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Monthly Archives: January 2009

My wife and I were watching the news tonight when the story played. Calgary Transit buses will soon sport the advert “There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” My only comment is that I would change “probably” to “almost certainly”. The former gives the waffling impression that atheists think that there is a slight, but real chance that there is. Calgary will be the second Canadian city (after Toronto) to publicly send out the message on transit vehicles, the first appearing in about two months from now. 

The story on tv included a sound bite from Terry Young, a pastor at Calgary First Alliance Church, who, while not agreeing with the message itself, has no problem with Freethought Calgary running the ads. He predicts are range of reactions: “You are going to have some people who will be offended by it and others who will acknowledge that that perspective is out there in the pluralistic world we live in.”

When Young indicated that he had no problem with the ads being run on Calgary buses, my wife said “Excellent!” in obvious surprise. 

Doesn’t that just say it all? We atheists expect to be disrespected. We expect the hue and cry of the pious over the expression of our disbelief in god, all the while patting themselves on the back at the latest witty church sign. We’re surprised, and pleasantly so, when a Christian speaks up and tells us,  “Hey, you have every right to express that viewpoint.” We both felt validated by Young’s acceptance that other people do not necessarily share the same belief set.

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Only the religious can be as myopic and blind to fact as to propose abstinence-only sex education programs, preferring (as always) that people remain in the dark about safe sex, contraception and (oh nos!) reproductive choice. All religions are about control, and one of the prime mechanisms by which it asserts this control is through prohibition. Whether it’s prohibiting alcohol consumption, controlling what happens in the bedroom or subverting independent thought, no religion promotes freedom of any sort. One thing about prohibition that can be shown time and time again is its perfect failure rate.

Many of the piously religious would rather adhere to millennia-old doctrine that has little relevance remaining to modern society and try to put the genie back into the bottle. I’ve got news for such people – resistance is futile. The moral zeitgeist has changed over the centuries and the current conflicts in women’s rights and reproductive choice (to name only a few) are a reflection of this temporal anomaly. We no longer live in the 12th century and the world views of some members of society have remained unaltered by the march of time. Women are no longer chattel.

But, I know such advice will fall on ears deafened by the voices of irrationality like the late Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, neither of whom do I think have any redeeming qualities in their character. They tell the faithful what they should believe and how they should act and the bleating masses blindly follow. I’ve never like the parable of the sheep and the shepherd. As a free thinker I do not resemble a sheep needing any shepherd, and being a sheep means getting shagged when the shepherd puts on his velcro gloves.

Case in point: A Minneapolis man drives his SUV into a Planned Parenthood clinic. On the 36th anniversary of the historic Roe vs. Wade decision acknowledging women’s reproductive choice, spokesperson Kathi Di Nicola said the 32-year old unidentified man had gotten out of his SUV after smashing it into the entrance and was pacing around it, holding a crucifix and chanting. “He was agitated and he was saying, ‘shut down this Auschwitz,’ ” she [Kathi Di Nicola] said. The damage was minor, and patients were diverted to another entrance. 

I find it amusing that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are described as ‘militant’, even though they would never condone violence to promote their views. I wonder what the faithful will call the actions of this ‘gentleman’? How far is anyone who would picket an abortion clinic from this kind of action? How far is anyone who follows a two millennia old dogma that can’t even begin to cope with modernity?

Another oldie from my withdrawal from MySpace…

Seen any of the Terminator movies lately? If so, you may want to wait a while before reading this, but this is cool. Trust me. Even if you spell it ‘evilution’, you are going to think this is cool. Really cool. Alan Bellows did a writeup on hardware evolution, a brand new area of study, which has direct parallels to biological evolution. The main figure in this article is a Dr. Adrian Thompson at the University of Sussex. The experiment that has so wowed me involved the use of a field-programmed gate array (FPGA) to distinguish between two tones. The FPGA used was small, only 10 x 10 cells in size, and removed access to the system clock (so that the program could not time the waveforms coming in and accidentally result in a program that just measured the waveform frequencies). Dr. Thompson programmed in a random set of binary data, the initial DNA if you will, and judged the ability of each set of digital DNA. The programs which produced the best ability to differentiate between tones were kept for the next generation, with a bit of random mutation thrown in for good measure.

“For the first hundred generations or so, there were few indications that the circuit-spawn were any improvement over their random-blob ancestors. But soon the chip began to show some encouraging twitches. By generation #220 the FPGA was essentially mimicking the input it received, a reaction which was a far cry from the desired result but evidence of progress nonetheless. The chip’s performance improved in minuscule increments as the non-stop electronic orgy produced a parade of increasingly competent offspring. Around generation #650, the chip had developed some sensitivity to the 1kHz waveform, and by generation #1,400 its success rate in identifying either tone had increased to more than 50%.

Finally, after just over 4,000 generations, [the] test system settled upon the best program. When Dr. Thompson played the 1kHz tone, the microchip unfailingly reacted by decreasing its power output to zero volts. When he played the 10kHz tone, the output jumped up to five volts. He pushed the chip even farther by requiring it to react to vocal “stop” and “go” commands, a task it met with a few hundred more generations of evolution. As predicted, the principle of natural selection could successfully produce specialized circuits using a fraction of the resources a human would have required. And no one had the foggiest notion how it worked.”

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I’ve been reading blogs over the last couple of days and making comments on a few written by evolution deniers. Normally I don’t do that kind of thing. People can believe what they want. But when outright lies are being propagated, I draw the line. Such people have put the crosshairs on themselves and I have no problems taking the shot. 

One blog I commented on claimed that there is no evidence for evolution.

Horse feathers.! I blogged yesterday on upcoming books on evolution that I’m looking forward to, and included a list of books already out there that present such evidence. The amazing thing is that there is so much evidence out there that these books don’t even overlap! Books on evolutionary development (Sean B. Carroll), molecular biological evidence for human evolution (Daniel Fairbanks), paleontological evidence (Donald R. Prothero), anatomical evidence (Neil Shubin, along with a bit of the importance of the transitional fossil find Tiktaalik.

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The weather has been absolutely beautiful in Calgary lately. Even good enough to get the charcoal barbecue going last night. Today we’re supposed to hit +16°C, almost good enough to remove jackets outside. It won’t last, of course. The bottom falls out Thursday and we’re back to frigid temperatures. 

I’m a barbecue nut, having both propane and charcoal models. Nothing beats charcoal for smoking steaks. And this weekend I finally found a reliable source for smoked paprika (if you want to sound like a gourmand, use the term ‘pimentón de la vera’). I highly recommend using it in meat recipes calling for sweet paprika, though it is expensive.

Anyhow, the last few years has seen a spate of excellent books on evolution targeted at lay-audiences. Some are a bit more technical than others, but most people familiar with the lingo don’t want it too dumbed down. Researchers in the field realize that communication of what they do and why we understand evolution to be a fact has been lacking.

Recent books that I highly recommend include:

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This blog journey begins with a talk given by Hal Bidlack (Skepticality #057 – On being a Skeptic of Faith, Dr. Hal Bidlack, Ph.D.) aired on the Skepticality podcast. He begins by complaining that because he is a high-profile deist he is continually accosted by atheists at skeptic meetings (such as The Amazing Meeting, to which I must make a pilgrimage soon). They simply can’t understand how he can maintain a belief in a deity (no matter how nebulous such a deity might be) and try to convert him. 

I sympathize with both sides. I do not condone the actions of such atheists (we should really be above this kind of unethical thing), but I also share their mystification. Bidlack has every right to believe in a deity, but can he be a ‘good skeptic’ while doing so?

First, I will define what I mean by skepticism by taking the most appropriate meaning of the word given in the Wikipedia entry on the subject: 

Skepticism: a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing.

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I’ve already blogged on the irresponsible decision by the Catholic School Board to not make HPV vaccinations available to its wards. The inexplicable excuse for this that it sends the wrong message to children. 

Can someone explain to me how getting the HPV vaccination promotes promiscuity? Is there any science to back that up? I sure as hell don’t think so. The only message I get from this is Catholic religious authority is indifferent to the fate of the children they purport to give guidance to so long as they behave how religiots think they should. It sickens me to no end.

What about abstinence-only sex education? If kids don’t have sex then there’s no problem, right? There is one attribute which all abstinence-only sex education programs and abstinence pledges share and that is their spectacular failure rate. In fact, they result in disastrous consequences because teens are not given the appropriate information on birth control and safe sex practices. To any parent out there that is offended by having their children taught responsibly I have this to say: Get over yourself – this is not about you. If parents think that their teens are not going to engage in such behavior they will be disabused of that notion in short order. And for none of them will whether or not they have had the vaccine be a factor in the decision making process.

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