in that department. But she was really a rather quiet, reserved woman. About the closest she ever got to overt blasphemy was that, in moments of frustration, she would mutter "Damn!" under her breath (which these days, hardly counts as blasphemy at all). And that's probably about the limit for an English girl of her generation.

Personally, I'm not big into explicit blasphemy. Even my hammer-on-thumb expletives tend to draw on the lexicon of bodily function, rather than theology. So I'm a bit ambivalent about Blasphemy Day. Somehow, it smacks of the big boys on the playground teaching some little kid all the naughty words. To me, just saying "God doesn't exist" remains a quite sufficient blasphemy -- what else needs to be said?

But my ambivalence goes deeper than that.

One chief aim of Blasphemy Day is to make it safe to diss religion. Trouble is, I've not personally spent much time in any space where religion-dissing wasn't safe. To start with, my family of origin was agnostic. My parents didn't run down religion, but they thought it was false, and told me so. When I hit the cynical adolescent stage, religion was certainly among my targets. And then when I did get religion myself, it was one that in the local context was a somewhat eccentric minority sect -- and I do this while I'm in an age group that punishes non-conformity (not that I ever had much chance of being part of the in-crowd: I was a hopelessly geeky misfit, even without the religion). Then I go off to university, and where I am conspicuously not into certain prominent facets of dorm life. So my religion, at least, was never quite respectable. A few years later I finally get into a more mainstream religion -- and soon after that, I discover Usenet, where absolutely nothing is sacred, or off-limits.

So for most of my Christian period, I seemed to have a talent for innocently wandering into free-fire zones.

Now I'm an atheist -- and therefore part of another minority religious group (using "religious" here in a loose sense). And yeah: Danish Mohamed cartoons, rampant Islamism, thin-skinned Irishmen passing anti-blasphemy statutes, the Smallkowski affair and all the other small-minded small-town bigotry that percolates out of the American hinterland by way of the internet these days -- I know all that, but very little of it is here, in Ottawa, in my face. So let's not overstate the case: in this particular neck of the woods, we have it pretty easy.

It may be that my very first personal encounter with the Thou Shalt Respect Religion meme was in the context of the Ottawa Atheist Bus Campaign, in which several city councillors thought that their personal offense at the rather mild advertisement was grounds for controlling other people's speech rights. And that experience made me realize something: we don't, in pluralistic, liberal urban Ontario, go in for the kind of bare-knuckle bigotry of some places.What we've done instead is, in a very polite-Canadian way, to bury the religion debate and agree not to discuss it. There may not be a lot of overt piety in the Canadian character, but there's a lot of Dennett's "faith in faith" -- it's a Good Thing, so don't question it too hard. That's Not Nice. Running the bus ads broke that taboo -- hence the reaction.

So a few of us (I don't know how many; I'm not planning it) are apparently celebrating Blasphemy Day by going downtown tonight wearing appropriately irreverent T-shirts. I'm going, because I think that taboo should stay broken. Because I think the thin-skinned types who wanted to squelch the bus ads should continue to be offended and uncomfortable, until they get over their own self-importance. Because I think unbelief should advertise itself the same as belief does, daily, on every corner where there is a church or mosque or synagogue. Because I think that, opening that space for out-and-explicit unbelief here helps to open it everywhere.

Because I think.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Postscript on Felines and Fiction

People (particularly data-entry staff at veterinary clinics) would sometimes ask where we got the name of our late pet from (usually after they've asked how to spell it, or if they encountered the written form first, how to pronounce it. It's: KEE-zhay). Classical music lovers generally recognize the reference to Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kizhe orchestral suite, and are further aware that the music was originally written for the 1934 film, which in turn is based on the novella by Yuri Tynyanov.

The action of the story revolves around the efforts of the Russian Imperial court to hide from the vain, mercurial Tsar Paul I the fact that he has made a mistake: that the name and persona of "Lieutenant Kizhe" is the result of a scribal error. The afore-linked Wikipedia article adequately describes the plot of the novella (the movie changes a few non-essential things), so I won't belabor the details. Though intended as a satire on the Tsarist bureacracy, one can't help wondering if there is not also a subtle jibe being levelled against the Stalinist regime under which both the book and film were made.

We discovered only yesterday that the film (with English subtitles) is now available at the Internet Archive and Google Video. (I think it's been a while since we last searched for it). So last night, in memory of our furry friend, we hooked up the laptop to the TV and sat down to watch....
I'm a lousy movie critic: about the best I can manage is "Liked it" or "That sucked". But this flick is definitely the former. It is made early enough in the "talkies" era to have preserved some of the silent-film propensity for sight-gags. For example, the prison commandant, presented with the non-existent Kizhe for incarceration, with perfect gravity searches the ground around the guards for this "confidential prisoner, who has no shape". No dialog is spoken, or needed. Later, the entire sequence of Kizhe's wedding comprises about 10 minutes of high absurdity. While there is understated slapstick, it never reaches the over-the-top level of the Keystone Cops. And behind it all is Prokofiev's music; the elements of what later became an orchestral classic.

So: it's a quirky kind of closure. We've loved the music for years (enough to name our seventh cat after it), and been fascinated by the back-story, so it was great to at last see that story played out. And we learned one detail about the doubly-fictional Lieutenant, which is perhaps a fitting memorial for the cat who lived in a non-believing household; who always knew what he wanted, and always let you know about it. From the film's closing soliloquy -- a kind of reverse eulogy on his now-deceased officer -- delivered by the Tsar:
Good-bye, little friend.

(Movie poster from WikiMedia Commons)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Passing

With sadness, we announce the loss earlier today of our companion of the last eight years, and occasional co-blogger, Lieutenant Kizhe the Siamese cat. For the past four months Kizhe had been suffering from a series of stubborn bacterial infections and an associated inflammatory condition, which eventually progressed to the point of open sores. Kizhe endured one surgery and several rounds of antibiotics and steroid treatment, however the sores were not healing and he was growing progressively weaker and more anemic. It became apparent that he was uncomfortable and that recovery was unlikely, hence The Decision was made. He was euthanized at home this morning, on his favorite chair in the sunroom, surrounded by the sounds and smells of the backyard. This picture was taken a few days ago:
Many thanks go to the vets and staff of the Merivale Cat Hospital, in particular to Dr. Emma Thom who spared no effort in her attempts to diagnose Kizhe's condition, including consulting with experts around the world via the internet, and also to veterinary technician Jessica who assisted Dr. Thom with the euthanasia.

Kizhe in younger days, contemplating the possibilities of the internet:(And you thought this post was going to be about that folk singer, right? Yeah, she'll be missed too)
Update, 28 September: The necropsy results are back, and contrary to biopsies taken back in May, it was cancer. Specifically, a rare form of lymphosarcoma. Apparently, experts all over the continent are fascinated by Kizhe's case, and papers may even get written on it. Being science geeks, we're actually rather...comforted? gratified? at having managed, at least, to contribute something to the vet-med literature....

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Cosmic Coincidence?

So last Monday, y'all got drunk and celebrated the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, right? (OK, maybe not the drunken part). But how many of you knew that the moon landing occurred 25 years to the day after the unsuccessful assassination and coup attempt against Adolf Hitler, carried out by some of his senior officers? There was even a movie made about it last year, but I don't think I'll be seeing it -- I'm not sure I could suppress my gag reflex at seeing that much of Tom "I love Scientology" Cruise.

Now the second part of this coincidence is that, exactly 25 years after the moon landing (well, plus or minus a couple of days, because it didn't happen all at once), Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacted on Jupiter. On that occasion, I could almost persuade myself that I could make out a black blemish on the planet's face through my 4.25-inch Newtonian and the July heat shimmer. Or I may have been hallucinating: my keenest memory of that event is trying to stand very still and steady at the eyepiece, on a hot humid night, while feeling about a million pin-pricks in my legs as every mosquito for miles around attacked the only human in Kanata insane enough to be outside at 4am.

As a postscript we got a repeat performance this year: just one day before the 40th anniversary of Apollo (and therefore the 15th anniversary of SL9), something else biggish hit Jupiter.

What does this all mean? Absolutely nothing, except for the human tendency to see patterns (mostly by tossing out all the data that doesn't fit) where there aren't any.

Monday, July 20, 2009

One Small Step....

If I've done this right, this post will appear at 20 July at 20:17 UTC -- 40 years to the moment from when a manned spacecraft from Earth first touched down on the surface of another world.

I was 12 years old and my family was on vacation, camping at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, right up by the continental divide. We had been into town for something -- I don't recall what, maybe a restaurant dinner; I don't even recall which town -- and on our return in the evening, stopped at a little country store to pick up whatever. I stayed in the car while my parents went inside.

A few moments later my Dad re-emerged, beckoning frantically at me to come inside. In the store, I found a crowd of people gathered around a dutch door at the back that gave into the owner's living quarters. The upper half was open, and everyone was watching a small black-and-white TV perched on the kitchen counter. On that screen was Neil Armstrong taking his first few steps on the moon. Not that I could see much: by the time the low-bandwidth lunar signal had been received, converted to broadcast format (by pointing a TV camera at the slow-scan monitor in Mission Control!), been broadcast by the networks, filtered through the local weather (as I recall it was raining, maybe even thundering) and made its way to the rabbit ears of this little receiver way up in the Rockies, all that was left was a bunch of monochrome blobs that moved every so often.

Back at camp, I fell asleep in our tent trailer that night listening to the radio coverage. Before turning in I made a last visit to the washroom. At our altitude it was pretty cold for July; but the weather had cleared and the sky was crystal clear as only a high mountain sky, far from any city, can be. The moon was full and dazzlingly bright in my memory.

And a 12 year old boy looked up and realized: that's not just a light in the sky. It's a world -- and there is a man walking on it!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Way Cool....

This image, from the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, of the Apollo 14 landing site, in which you can see the LM, an instrument package, and the footpath where the astronauts walked:

This and more NRO Apollo images here.

I wish there were more of those.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Winnie the Pooh

Mike links to Trish relating the story of the origin of Winnie-the-Pooh. While the bear was named after the city of Winnipeg, he (she?) actually came from White River, Ontario, which we passed through a few years back, in the course of circumnavigating Lake Superior. In the Museum there stands this wood carving of Winnipeg the bear and his owner, Lt. Harry Colebourn:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Crackergate in Canada

So, according to news reports (eg here and here), Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper has created a "scandal" by not properly taking communion at a Catholic funeral.

Monsignor Brian Henneberry, vicar general and chancellor in the Diocese of Saint John, says that if Harper accepted the host but did not consume it, "It's worse than a faux pas, it's a scandal from the Catholic point of view."

Amazingly, this puts me in the position of defending Stephen Harper (yikes). But here's the thing: It is not up to Harper, even if he is Prime Minister, to be cognizant of the church rules for a church of which he is not a member - it is the height of arrogance for the Roman Catholic Church to have such an expectation. If the holy body of their Lord Jesus Christ was improperly handled, it is entirely the fault of the priests for not providing proper instruction (not to mention the fact that presumably they should have known that Harper was not a Catholic, so they should not have given him the wafer in the first place).

[I am not, and never have been a Catholic, but I have been to a few Catholic masses, where, in preparation for Communion, the priest provides instructions indicating that the elements are only to be consumed by members of the Catholic Church, and inviting those who are ineligible to partake of the elements to fold their hands and receive a blessing from the priest instead. If the priest did not provide such instructions in this case, they have no one to blame but themselves.]

Monday, May 25, 2009

Compact Paradox?

So: We're all replacing incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, thereby saving electricity, thereby reducing carbon emissions, thereby saving the planet, right?

Or are we?

A comment on another blog prompted me to check that truism. The point is made that, during the heating season (which around here runs from about October through April, depending on how tolerant you are to wearing sweaters indoors) we derive some benefit from the waste heat of electrical appliances like light bulbs. If we switch to more efficient bulbs, that heat must be made up by the furnace, which is presumably burning a fossil fuel.

So the question is: which is more efficient in terms of carbon emissions? Burning carbon-rich stuff for heat, or using electrical heat which includes a component generated from non-fossil sources (dams and nukes)?

Let's do some arithmetic:

I have a recent-model natural gas furnace which is advertised to be better than 95% efficient (ie: out of every joule of heat generated in the burner, 0.95 joules winds up warming the house). How much carbon does my furnace emit to deliver, say, 1 megajoule of space heating? First, to get that 1 MJ delivered, we need to burn about 1.05 MJ worth of fuel. Natural gas is mostly methane, the heat of combustion of which is 55.5 MJ/kg, so that 1 MJ of heat-made-good requires 1.05/55.5*1000 = 19 grams of gas. Methane (CH4) has a molecular weight of 16, only 12 of which is carbon, so the net carbon emission is 14.2 grams.

What about electrical heat?

The biggest loss in thermal-source electrical generation is right at the turbine. The maximum theoretical efficiency of any apparatus that converts heat into work is limited by the temperature difference between the input and the output. Given available materials, this means that the process that turns boiling water into electricity can never be more than about 40% (and that's generous). Knock off a little for transmission losses, and let's say that the overall efficiency -- from burning the fuel to lighting the bulb -- is 35%. That looks pretty bad until you consider that, in a typical power grid not all the electricity comes from fossil sources. Ontario Power Generation (to use the locally relevant example) gets only 27% of its power from fossil fuel plants (mostly coal, though with some contribution from oil or gas).

(Aside: That OPG page is pretty cool. The big number at the right shows the amount of power currently being generated in the system, continuously updated. As I write, Ontario is running on about 11.5 gigawatts. During summer heat waves, it gets up around 25 GW or more. Clicking on the hydro, nuclear and fossil links at the left lets you see how much is being contributed by each source. Really, engineers are fascinated by this sort of thing. That, and my late father worked for OPG's predecessor Ontario Hydro, so I have a familial interest in the old place. I've been in some of those stations, when he would take me out on a job.)

But back to the arithmetic: Anthracite coal yields 27MJ/kg when burned. So generating 1MJ of electricity emits (1/27)/35%*1000 = 106g of carbon. However, only 27% of OPG electricity comes from fossil sources, so we can discount that amount down to 28.6 grams.

Which is still twice as much as just running my furnace. You'd have to be using a crappy old furnace that was only about 50% efficient to be as bad as electric heat. And in the summer of course, there's no question: every watt of heat you don't produce in the house is one watt your air conditioner doesn't have to scavenge up and move outside.

Conclusion: Even when you allow for the space heating contribution of incandescents, compact fluorescent bulbs still win by a good margin.

[Note: to keep it simple (translation: I'm too lazy to do all the research) I've ignored a lot of upstream carbon contributions here, such as: manufacturing light bulbs; building the different kinds of power plants; mining, processing and transporting coal or uranium. Also, the generation mix I used is the cumulative figure for 2007, which does not necessarily reflect what OPG might be running on a typical cold January night.]

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reboot the Franchise, Scotty!

Phil Plait has written a much, much better review of the new Star Trek movie (complete with astronomical notes), so go read his instead.

You're still here? *sigh* Let's see what I can come up with. First, the obligatory warning:


What, still here? OK, you asked for it:

The Kirk character has a heavy whiff of Mary Sue about him -- what, from obnoxious, know-it-all cadet to captain of the Enterprise, just for saving Earth from destruction once? Methinks he skipped about four ranks (and at least one more saving-everyone's-ass) there. Pity, too: it might have made the (inevitable) sequels more interesting to see him work his way up from Ensign through Lieutenant and Commander, before he gets to kick people out of the Big Chair whenever he wants to.

Several of the supporting characters seem to be played for comedy -- caricatures, really, of their older counterparts on classic Trek (not that that cast didn't descend, at times, into self-parody, especially by the fourth or fifth movie).

I'm also not entirely sure I approve of destroying Vulcan. I kept expecting them to fix the time-line and put everything back the way it was, allowing history to proceed along Canonical lines -- it was fairly late in the movie when I realized that, no, this is the new normal. Of course, Spock Prime knows about the supernova, giving them over a century to prepare to save Romulus (and thereby the villain's wife, Kirk's dad, Vulcan, and Spock's mom). Or as a commenter at Bad Astronomy pointed out: Nero the Romulan could have done the same thing, instead of going off on his mission of vengeance.

I think time travel and its associated paradoxes will always be a dramatic weakness. Back to the Future managed it, but only as comedy (and of course, Doctor Who -- another show that has never taken itself seriously, in either of its incarnations).

But enough kvetching: as a dying Kirk says, "It was fun". Enjoyably demented villain, plot that keeps moving along, plenty of fights and swashbuckling, some kick-ass space hardware and lots of explosions. The retro-industrial look of the Enterprise engine room looks more back to the Enterprise TV series than forward to either classic or Next Generation Trek. The Onion review (no, really!) gets it about right: "A fun and watchable action-packed thrill-ride".

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My First, Last and Definitive Comment on Recent Reports of Miss California's Bigotry, and that She May Lose Her Crown for Excessive Self-Exposure

It is beneath my dignity to acknowledge that anything of significance, or worth the attention of any intelligent person, has occurred during, at, near or otherwise associated with a beauty pageant.

That is all.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Gullible isn't in the dictionary?

"Yeah, right," you say, and expect that next I will provide you with a link to a video with a cool catchy tune. But no, really:

(Original screenshot - not a single pixel was harmed or even altered!)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stood up by Jesus?

Joshua Sullivan at Think Atheist has some complaints about the oft-heard evangelistic slogan "Christianity isn't a religion; it's a relationship". As a former participant in that end of Christianity, I think I can shed a little light on the subject for him.

First, where and when did this meme come from? I became a fundamentalist in 1972 (I'm now fully recovered, thank you), and I encountered the slogan within a year or two after that. So I think it's safe to say it was invented by at least the early 1970s.

Notwithstanding my conversion to goofy religion, I wasn't completely stupid, so I never took it in a completely literal way. The evangelical Christianity I was inducted into was, among other things, about God and the afterlife and other "religious stuff", so obviously it was by any normal definition, a religion. I understood the "relationship" slogan as an attempt at what we now call "re-branding" -- in this case, that Christianity wasn't this stereotype of a tedious ceremony that took place once a week in stuffy old buildings where you had to sit very straight and be very quiet while wearing uncomfortable clothes. It was (according to the sales pitch) a happy, dynamic thing -- a ongoing "relationship with Jesus", a "walk with the Lord" (cue a certain sappy hymn on this theme). Keep in mind the spirit of the times: the counter-cultural churnings of the 60's had not yet petered out; the Jesus Movement (ie. the Christian branch of the hippies) was going strong. So it makes a lot of sense that the times would create a Christianity that, whatever else it might be, certainly wasn't your parents' boring old religion.

In that context, it's not a bad pitch, either: like any good slogan it tries to capture a provocative idea in a way that has some punch, and of necessity leaves out a lot of nuance. Of course, there are more than a few enthusiastic amateur evangelists out there who treat that slogan the way they treat the Bible: it's literally true, and we'll just re-define "religion" so it only refers to other folks' god-talk -- not ours.

But back to this notion of having a "relationship with God". It takes (at least) two to have one of those, doesn't it? And Communication is Very Important (so say all the relationship books, and it turns out that even applies here). So how is that supposed to work, when one of the partners seems a bit....invisible and intangible, so to speak?

As explained to me, our half works when we pray. And we know Jesus is listening, if for no other reason than that it goes with the omniscience thing. Sprinkle with a few appropriate Scripture passages, and we've got the uplink side covered. (I work in wireless telecom. "Uplink" is one of the things I get paid big bucks to spend all day worrying about).

But what about the reverse direction? (Another good chunk of my salary comes from worrying about "downlink").

Well to start with, sometimes God even answers prayer -- the thing you asked for happens! Giving little gifts is always good for a relationship, right? Of course, more often than not, his answer is "No". 'Cuz like, that particular thing wouldn't be right just now -- it's "not in his perfect will for you". But it's way cool when he says "Yes", and that makes up for the other times.

Can you say "confirmation bias", children? Of course you can.

But God is also supposed to speak more directly than that. Some of the more cynical people on my side interpret this to mean that Christians have auditory hallucinations. While that obviously happens to some believers (and in more Pentecostalist circles may even be accepted as a genuine Word from God, instead of a neurological issue that should be treated by a competent doctor), that's not the main way it's understood in the calmer waters of mainstream evangelicalism. It's much subtler. In the groups I hung out with (mostly Navigators), the idea seemed to be that while you were reading your Bible (which you are presumed to do faithfully, every day), a verse might "stand out" in some way, or while praying you might get a little "feeling" that God wanted you to know or do something, and that was God speaking to you. (I don't know what you're supposed to do if the "stand out" verse is, say, one of the more obscure ceremonial laws in Deuteronomy. I suppose that rarely happens, as even the most devout Bible-reader must sleepwalk through those passages. Really, there are whole chapters in there that are simply unreadable.)

It's pretty obvious that this process of listening for God's Little Hints is open to all sorts of free-associative and autosuggestive effects. Feeling a little low-level guilt about some minor thing? There's probably a Bible verse that will bring it to the surface - Yep, God wants you to repent of that! Wondering if you should pursue a particular course of action? Again, there's probably some verse that, if squinted at in just the right way, can be made to apply.

Funny that it never seemed to happen to me. I think that, even at that young age (ie. late teens), I just didn't trust this sort of subjectivism. I knew that my inner monologue was capable of tossing up all sorts of random stuff, and there was no reason to take any of it as anything more than the usual stream-of-conciousness noise. If Jesus wanted to be heard over that, he'd just have to speak louder. Which as far as I could tell, he never did.

Maybe it would have helped if I had taken up Buddhist mediation techniques, which are supposed to be good for learning to quiet the internal mental noise. But in those days, I think I regarded that sort of thing as Satanic, and thus definitely verboten. Ironic, that.

So as far as I'm concerned, I tried to to have a relationship with Jesus, but he never showed. Nowadays of course, I realize there's a very good reason for that....

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Reflection on Earth Day

Before the turn of the century, so-called “future-watchers” often predicted the advent of the “paperless office”, and by extension, the “paperless society”. Nine (or perhaps eight) years into the new millennium, it seems that if anything more people now have more paper than ever before. The proliferation of personal printers and photocopiers is, in many ways, even more astonishing than that of personal computers. Because the production of printed matter is now so cheap and accessible, the material we have is becoming more and more banal and ephemeral. Our forests are being denuded, simply for the purpose of informing potential customers of their next unique opportunity to spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need.

Paper pushers defend their right to free speech and conspicuous consumption, saying that all that paper gets recycled anyway. But, looking at my lawn in the spring, I know that there is a lot of it that is simply tossed away. And, the last time I visited my local stationery store (to buy the supplies I needed to feed my own shameful paper habit), I discovered that the cost of recycled paper was actually 10-30% more than standard paper! I steadfastly bought the more expensive recycled pack, and when I got home, I made sure to hug my favourite trees, telling them what I went through on their behalf (they were not very sympathetic).

I do my best to conserve paper, subscribing to paperless billing where possible, re-using the second side of printed paper for drafts, attempting to cancel subscriptions to advertising – I have even put up a no-flyers sign above my mailbox, but apparently, even though there is as much or more paper than ever before, reading comprehension is still sadly lacking for many of the delivery people who still saddle me with their useless notices.

But recently I committed a dreadful transgression, and was taken to task by my own son! I had suggested that maybe it was not strictly necessary for him to extract all the recyclable paper from the large wad of paper and tape that he had retrieved from our recently mounted garage sale signs (technology made it so easy to print all those signs…but I digress). So, here I am, writing my penitential essay. It seemed like such a little thing, but of course everyone knows all the platitudes about how it’s the little things that make a big difference in the long run.

I promise, I won’t ever do it again – and please: Don’t tell the trees!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Three Scientists, Two Great Talks

....and one grandstanding git.

It's been a very biological week here.

The Chimp Lady

On Wednesday night, Jane Goodall spoke to a packed Centrepointe Theatre. I remember stories about Goodall in National Geographic, back in the 1960s, but sort of lost track after that. Her talk was largely autobiographical, covering the period from her childhood to the Gombe years. She told one amusing anecdote about how, at the age of about five, she hid in the hen house so she could see for herself that, yes, that big egg really did come out of the chicken. She also talked about the formation of the Root and Shoots program, which attempts to bring together conservation and development concerns, so that there is not a continual confict between the two.

The Finch Folks

Tonight was Peter and Rosemary Grant at Carleton, giving the final Darwin Week lecture (if it seems this is a little late for Darwin Week, that's because the Grants spend February in the field. I can see how the Galapagos is probably preferable to Ottawa in February). Their talk centred on mechanisms of speciation and adaptation in their study of Darwin's finches on Daphne Major and Genovesa.

The Galapagos finches are famed for their wide variety of beak shapes and sizes, each adapted for exploiting a particular food source in the sparse environment of the islands. Peter Grant talked a little about two genes (bmp4 and CaM, if I recall the names) that control respectively, beak length and thickness. Then he talked about how rainfall variation from year to year affected average beak morphology among two smaller finch species Geospiza fortis and G. scandens, by affecting the abundance of their preferred seeds.

Rosemary took over to talk about hybridization and genetic diversity. G. fortis and G. scandens differ in beak size, but are otherwise fairly similar. Though hybridization is possible, they are mostly kept separate by mating preference, which is based partly on morphology, but even more on having different songs. Now here's the fun part: the song an individual finch will sing throughout its life is learned as a nestling, from its father (when asked just now whether this constitutes cultural inheritance, our household social anthropologist looked very thoughtful, but refused to commit himself on the question). Female finches mate only with males that sing the right song. However, once in a while a nestling will imprint on the wrong species' song. When it grows up, it will most likely mate with the other species, producing hybrid offspring having an intermediate beak size.

Field surveys show that hybrids are just as fit as either parent species. So what keeps fortis and scandens from merging into one species? Answer: the fact that a hybrid will only backcross to the parent species that sings its father's song. However, even this small amount of gene-flow helps to maintain genetic diversity within each species.

It was a great talk -- straight-up science from the people who did the work. Stuff you had to pay attention to. Unfortunately, just as Rosemary Grant got down to the last few slides, the fire alarm went off, and the Q&A had to be adjourned to the courtyard . Which brings us to.....

....The Grandstanding Git

Before the talk started, we noticed an old acquaintance sitting a few rows back -- Jonathan Cucan, from CORE. After the evacuation we were all just standing around outside (fortunately, it was a pleasant night), he made a bee-line for Peter Grant, so I hung back within earshot. I didn't catch everything that was said (let alone remember even that much), but the exchange went something like this:

Cucan said polite things about the Grants' talk, then asked whether "he agreed with Dr. Einstein and Dr. Hoyle" about the complexity of the cell (or something along those lines -- Johnny's current schtick seems to be about biochemistry). When Dr. Grant worked with these marvelous organisms, didn't he see the hand of God? Grant shook his head, no he didn't, and went into an explanation about molecular biologists having theories which they are testing of how to form DNA and cell membranes etc, and gradually build up complexity. Cucan came back that "Dr. Hoyle" had proved that it was impossible to form a cell this point, one of the organizers came to Grant's rescue and pointed out that other people probably wanted a turn to talk. Cucan left, no doubt satisfied that he had successfully delivered his payload of weapons-grade sanctimony into the enemy's stronghold.

I must confess I was disappointed: I was sort of hoping Cucan would at least try to argue something relevant to Grant's talk (my Inner Creationist managed to think up a couple). But our boy Johnny has a bit of a one-track mind.

I do like how Cucan specifically used the full titles for Einstein and Hoyle -- like, waving around a doctorate is supposed to impress someone who has one themselves. And a GIGO calculation by an astronomer (several decades ago, IIRC?) is supposed trump actual experts working on that specific problem? Pack it up, folks -- Fred Hoyle has spoken, and Johnny Cucan is his prophet! A lovely case study in creationist's slavish devotion to intellectual authority.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Exile and Outrage

I have just sent the following email to my Member of Parliament Gordon O'Connor, with CC's to Prime Minister Steven Harper and Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon. I urge every Canadian of conscience and decency to take similar action (non-Canadians, too -- it can't hurt to show how this harms our international reputation). Let's bury this government in outrage, until the weight of anger and contempt forces them to do the right thing.
Mr. O'Connor,

I am writing you as a constituent to express my outrage at my government's shameful treatment of Abousfian Abdelrazik, whom as you are no doubt aware, has again been refused travel documents to allow him to return to Canada and to his family.

As a Canadian citizen I am appalled by the capricious behaviour of my government, in the person of Minister Lawrence Cannon, in its setting up of successive barriers to Mr. Abdelrazik's return -- a game Minister Cannon has been playing for some months, now. This latest refusal appears entirely arbitrary, and not only without legal justification, but in clear violation of the Charter right of every Canadian citizen to enter this country. The most recent excuse offered -- an appeal to some unspecified risk to "national security" -- is scarcely credible in light of Mr. Abdelrazik's clearance by both CSIS and the RCMP. This is just one more example of the way that catch-phrase has become a pretext for the restriction of liberty, and for tyrannical behaviour on the part of government. If Mr. Abdelrazik can be denied his legal right of return at the sole discretion of a Minister of the Crown, then any of us can be denied any right, without recourse to due process.

I appeal to you to use your influence within caucus and Cabinet to see to it that this government fulfills its legal and moral duty to one of its citizens, currently being held in effective exile in Sudan.

[my real name here]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I used to have dreams like this....

xkcd gets it right:
When I was an undergrad in the late '70s I had nightmares like this. Typically in my version, I would have gone home to my parents' place in Toronto, and suddenly I would realize: Ohmigod, I'm supposed to be back in Kingston writing an exam AT THIS VERY MOMENT!!! Quick -- if I jump in the car and drive like hell, can I make it in time to salvage something?

That dream recurred throughout the years of my program, and for a couple of years after graduation, then sort of petered out..... forward 15 years....

....and I'm back in school again, doing a Master's. And damned if that nightmare doesn't start up all over....

Sort of makes me wonder if it's such a good idea, taking another degree after I retire. At that age, my heart might not take that kind of stress....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Honorable Ignoramus

Everyone has by now read about how Gary Goodyear, our, um, excitable Minister of State for Science and Technology, replied to a question about his scientific views by proclaiming his religious opinions:

Canada's science minister, the man at the centre of the controversy over federal funding cuts to researchers, won't say if he believes in evolution.

“I'm not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don't think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Oddly, it's not the creationism angle that bothers me the most about this. Yeah, that bothers me too, but many otherwise intelligent people fall for that, and still manage to be rational and competent at their jobs. It seems to me that the potential harm here depends on exactly how much control the Minister has over specific funding decisions (at least, such seems to be my subconcious rationalization).

But what really got me was this comment (emphasis mine):

“Now I have got a portfolio that I am absolutely passionate about and frankly connected to,” he said, adding that his days of experimenting with engines in high school automotive class gave him an appreciation for what it feels like to come up with something new.

“When I was in high school, we were already tweaking with a coil that would wrap around the upper [radiator] hose and it got an extra five miles to the gallon. … So I've been there on this discovery stuff.”

Well, ain't that folksey? I also really dig "being there on this discovery stuff". Sounds like George W. Bush with an impact wrench, doesn't he?

Magic devices that dramatically improve gas mileage are an old standard of urban legends and scams -- and even among that sorry gallery, frigging with the cooling system seems one of the less likely candidates for improved fuel economy. That much should be obvious to anyone with even the smallest inkling of how engines actually work. It's bad enough that the government is cutting basic research in favour of "get[ting] some of these technologies out of the labs onto the factory floors. Made. Produced. Sold" (though even a creationist chiropractor could probably manage that kind of short-sighted mandate). But with the gas-mileage remark, Goodyear reveals himself as a gullible ignoramus who not only does not understand science, he's also clueless about technology -- he can't tell (as they say) shit from shinola. He's a jumped-up amateur mechanic who believes in woo -- chiro-woo, creation-woo, or car-woo; taken together it forms a pattern of consistent ignorance and anti-scientism.

And in case there is any remaining doubt of the man's complete babbling idiocy, he dispells it in this CTV interview (quoted at MacLean's blog):
We are evolving, every year, every decade. That’s a fact. Whether it’s to the intensity of the sun, whether it’s to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it’s running shoes or high heels, of course, we are evolving to our environment. But that’s not relevant. And that’s why I refused to answer the question. The interview was about our science and tech strategy, which is strong…
I don't expect Ministers to have Ph.Ds, or be professional scientists. But I do expect them to have at least a basic appreciation of the nature of the field they are responsible for -- enough that they're willing to listen to those who are expert in those fields.

Gary Goodyear shows himself to be utterly unfit for any position with influence over science or technology.

Fire. Him. Now.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Mighty Caterer Is Our God

If you're old enough to remember The Cross and the Switchblade, then you know that David Wilkerson (played by Pat Boone in the movie) is the Pentecostal preacher who in 1958 moved from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to work with troubled youth. As I recall, it's quite a story -- if you're inclined to take the word of someone who claims God speaks to him every now and then.

But I bet you didn't know that Wilkerson is still around, and runs the Times Square Church. And according to the WingNutDaily, God still tells him stuff from time to time. Like on the night before 9/11:
Then Wilkerson felt God telling him something that seemed rather bizarre. He felt God telling him to make sandwiches – lots of sandwiches. What were they for? Who would eat them? That part wasn't clear, but his church did what they believed God was telling them anyway.

And on the 10th of September they stayed up all night making hundreds and hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. By morning they had about 2,000 sandwiches. At 8:46 a.m. the first plane hit the World Trade Center and Times Square Church was ready to feed and minister to rescue workers and victims of our nation's worst attack.
Yep, there's a reason for Brayton's Law, which states that when you see "WorldNetDaily Exclusive", it means that what follows is something so colossally idiotic that no one else would print it. And unsurprisingly, the story turns out to be bogus (as the added Editor's Note says -- but not before blogs all over the Christian Loonosphere picked it up! Google on "wilkerson sandwich" to see what I mean).

But never mind that detail; let's just run for a moment with the sandwich story as-is: 3000 people are about to die horribly, and what does the Almighty do about it? Gets a holy roller church to make fracking sandwiches. Like, it didn't occur to him that just maybe, tipping off the FBI with the names of the hijackers and the flight numbers might be more useful? I mean, it's great that Wilkerson's church pitched in to help in a terrible crisis -- but wouldn't it be a whole lot better if that crisis were averted?

Does it not occur to any of the fans of this sort of story that, really, this is a piss-poor waste of omniscience? What is wrong with these people?

Hat tip: my favorite source for this kind of thing.

Update @ 13/3/09 11:33pm: Well, ain't that interesting. Above, I link to posts on two other blogspot blogs. And within an hour or so, Blogger automatically added the trackbacks over there (I checked).

Today they're gone. Both of them. (And the comment I dropped at Debbie's place hasn't appeared either).

Do you suppose those folks just don't like links to places that are, well, less than properly reverent? Or maybe Blogger just got confused by the re-title and re-post operation. Yeah, that must be it....
Upperdate @17/3/09: I partially take it back. For the record: Debbie posted my comment.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

God and City Council

[I'm going to resist the temptation to do yet another Bus Sign. For one thing, I can't think of a good punchline off-hand]

At Ottawa City Council today, God could be found hiding in the corner behind Policies and Procedures. Or at least, that's where his erstwhile defenders were, when Councillor Alex Cullen presented his motion to overrule OC Transpo's decision to refuse the atheist bus ads.

Cullen gave an impassioned address about free speech and the need for municipal government to uphold it. It probably didn't hurt his case that the city's solicitor had prepared a memo outlining the legal issues involved in carrying "viewpoint" advertising in public facilities -- and pointing out that Transpo's current policy was almost certainly in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the city would likely get its ass handed to it in the event of a lawsuit. It boils down to: mere likelihood of public offense isn't enough to ban an ad. IOW: deal with it, pearl-clutchers.

Then the nay-sayers had their turn. Marianne Wilkinson continued to complain that she was offended, but acknowledged that the policy was problematic. She proposed amending Cullen's motion, replacing the directive to run the ads with a directive to review Transpo's policies, and bring them in line with the Charter. Cullen replied: What a great idea, and proposed amending his own motion -- by adding the review directive to his own, rather than replacing it. Councillor El-Chantiry had his say; I don't recall what except he also didn't like them, and the same from Councillor Bloess. But the real comedy came from another councillor, I think Bob Monette, who claimed the ads were from "some young people who thought it would be funny" -- and in the blissfully unselfaware manner common to ideologues, went on to complain that the ads were derogatory (OK, at 51 I guess I should accept "young people" as a compliment). Then there was some blather from that side about how Council was wasting time on irrelevancies like this when we still hadn't got the bus system back to full capacity following the strike -- as if putting (revenue-paying!) signs on the sides of busses was in some way impeding doing maintenance and getting them on the road. But the main theme from the opponents was that it was some kind of sin to override the Process -- that Transpo's bureaucrats had made a decision in keeping with Stated Policy (though we know that Policy has not been consistently applied in past cases of pro-religion ads), and while we should fix the Policy, we shouldn't overrule the bureaucrats, because....well, because. Exactly when the Policy would get fixed, and the ads get approved, wasn't quite clear.

Then Hizzoner Larry O'Brien almost gave us a surprise: he started off talking about how clergy on the Ottawa Interfaith Council (of which he is chair) were pretty unanimous in support of the ad; that they welcomed the opportunity for dialog. And for a moment we thought he was going to change his earlier reported position and vote Yes. But then he reversed course, sought refuge with his cronies in Policy and Procedure, and announced he would be voting No.

There was a little confusion in the voting process, because first Council had to approve adding the policy-review directive to Cullen's motion, then vote on the motion as amended. Both votes passed 13-7, with presumably the same councillors voting the same way on both (I didn't keep track).

Various media were there -- at least Metro, A-Channel, the Citizen, the Sun -- filming and photographing Council and the dozen of us sitting in the gallery wearing our protest T-shirts. After the vote, we filed out, and there occurred in the corridor what I believe is called a "scrum" -- we shook Cullen's hand and thanked him; the journalists talked to people at random; I suddenly found a bright light shining in my face, through which I could dimly make out a camera lens, a mike, and a nice lady asking my opinions what had just happened. I managed to blurt out something about free speech (hopefully without sounding too pompous) and about how some people want religion to be immune from criticism, and it shouldn't be. Maybe they'll edit me into the Slavering Baby-Eating Atheist Monster, I dunno. There's a reason I don't work in PR.

A few people had to take off for other commitments, and the rest of us had a celebratory dinner at an Indian buffet on Laurier. On the way back, we just had to take the picture above, which is an artwork hanging in the elevator lobby off the parking garage (sorry for the quality; the only camera we had was a Blackberry). While we were doing that a woman came out of the elevator, and asked immediately recognized the ad on the shirt. She was very pleased to hear that Council had voted our way, and left saying something favorable (I don't recall exactly what) about Hitchens and Dawkins. Funny how you run into people....

All the other kids have already posted this video, but I especially like the fact that the guy looks like Mayor O'Brien:

Hat tip for the video: Mike.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

You've been thrown out of better places than this!

According to available information, the situation is this:
In Brazil, a nine year old girl is sexually abused by her step-father (note: he hasn't been convicted, so I hereby make the obligatory genuflection towards Our Lady of the Presumption of Innocence) and becomes pregnant (with twins!). When her mother finds out, she seeks an abortion for her daughter, which the medical system is willing to grant, given both the rape and the fact that she's still too young to safely carry even one child to term, let alone twins (thus managing to hit not one, but two exceptions to Brazil's general ban on abortion).

And the Catholic Church, displaying the matchless Love of Jesus, tried to prevent it.

Fortunately for this poor kid, her doctors went ahead and did the abortion anyway.

So the local Archbishop excommunicated them. And the girl's mother. There's no word on whether the anathema also applies to the evil bastard who's responsible for the whole mess in the first place.

BTW, the Brazilian Catholic Church seems to be on a roll these days: just last week, they suspended a priest from his duties, for his advocacay of gay rights, and the use of condoms as a public health measure.

But back to the excommunications: the girl is off the hook, as she's too young to be held accountable. However, I can't help thinking that as she grows up, she will remember what her Church did for her in the darkest hour of her young life, and react appropriately. As for her mother and the medical personnel: I also can't help thinking they're better off being on the outside of this insane institution.

Bus ads update

The motion to overturn OC Transpo's bus ad ban was tabled at the 4 March Council meeting, and will be discussed and voted on at the 11 March meeting.

There is an on-line petition here; we invite everyone to write letters to city councilors, at that site and also here

Some other ways you can help:

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Voice Falls Silent

The following arrived in my RSS reader today (don't bother clicking the links; it's gone, folks):

Note To All My Regular Readers

I know a lot of my regular readers have been wondering what happened to this blog so I thought I would post a quick note of explanation.

My employer was not too happy to discover that I had been writing a blog and thought that my choice of topics reflected badly on them and on my position in the community. As I prefer receiving regular paychecks to blogging, we came to the agreement that it would be best if the blog was removed from the internet.

Thank you to all the kind people who have enjoyed my writing over the years and have stopped by to comment - it's been great getting to know many of you, but now it is time for me to move on to other things. I'll still stop by to visit the atheist blogosphere from time to time, though not under my own name.
I don't know whether his employer objected to the sometimes-bumptious religion debates, the occasional pictures of nekkid wimmin, or what. As far as I can recall, references to the community, the school, and the kids he taught were generally pretty positive. Whatever the reason, I'll miss my semi-regular dose of Primordiality.

And of course, it also emphasizes the reason that many people prefer to use a 'nym online.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ad Omnibus

Everyone knows the back story by now: OC Transpo has turned down the "Probably No God" bus-side ads, justifying this decision by a series of prevarications. As it stands, Ottawa busses can carry ads for the evangelistic Alpha Course, the Anglican Diocese, pro-life pregnancy counselling services, and (appearing soon) random capsule Bible lessons. But suggesting there's no God? That might offend people! Nooooooo!

So, the issue went before the city's Transit Committee today -- and actually made the tag end of the six o'clock news. After some nice pics and a sound-bite from some of my fellow Ottawa Humanists, we got committee chair Alex Cullen:
To say that this particular group cannot speak -- if you follow the logic -- means that no Christian can speak, no Muslim can speak, no Hindu can speak, no Jew can speak, because these are all....[interruption by another committee member]
Cullen gets it (and so, to his credit, does the guy running the Bus Stop Bible Studies): If "viewpoint" advertising is allowed at all, then everyone gets their shot at it. If Cullen ever runs for mayor, I'm voting for him (unless of course the other Alex runs again).

Then, cut to Councillor Marianne Wilkinson (whom I believe was the interruptor):
I think that to actually demean religions groups in this city is not what we should be doing at OC Transpo, so I can't support this and I think that you were wrong Mr. Chair that it doesn't do that, because to me as a Christian it does...
No, Marianne. Let me explain "demeaning" to you: "Anyone who believes in God is a moron" -- that would indeed be demeaning of religious individuals and groups. But: "There's probably [not even definitely] no God"? In what universe is that "demeaning"? If I saw that ad 25 years ago, I would have said "No, I disagree", and then had the argument -- but demeaning? How about: "Marianne Wilkinson is a thin-skinned twit" -- yes, that's personally demeaning. Unfortunately, you're providing evidence that it's true.
Our folks made the Metro tabloid:

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Darwin Week in Ottawa

Just because we don't worship Charles Darwin doesn't mean we will refrain from celebrating all those round numbers: Carleton University has a series of lectures planned next week (plus one in April) to celebrate the Darwin anniversaries.

Monday Feb 9th
"Darwin and the Evolution of Reasons" – Daniel Dennett
(Reception following this event is sponsored by the Humanist Association of Ottawa)

Tuesday Fed 10th
"Darwin's Landscape Vision" - Michael Summerfield

Wednesday Feb 11th
"Putting Darwinism and Religion in their Place" - David Livingstone

Thursday Feb 12th
"The Struggle for Existence in the World of Climate Change" Charles Krebs

Friday Feb 13th
"Killing Time: An Explanation for the Contrivances of Males for Seizing and Restraining Females that Darwin Did Not Attempt to Explain" - Dr Patricia Gowaty

Monday, February 2, 2009

I'm an A-bus-ist, Too!

Though the transit strike is officially over, apparently it will take several weeks to get the busses back on the road again. (What, these things fall apart just sitting in the garage?) So while there is some talk of bringing the atheist bus ad campaign to Ottawa, for the next little while this is going to be the main sentiment of Ottawans, of any or no religious persuasion:
Ironically, that's also the current situation back where the bus campaign started.
(Image generated by Bus slogan generator)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Now that's a BIRD!

This handsome guy or gal was perched in our backyard about noon today. We couldn't get a look at its back, but identify it as a probable Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii). Apparently, they're not unknown around Ottawa. It seemed to be hanging out with three crows, who were perched in the other tree, and they all flew off together while I was walking around the yard.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

Among the newly-installed President Obama's first acts has been to lift the ban on US foreign-aid funding for groups that facilitate abortion. This was quite predictable,as it follows a pattern of recent history going back to Reagan, of Republican presidents imposing the ban, and their Democratic successors lifting it. Also predictable was reaction from Certain Quarters -- like the Vatican, as represented by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life:
....the arrogance of someone who believes they are right....

What is important is to know how to listen, without locking oneself into ideological visions with the arrogance of a person who, having the power, thinks they can decide on life and death. If this is one of the first acts of President Obama, then with all due respect it seems to me that we are heading toward disappointment even more quickly than we thought
The irony of a dogmatic church complaining about someone else's "arrogance" and "ideological visions"....needs no further comment from me. And as for "life and death": this is the same Church whose bizarre views on sex and reproduction have almost certainly worsened the AIDS crisis in Latin America and Africa.

I think we should take up a collection to buy a bunch of mirrors, to be installed in the Vatican. They really need them over there.