Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Atheism. Srsly.

Via Terahertz via Friendly Atheist:

How serious do you take your atheism?

Let’s find out.

Copy and paste the list below on your own site, boldfacing the things you’ve done. (Feel free to add your own elaboration and commentary to each item!)

  1. Participated in the Blasphemy Challenge.
  2. Met at least one of the “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) in person.
  3. Created an atheist blog.
  4. Used the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a religious debate with someone.
  5. Gotten offended when someone called you an agnostic.
  6. Been unable to watch Growing Pains reruns because of Kirk Cameron.
  7. Own more Bibles than most Christians you know.
  8. Have at least one Bible with your personal annotations regarding contradictions, disturbing parts, etc.
  9. Have come out as an atheist to your family.
  10. Attended a campus or off-campus atheist gathering.
  11. Are a member of an organized atheist/Humanist/etc. organization.
  12. Had a Humanist wedding ceremony
  13. Donated money to an atheist organization.
  14. Have a bookshelf dedicated solely to Richard Dawkins. (Not really, but I do own books by him OTHER than The God Delusion)
  15. Lost the friendship of someone you know because of your non-theism.
  16. Tried to argue or have a discussion with someone who stopped you on the street to proselytize.
  17. Hid your atheist beliefs on a first date because you didn’t want to scare him/her away.
  18. Own a stockpile of atheist paraphernalia (bumper stickers, buttons, shirts, etc).
  19. Attended a protest that involved religion
  20. Attended an atheist conference.
  21. Subscribe to Pat Condell’s YouTube channel
  22. Started an atheist group in your area or school.
  23. Successfully “de-converted” someone to atheism.
  24. Have already made plans to donate your body to science after you die. (Considering it)
  25. Told someone you’re an atheist only because you wanted to see the person’s reaction.
  26. Had to think twice before screaming “Oh God!” during sex. Or you said something else in its place.
  27. Lost a job because of your atheism.
  28. Formed a bond with someone specifically because of your mutual atheism (meeting this person at a local gathering or conference doesn’t count). (There are lots of reasons Jess and I got along so well when we met but both of us being atheists was a major one)
  29. Have crossed “In God We Trust” off of — or put a pro-church-state-separation stamp on — dollar bills.
  30. Refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. (Or Canadian national anthem)
  31. Said “Gesundheit!” (or nothing at all) after someone sneezed because you didn’t want to say “Bless you!”
  32. Have ever chosen not to clasp your hands together out of fear someone might think you’re praying.
  33. Have turned on Christian TV because you need something entertaining to watch
  34. Are a 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation atheist.
  35. Have “atheism” listed on your Facebook or dating profile — and not a euphemistic variant.
  36. Attended an atheist’s funeral (i.e. a non-religious service).
  37. Subscribe to an freethought magazine (e.g. Free Inquiry, Skeptic) (Nope, but I usually pick up a copy of Skeptical Inquirer when Im at Chapters)
  38. Have been interviewed by a reporter because of your atheism.
  39. Written a letter-to-the-editor about an issue related to your non-belief in God.
  40. Gave a friend or acquaintance a New Atheist book as a gift.
  41. Wear pro-atheist clothing in public.
  42. Have invited Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house specifically because you wanted to argue with them.
  43. Have been physically threatened (or beaten up) because you didn’t believe in God.
  44. Receive Google Alerts on “atheism” (or variants). (Not anymore though)
  45. Received fewer Christmas presents than expected because people assumed you didn’t celebrate it.
  46. Visited The Creation Museum or saw Ben Stein’s Expelled just so you could keep tabs on the “enemy.”
  47. Refuse to tell anyone what your “sign” is… because it doesn’t matter at all.
  48. Are on a mailing list for a Christian organization just so you can see what they’re up to…
  49. Have kept your eyes open while you watched others around you pray.
  50. Avoid even Unitarian churches because they’re too close to religion for you.
And the scoring system:
0-10: Impressive, but not too far from agnosticism.
: You are, literally, a “New Atheist.” But you now have something to strive for! Go for the full 50!
: You are an atheist, but babies aren’t running away from you. Yet.
: You are the 5th Horseman! Congratulations!
: PZ Myers will now be taking lessons from you

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Relativity explained in four letter words.

Ever wanted to try and understand relativity but just couldn't get your head around the complicated terminology and somewhat abstract thinking? Then this is for you:

Short Words to Explain Relativity

Brian Raiter has written up a great explanation of relativity, and to the delight of laymen out there, it's written entirely in words that contain four letters or less.

It's a great read. So what are you waiting for? Go read it!

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

You think I can get this on a shirt?

Taken from Komplexify:

Botox: If they only knew...

Humans are vain creatures. Perhaps only cats can tie humans on the vanity scale. And because we're so vain, we (or at least a select demographic) have become accustomed to poking, prodding, nipping, tucking, and injecting to make ourselves look younger and more beautiful. I'm talking, of course, about cosmetic surgery. It's reported that in the U.S alone, 11 million cosmetic surgeries were done in 2006. It's hardly a small industry.

But of all the different procedures which have become commonplace in the world of cosmetic augmentation, one has become particularly popular in the recent years: Botox.

Botox is a treatment used to get rid of unwanted wrinkles. Supposedly, it works well, because I doubt it would be so popular if it didn't. But there is one important fact about Botox that I don't believe many people who undergo the treatments ever ask themselves: what, exactly, is Botox?

To answer that, first we have to take a look at the lovely bacterium Clostridium botulinum (see the lovely image to the right), or rather what C. botulinum is best known for: it's toxin. If you or your parents or grandparents have ever made canned or jarred preserves, or if you have ever bought any from a farmer's market, then you are probably familiar with one big danger of eating such foods - botulism. If canned/jarred foods are not prepared correctly, you run the risk of contamination by C. botulinum. When ingested, the bacterium produce a toxin known as botulinum toxin, leading to botulism. Botulism is no simple food poisoning, either. Botulism is deadly. It causes a paralysis of the muscles and is very often deadly. It's so deadly that a 12oz glass of botulinum toxin is enough to kill every single person on the planet.

To understand the mechanism by which botulinum toxin (BTX) works, I should first explain a bit about how neurons work. When a signal is transferred from one neuron to another, it relies on the function of a neurotransmitter called acetlycholine (ACh). In general (and this is pretty general; I won't go into action potential polarization/depolarization), when an impulse travels down the axon of a neuron, it allows for ACh to be released across the synapse (the synapse is the space between the axon of one neuron and where it touches another). When the ACh reaches the surface of the next neuron, it binds to cellular receptors which signal to the neuron to continue the impulse, and the process continues from neuron to neuron. The whole process hinges on ACh being released and passed on to the next neuron down the line.

Inside of a neuron, ACh is stored in "synaptic vesicles". Think of them as little membrane-bound spheres that hold ACh until it's needed. In order for the ACh to go from inside the synaptic vesicle to the outside of the neuron, the vesicles bind and fuse to the axon membrane, releasing the ACh into the synapse. This process of binding and fusing is facilitated by two key proteins: synaptobrevin and SNAP-25. Synaptobrevin is a VAMP, or Vesicle-Associated Membrane Protein. In other words, Synaptobrevin sits on the outside of the synaptic vesicle. SNAP-25 sits on the cytoplasmic face of the axonal membrane. These two proteins interact with each other; synaptobrevin latches on to SNAP-25 to form what's known as a SNARE complex. The formation of this complex is what allows the synaptic vesicle to bind and fuse with the cellular membrane.

If all of that confused you, then let me put it in simpler terms. Synaptobrevin on the vesicle anchors onto SNAP-25 in the axon, allowing the vesicle to attach to the cellular membrane. The two fuse and ACh is released into the synapse. The nerve impulse is allowed to continue.

This is where botulinium toxin comes in. The BTX toxin is actually a protein consisting of two chains: the light chain and the heavy chain. The heavy chain is responsible for getting BTX into neurons; it binds to structures on the surface of the neuron, whereby it is internalized by endocytosis. Next, it's the light chain's turn to do it's dirty work. The light chain of the toxin actually works as a protease (that is, it cleaves proteins). The protein of choice of the light chain actually depends on the type of BTX toxin in question. BTX-A will cleave SNAP-25, whereas BTX-B will cleave synaptobrevin. Either way, the consequence should be obvious. With one of the components of the SNARE complex missing, the synaptic vesicles cannot bind and fuse, and ACh can no longer be released into the synapse.

This is bad news. With ACh being trapped inside of the neurons, neuronal impulses cannot be sent from one neuron to the next. This means that you can no longer send signals to your muscles telling them to relax or contract. You become completely paralyzed.

But what does all of this have to do with Botox, you ask? Well, Botox is simply a brand name for none other than botulinum toxin. It's actually botulinum toxin that cosmetic surgeons inject into your skin to make those wrinkles disappear. Wrinkles are caused by overactive muscles, and by injecting Botox, one can force them to relax and *poof*, no more wrinkles.

It is perfectly safe: the amount of toxin used is very small, and poses no significant health risks.
Nevertheless, I can't help but think that the popularity of Botox treatments would be on the rapid decline if more people knew that they were actually injecting the world's most toxin protein into their faces.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

God: The Failed Science Professor

I wish I could say I was creative enough to have come up with this, but I didn't.
Taken from

Why God Never Received Tenure at Any University
1. He had only one major publication.
2. It was in Hebrew.
3. It had no references.
4. It wasn't published in a refereed journal.
5. Some even doubt He wrote it Himself.
6. It may be true that He created the world, but what has He done since then?
7. His cooperative efforts have been quite limited.
8. The scientific community has had a hard time replicating His results.
9. He never applied to the Ethics Board for permission to use human subjects.
10. When one experiment went awry He tried to cover it up by drowning the subjects.
11. When subjects didn't behave as predicted, He deleted them from the sample.
12. He rarely came to class, just told students to read the Book.
13. Some say He had His son teach the class.
14. He expelled His first two students for learning.
15. Although there were only ten requirements, most students failed His tests.
16. His office hours were infrequent and usually held on a mountaintop.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Oy Vey, a Busy Week Ahead

This week is going to be pretty busy! Here's a short list of the awesome things this week has in store:

  • Monday: Public lecture by E. O. Wilson. Dr. Wilson is a very famous name in biology and is speaking at the U of A as part of the centennial celebrations. He's famous for a slew of things: his studies in sociobiology (he coined the term itself), his studies on ants (he's known as The Ant Man!), and his concern for ecology and conservation are just some of them. He's also a humanist to boot (though he sometimes leans towards deism).
  • Tuesday: Important day to us video game addicts. Tuesday is the release date for the hotly anticipated Left 4 Dead. For those of you not familiar with it, Left 4 Dead is an online co-operative first person shooter where you and four friends must survive a post-zombie apocalypse by mowing down wave after wave of blood-thirsty undead while making your way to safety. Also being released this day is the Lord of the Rings Online expansion pack, The Mines of Moria (I'm a huge Tolkein nerd, so I'm getting this for sure) and the Dungeons and Dragons based Storm of Zehir (I will also be getting this to satisfy my D&D needs until I can get a group up and running). Looks like Tuesday will be an expensive day for me....
  • Wednesday: The U of A Atheists and Agnostics are hosting a talk by Dan Barker entitled "Can you Be Moral Without God?". Looks to be an interesting talk. He'll also be signing books (and if you don't have one, there will be a few copies for sale!)
  • Thursday and Friday: These days look free, but given Tuesday's release schedule, I think I know what I'll be doing...

Coming soon: Regular posts again

Now that I'm back from Boston, iGEM is wrapped up for the year (though I'm going to volunteer to casually help finish our project), I should be back to making regular posts here at In Vivo. I've been swamped with things to take care of lately, but I have some things in mind to write about. I'm also reading Craig Venter's autobiography A Life Decoded, so expect a book review sometime in the future.

P.S. iGEM jamboree was a blast. Undergrads in science/engineering, I urge you to get involved in the competition at your school, or if you don't have a team, speak to a molecular biology/cell bio/biochemestry/microbiology professor about starting one!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Congratulations, America.

Obama wins.
Congratulations, America. You made the right choice.
After 8 years of utter incompetence, you are on the cusp of 4 years of sanity.
Perhaps now your country will rise above it's reputation as laughing stock of the international stage.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Boston in one week!

I leave in one week today to attend the iGEM jamboree at MIT in Boston. Totally uberexcited about it.
We spend three days at the Jamboree, and one extra day to see Boston. I hope to get a tour of the Medical School at MIT, or maybe get a chance to meet Craig Mello (who I've had the pleasure of seeing lecture before) or H. Robert Horvitz! We're also going to visit Harvard, but from what I hear, you cant get into any of the buildings except the bookstore if you're not a student. The guards make very sure of that.

I admit, though, that I'm not very familiar with Boston, so if anyone out there knows of things to see in the city let me know!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Need I give more proof?

In my last post I showed a video, which I claimed depicted the average McCain supporter. It was a video of one, and only one, woman and her beliefs. Perhaps I need more proof that the average McCain supporter is an ignorant waste of organic matter. Well, here it is (video below):

There are more slurs, insults, lies, and incomprehensible ignorance spewing from the mouths of that crowd than I can count. The scene reminds me of a KKK rally sans the white sheets - they expel the same hatred and filth. These people compose a large portion of McCain's support, and both McCain and Palin do little but pander to their interests. The whole ACORN voting fraud and Ayers connection smear campaigns are proof of that; indeed, the McCain campaign is guilty of starting many of the nasty, ignorant, uninformed rumors and misconceptions that his fervorous, mindless proponents howl.

And what was the crowd in that clip getting so worked up over? That footage was taken at a Palin rally, but you'd think it was an angry mob that showed up outside Obama's house. Perhaps they should consider yelling out reasons why McCain will make the country a better place if they wish to win over undecided voters or Obama supporters, but no, they have to be loud bigots because Obama's a "got-dang baby killing commie Muzzie terr'rist".

It's people like these that make me think that voting should only be a right for those who prove themselves to be informed voters who understand the issues at hand and the platforms of the candidate, and will vote based on who they think will do a better job at making the country worth living in. I would love to see a voter competence exam introduced, but that would never fly because people have the right to vote, no matter how ignorant they are....but that's a topic for some other post.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The sad truth: this is the average McCain supporter

A significant proportion of supporters of McCain are not supporters based on his political platform; rather, the refer to themselves as "values voters". What does that mean, exactly? The video below does a pretty good job of explaining:

Tracy here feels that the most important issue in the upcoming election is "the one who has the most faith in the Lord". Not their foreign policy, not their stance on the current economic crisis, not their thoughts on the war in Iraq, but who believes in God more.

But Tracy's ignorance truly shines when explains why she won't be voting for Obama:
"I can't imagine a President of the United States being named President Obama. I really have a problem with that and I'm not the only one."

If you wont vote for someone based on their name, then you should probably rethink voting at all. And what's really sad is that she's right that she's not the only one who has a problem with Obama's name: the "Obama's a Muslim, just look at his name" thing is common among the fundies, despite the fact that he is a Christian.

And she follows up that gem with the following dumbosity:
"His background. A mother that was atheist. Huh, that really gets to me. A father that was a Muslim. That should get to everyone."

So what if his mother was an atheist (is there even any evidence to support that? I've never heard of this)? What does his father's religion matter (there is actually evidence that points to his father being an atheist, actually)? None of these have any bearing on Obama's faith, and Obama's faith has no bearing on how well he could run the country. Again, if this is the reason you're voting against someone, then you should rethink voting at all.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Oh, if only the world could vote...

I stumbled across and interesting website today that showed an even more interesting statistic.
The website is called If The World Could Vote, and it simply contains a single online poll, open to everyone worldwide, that asks "If you could vote on the American election right now, who would you vote for?".
The results so far look like this (my apologies for the incredibly poor picture quality, check out the results page on the site if you want to save your eyes):
Almost unanimously, the entire would would vote in Obama.

Now, I know there are a lot of problems with internet polls; people can sometimes cast multiple votes, only people with internet connections and computers are included so they only test a select demographic, etc etc, so take this with a grain of salt.

But I thought there were a few interesting things to point out.

First, there are a few countries in which support for McCain is the majority or close to it. Burkina Faso is one such country, with 100% support for the Republicans, but this is with a meager 2 votes so it's hardly accurate. It does seem, however, that many of the former Soviet republics have a higher than average number voting Red: Belarus is a prime example. Countries in and around the Balkans (Macedonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia) also are a bit higher on the McCain scale. What could account for such a trend in these regions? Perhaps a disdain for the Democrat's handling of the Balkan conflict could account for it in the Balkan regions (though this is unlikely, since Bill Clinton seems to be popular in the least in Kosovo, where his likeness has been engraved into the city's tallest building and a statue of the former president has been erected) but what about Belarus? I admit I know very little about Belarusian history so I cannot even begin to guess.

Also interesting is the support for Obama in the US: this poll shows 82% of the votes in his favour. It is my understanding that Obama is currently ahead in the polls, but I don't believe that the numbers are this high.

I have to wonder, though, if this poll is somewhat biased towards Obama. The poll exclusively polls internet users, and I would go so far to say that it includes "core" internet users rather than casual internet users. In general (and, as any visit to an internet forum would confirm *cough*4chan*cough*, I am being very general), the core internet population is more "intellectually based" than the rest of the general population: after all, it does take a degree of technical knowhow to use the internet and it is usually more intellectually minded people who enjoy learning such technical skills. And, I do not think it would be a stretch to claim that support for Obama and the Democrats is high among intellectuals. If this is the case then the high support for Obama is not unexpected.

But then again, who knows? The overall message from this poll (however unfair or inaccurate it may be) is that pretty much the entire world is rooting for Obama. Will America do the same?

Thursday, 9 October 2008

America isnt the only place with crazies running for office.

It seems our great nation of Canada also has its kooks wanting to be in the government.

According to this article from the Edmonton Sun, the district of Sudbury, Ontario is home to one such individual, running for a seat in the upcoming federal election. David Popescu is running as an independent in the Sudbury riding. Yesterday, at the Sudbury Secondary School auditorium, Popescu attended a discussion forum along with his fellow candidates from the NDP, Liberal and First People's National parties. The discussion was a great opportunity for highschool kids to pose questions to the candidates and to get involved in the political scene, even though they're not old enough to vote yet. It was at this forum where Popescu's crazy was on display in its entirety.

First he introduced himself with a public prayer, which is a bit unusual, but isn't something entirely crazy. He proceeded to tell the kids how climate change and economic woes are due to the wickedness of society - a bit loopy. But it wasn't until he was asked his opinion on gay marriage that Popescu was shown to be a total wackjob. His response?

That all homosexuals should be executed.

Someone running for government, here in Canada, said that. I'm absolutely dumbstruck.
And if you think that maybe he was misquoted or that his response was taken out of context, he was later asked to clarify his response. He only reasserted his view saying,
"A young man asked me what I think of homosexual marriages and I said I think homosexuals should be executed...[m]y whole reason for running is the Bible and the Bible couldn't be more clear on that point."
Popescu also told a student who asked about stem cell research that "God would hurt" any woman who had an abortion.

I am, however, somewhat glad to see the highschool kid's reactions to Popescu's comments:
"The crowd jeered and many rose to their feet in protest after Popescu answered another teenager's question on gay marriage."
It's nice to see that the kids know enough to disagree with Popescu's vile ideas.

Nonetheless, I dont really like the police response to the situation:
Police are investigating whether [Popescu] committed a hate crime by telling high school students homosexuals should be executed..."We are actively conducting a criminal investigation in this matter," deputy police chief Frank Elsner said."
I do think that what Popescu was wrong, and I do think that what he said was hateful; but I don't think that he should be thrown in jail for saying it, especially if he was invited to a forum to give his views and was specifically asked about them.

Either way, I'm shocked that such a person could be running for election in our country. I'd really like to say that his remarks have cost him the seat, but frankly, I'm not that sure that it will.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

And this year's Nobel in Chemistry goes to...

...Roger Tsien, Martin Chalfie and Osamu Shimomura for their discovery and development of GFP, green fluorescent protein.

Now this is something that really does deserve a Nobel. GFP and its derivatives have really revolutionized molecular biology. Pretty much everyone who does molecular biology has worked with GFP at one point or another. Since its discovery, an entire field of chemistry has opened up, developing new forms of GFP and other fluorescent proteins, that fluoresce different colours. New uses are being found for GFP all the time. GFP, to put it simply, has made a lot of modern molecular biology possible.

These three fellows weren't my picks for the Chemistry prize, but I had seen Tsien's name tossed around on a few sites as a likely winner. Congratulations to the three of them!

Monday, 6 October 2008

And this year's Nobel in Medicine/Physiology goes to...

...three folks for two different discoveries!

Half the prize was awarded to Harald zur Hausen for his work on the HPV virus; more specifically, for his discovery that types of HPV can cause cervical cancer. His work has, obviously, lead to the new HPV vaccine that is causing an uproar in Christian schools as of late.

The other half of the prize was given to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for their discovery of HIV. This discovery is possibly the single most important discovery in medicine/virology and it's good to see that it was finally deemed Nobel-worthy; many people have wondered in the past why the prize had not been awarded to them in the 20+ years since their discovery.

I (and many others) had bet on Elizabeth Blackburn for this prize (she was a co-discoverer of telomerase), but she might still get it for the chemistry prize - there are (quite probably unfounded) rumors that the chemistry prize will focus on biochemistry this year. We'll find out for sure on Wednesday.

Keep your eyes peeled, for the Physics prize is announced tomorrow!

The Real American Jesus

I couldn't agree more.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Nobel Laureates for Obama!

Perhaps it's Obama's science-friendly stance, or perhaps it's the McCain campaign's blatant anti-science (particularly Palin's creationist and anti-global warming sentiments), but a large group of Nobel laureates have gotten together and drafted a letter endorsing Obama for president. A total of 61 laureates have signed the letter, which is more than any other candidate in history (apparently John Kerry got 48 endorsements from prize winners).

As some people have pointed out, though, the 61 laureates are those from the science categories. No laureates from the economics category were represented. Does this say something about Obama and his platform (Nay-sayers would say yes)? Or did those in the sciences simply get together and write up an endorsement letter, and not tell the economists about it (more likely, in my opinion)? Does it even matter (the Nobel Prize in Economics isn't even a real Nobel Prize ;) )

I'm familiar with a good number of names on the list. Some interesting things I noticed though:
  • The list includes H. Robert Horvitz, but neither Sydney Brenner nor John Sulston (the three of them won the 2002 prize in Medicine for their work on genetic regulation of apoptosis and organ development). Brenner is by far the most well known of the trio and his signature would carry more weight than Horvitz' or Sulston's. Brenner is also a liberal guy so his absence from the list is a bit surprising.
  • The ever infamous James Watson gave his John Hancock. Many commentors seem surprised to see his name on the list, given his recent comments regarding race and intelligence. However, anyone familiar with Watson and has read any of his biographical works knows that he's far from the conservative side of the spectrum. Watson would endorse Obama on his stance on science alone.
  • There are very few female laureates on the list - only one by my count: Linda Buck, who won the prize in Medicine for her work on the olfactory system. True, there are very few female laureates ( and even fewer that are still alive to sign the letter!) but I would have expected at least to see Christiane Nusslein-Volhard on the list.
The original PDF of the letter can be found here.

Shall we write Chapters a letter?

There is a reason why I don't shop at popular music stores: they don't seem to be able to get their genres right. I'm a bit of a "genre Nazi", and it annoys me to see breakcore albums placed under "techno" or albums by pop groups placed under "punk" (HMV is the worst for this kind of thing), so I do my music shopping online. This goes for books as well as music. One place where I'm satisfied with the sorting of the stock, though, is Chapters. Chapters usually does a good job. Usually.

I was browsing at Chapters yesterday when I noticed something a bit disheartening. They had a table with a pile of books on it, under the header "Ideas and Opinions". They had Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, along with Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation and some Christian apologetics books, which is fine. A lot of those matters are ideas that need to be shared and some of them boil down to personal opinions. But what really irked me was their inclusion of On the Origin of Species.

Darwin's seminal work is not merely an "idea" or "opinion". It is the genesis of the foundations for all of modern biology. To call it an idea does not do it any justice, and to call it an opinion is to do it an incredible disservice! Yes, the book was built upon ideas that Darwin had while journeying on the Beagle, but calling it simply an idea has the connotation that it's something unsupported by evidence; it's tantamount to saying evolution is a mere hypothesis rather than a scientific theory. Calling it an opinion is blatantly wrong; there is a fine distinction between fact and opinion, and evolution is as much of a scientific fact as you can get.

What's more is that, upon looking through Chapters' science section (where Chapters usually puts On the Origin of Species), I came across copies of Michael Behe's IDiotic Darwin's Black Box and The Edge of Evolution. Perhaps the bigwigs at Chapter's are unfamiliar with the Dover trial, but Intelligent Design is certainly not science and should not be found under the Science section. If any book should be found under "Idea's and Opinions" then Behe's trash would be it. The girlfriend and I just happened to have a pen and a sticky note on us, so we left a message for the Chapters staff, asking them to move it to a more appropriate section, like philosophy or religion.

Alas, I think it will go ignored.

Perhaps we should write Chapters a letter. I can understand their wanting to be impartial in the current culture war over evolution and putting Origin in a neutral category, but it's simply wrong. Evolution is science. Evolution is not "just a theory" or "idea" or "opinion". Writing a letter will probably do nothing - and maybe I'm just being a "genre Nazi" again - but maybe it's something we, the secular and scientific community, should consider.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Sarah Palin: Certifiably Insane

It's been fairly well known for some time now that Sarah Palin is a little loopy. She wants creationism taught in schools (in science class!) and is rumored* to be a Young Earth Creationist. She allowed Wasilla municipal police to force rape victims to pay for the kits used in investigating rapes while she was mayor. She believes that the war in Iraq is part of "God's Plan". Her former church seriously believes that Alaska is going to be a refuge where people will flock during Armageddon and that the president is a representative of God. She thinks that global warming is entirely a natural process. And she lies through her teeth.

But now she's doing something that makes her eligible for a straight jacket and padded walls. She's suing the federal government because the polar bear is an endangered species. Video below (for those of you who can stomach Glenn Beck - I can't), Palin starts spouting inanity at 4:30:

Polar bears are in a lot of danger. Habitat loss due to climate change is a reality for polar bears and it's having a direct impact on polar bear populations. Here in Canada, they are listed as a "species of concern" and listed as "vulnerable" by the International Union of Conservation of Nature. While they are not listed as "endangered", the status they are given means they will become endangered soon if we don't take the steps necessary to protect them. Unfortunately, "vulnerable" and "species of concern" mean nothing to the bigwigs in Washington or to the oil industry: people only listen if something is "endangered".

The US federal government is now trying to have polar bears listed as threatened/endangered, so they are covered under the Endangered Species Act, the first step in making sure polar bears get the protection they need. This is a simple matter of protecting the diversity of nature on the planet. As governor of Alaska, a state ripe with natural beauty and majestic wildlife, Sarah Palin should be the first name on the list to support such a chance in the polar bear's status. However, the draconian Republican cluster in the deep recesses of her mind has kicked in and the paranoia juices are flowing; this isn't a matter of conservation, she says, it's the "extreme environmentalists" trying to use the polar bear as a means of stopping us from drilling our "God given" oil reserves! They must hate our country and want us to depend on foreign oil! And, in typical republican fashion, she's suing the government over it.

If this doesn't qualify her for shock therapy, then I don't know what will.

Hey, Palin. Can't you see we're trying to save the planet? What's the point in drilling for oil when we're not going to have a planet left on which to use it if things keep going the way they are?

But really, what else do you expect from someone who doesn't know what the job she's running for is all about?
*I say rumored because I cannot find a credible source that cites her views on Y.E.C. If anyone knows of one, let me know.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Review: Spore

Spore has seen a lot of media attention in the last few weeks, mostly due to the apparent "controversy" over its "Darwinian" contents. However, I feel that there really hasn't been a lot of focus on the game itself and so I decided that a through review was needed.

Both the girlfriend and I very eagerly awaited this game for months and we both bought it the day it was released (well, the day after for me, since Future Shop is so slow at putting their stock up on the shelves). The hype around the game was immense, and having played with the Creature Creator, we had high hopes for a spectacular game. It was purported to contain elements of great games like Civilization, and all tied around a central theme of evolution - so how could it not be a great game?

Well, frankly, it isn't.

Spore is an innovative creation - there is no doubt about that. But as a game, it simply leaves you feeling unfulfilled and wishing you had your $50 back.

The game is broken up into five stages. It begins with the cellular stage, then progresses into the creature stage, the tribal stage, the civilization stage and ends off with the space stage. All of these stages put together are supposed to feel like one large, epic game of galactic conquest, starting from the humble beginnings of a single celled organism and culminating with the foundation of a vast galactic empire. Instead, Spore feels more like five mediocre mini-games loosely strung together.

The cellular stage plays sort of like an oldschool arcade game. You guide your cell around in a top-down perspective, eating resources which give you DNA points, with which you can add new "parts" to your cell. You can chose to be either a herbivore or a carnivore at the very beginning, but the two options are hardly balanced. As a herbivorous cell, you must eat plant matter, while avoiding the carnivorous cells trying to eat you. As a carnivorous cell, you focus on killing and eating other cells. The very nature of this set up makes it much harder to play as a herbivore than a carnivore, even on the easiest difficulty setting. Players choosing the herbivorous lifestyle have to be prepared to die a lot, while the more meat-minded player can breeze through the stage in a matter of minutes, eating everything in sight.

Another gripe I had with the cellular stage was the lack of variety in parts you can chose from to "evolve" your cell. By killing other organisms, you can find new parts, but the cellular stage only has six parts to unlock. All herbivores become variations on the same thing- lots of fins and jets to move fast - while all carnivores become the variations on another - lots of mouths with which to eat and lots of (the same few) weapons with which to kill.

Eventually, once you've eaten enough and your cell has grown large enough, the game informs you that you can attach a pair of legs and leave the primordial ooze behind. This begins the creature stage.

Those of you familiar with the Creature Creator will be somewhat familiar with how the creature stage plays out. Once you move onto dry land, a small population of your creatures set up a nest which will be your homebase for the stage. From there you can explore your world and come into contact with other species. The objective of the stage depends on whether or not you chose to be a carnivore or a herbivore; herbivores have to befriend the other species and carnivores have to kill the other species. And that's pretty much all there is to the creature stage. The game's GUI lets you keep track of "missions" that you can do, but the missions are always the same: "Impress X number of Species A" or "Kill Y number of Species B". Once in a while, your species will migrate to a new nest and you have a mission to find it, but that is the only break you get from the kill/impress routine. Each time you complete a mission, you gain DNA points, which you can use to evolve your creature after you click the "Mating Call" button and seek out a mate. You can then equip your creature with new parts that you've unlocked, either as rewards for killing/impressing other creatures or from digging up piles of bones scattered about the landscape. Unlocked parts, besides adding visual flair, make it easier to impress/kill things. The cycle then repeats itself.

The creature stage gets bonus points for having so many different parts to unlock, allowing you to come up with some really creative and neat looking creatures. However, the absolute repetitiveness of the "missions" really detracts from what little fun there is at this stage. This is compounded by the fact that all other creatures on your planet are either indifferent to you or seriously want to make you extinct. The aggressive creatures seem to have a vendetta against you and only you; countless times I have been standing in the middle of a neighbouring nest, trying to impress a whole heard of creatures, when out of nowhere, I get attacked by a savage beast, who kills me and then completely ignores all the other creatures around. Even if you get slaughtered in front of a group of creatures you have befriended, don't think that they will come to your aid; they'll just stand by while your hit points drop. Thankfully, if you get killed, you can hatch from an egg at your home nest and start where you left off, but this is of little solace on a planet driven by the binary choice of Apathist or Asshole.

Having collected enough DNA points, your species obtains sentience and you can continue to the tribal stage. The tribal stage plays in a very similar manner to Populous. You control a tribe of your creatures and have them interact with other tribes of different creatures. Again, the missions here are of two kinds - either destroy the other tribes or befriend them. You can equip your tribe members with one of three different kinds of weapons (stone axes, torches, or spears) or one of three kinds of musical instruments, and these can be used to take over another tribe or befriend them, respectively. Your tribe only starts off with the ability to produce one kind of weapon and one kind of instrument, however, and you must take over/befriend other tribes in order to receive the others. On top of this, you have to harvest food, which is used to upgrade your main hut (allowing you to produce more tribe members) and build buildings. You can also use food as gifts for other tribes to help befriend them. Moreover, you can outfit your members with new clothes, masks, and decorations, which increases their social, warfare and resource gathering skills.

There is a major difference between the tribal stage and Populous, though. Populous was actually really fun. The tribal stage is more tedious than it is enjoying. Other tribes will attack you without having ever come into contact with you (something that also happens in the civilization and space stages). Not only this, but each of your tribe members also has a "hunger" bar below their health bar. If they get hungry, they need to run back to the village and eat or else they'll die. This is especially annoying when you're attacking an enemy village on the other side of the continent; you'll move your tribe members over to the enemy village only to find that they're on the verge of starving to death after the journey and have to run back home before you can do any real damage.

Once you've befriended/destroyed the enemy tribes, you can continue to the civilization stage. This stage plays much like a modern RTS game. You get to produce units which you can use to other civilizations on your planet, or you can chose the diplomatic route and befriend them (are you seeing a trend here?). There is an obvious Civilization influence in this stage (and should be, since one of the devs was a former Civ. dev), but what it basically comes down to is the same destroy/befriend theme. Anyone expecting the RTS influence to run deep, however, will be disappointed. The number of units you can produce depends on how many cities you can control, and you can only produce two types of units: military units (to destroy cities) and religious units (to convert cities), and each type can be broken down into three unit classes - land, sea and air. This comes out to a mere total of six unit types you can build, hardly competition for even the most simple of RTS games. And, much like the tribal stage before it, before long you'll find yourself besieged by civilizations you've yet to have contact with.

The one area that the civilization stage does well in, however, is customizing your civilization. You can design exactly how all six units look and how all the city buildings look, allowing your civilization to become distinct from any other civilization in the game. These can be changed at any time during the stage. I had more fun designing how my civilization was going to look than I did taking over the planet. Unfortunately, I think that says a lot about the flaws of this stage of the game.

Once the planet is yours, you can proceed to the final stage of the game - the space stage. This is by far my favourite part of the game. After designing your space ship, you fly into the interstellar void and begin visiting new worlds. This portion of the game is quite complex and you'll find the learning curve take a sharp rise. You can find new planets to colonize and terraform - a complex activity in itself, involving collecting species from other planets to create a stable food chain, introducing plants to create a stable ecosystem, and tweaking the atmosphere. You can contact other space-faring species and set up trade routes, forge alliances, or wage war. To make money you can take on missions that - unlike the other stages - have a variety of objectives, such as exterminating a pest species from a planet, retrieving a lost artifact, or defending a besieged colony. You can find powerups for your ship or terraforming tools scattered on worlds across the galaxy, making exploration rewarding as well as entertaining. Throw in fighting off space pirates to the mix and you have a deep, complex, entertaining game.

This stage is not without its flaws, though. On hard difficulty, defending your colonies become an almost impossible task - pirates and enemies will attack a planet, you'll defend it (after dying a dozen times) and before you've even left the planet's solar system, the same planet will be under attack again. Try dealing with this on multiple planets at once - it's a futile endeavor. It feels like all other space-faring civilizations in the galaxy are out to get you since they are never friendly and often attack unprovoked. Also, once in the space stage, you no longer have control over unit production of your colonies; it becomes automated by the computer. This makes it really difficult to defend your colonies when the computer decides that only a single tank is sufficient instead of churning out a battalion.

There are several general issues that keep Spore from becoming a fulfilling game. The choices you make during the evolutionary progression of your species really have little impact on the game since you can decide to change your creature in any and all aspects at any time during the creature stage. The anticipated and overhyped "evolution" portion of the game lasts only for one stage, which can be completed in about half an hour. And even if you decide to have six arms and a trunk like an elephant, that has no bearing whatsoever on how the later stages of the game are played. The game does give you different abilities/powers in the later stages depending on whether or not you were a carnivore or a herbivore, whether or not you were peaceful or warmongering, but the actual evolutionary choices you make really don't matter one bit. You can spend the whole creature stage as an eyeless blob with a snout and then "evolve" into the spawn of Cthulhu immediately before progressing to the tribal stage. You'll get the same benefits either way.

That isn't to say the game doesn't do anything right. The game is possibly one of the most innovative games I've ever played. The amount of customization in the game is impressive, and you'll never see two creatures or civilizations that look the same. The game also introduces a new form of peer-to-peer sharing of user content; all creatures, buildings and units are stored online in a database called the Sporepedia, and each game world is populated randomly with automatically downloaded user content (this option can be turned off, of course, if you tire of encountering large penis monsters).

Spore was supposed to be more than just a game, but rather a simulation of life from humble beginnings to immorality amongst the stars, but unfortunately it falls short of this goal. As I stated before, it feels more like five loosely connected mini-games than it does one grand game. It's sort of like a marshmallow and soda cracker sandwich - at first it seems unique and innovative, but after only a little while you realize how bland it really is. Only the space stage saves this game from being a total letdown.

Because we atheists are the petty, immoral ones, right?

In what can only be called a display of true Christian values, our lovely bunch of freethinkers on campus have just been hit with a bit of a shock: the large poster for our University of Alberta Atheists and Agnostics group has been vandalized.

Sprawled across the canvas in what appears to be Sharpie, some "tolerant" person has written "God loves you!" and "Jesus is coming!", and added a couple of hearts and crosses to top it all off. Admittedly, it's not as harsh as something like "Burn in hell, atheist scum", but nevertheless, this is a blatant display of the hypocrisy in the Christian community: they talk about love and peace and tolerance, and in the same breath someone vandalizes a completely inoffensive poster of their opposition.

Perhaps it was simply done by some random person "for teh lulz". Perhaps not. Undoubtedly, the Christian groups on campus will dismiss this as an act by someone who isn't "a true Christian" (and frankly, I don't think any of the groups were involved - I'd like to think they have a bit more maturity than to resort to petty vandalism).

This is the first real act of disrespect (I hesitate to call it "hatred", since, for all we know, this could have been done by someone who really thought they were trying to save us from hell and were committing an act of "love") that our group has faced. Now that our group is becoming more vocal about different issues, I doubt it will be the last. Let's hope it's the worst.

EDIT: Looks like the bottom portion of the poster, containing our group email address and website address, was cut off as well. Not content with simply vandalizing our work, they took it upon themselves to censor and silence us as well. Incredibly sad and pathetic.

EDIT 2: Seems like PZ Meyers has caught wind of our issue. Pretty awesome. He reaches a much wider audience than our group can, and it's important that we show people what kind of intolerance religious thinking leads to.

Thursday, 18 September 2008


I recently came across a neat site called StumbleUpon. It's basically a tool that you download, which adds a Stumble toolbar to your web browser. Any time you get bored, you can click the Stumble button and it'll take you to a random site that falls into your interest categories. You can rate sites (its a binary rating system; either you like the site or you don't) and this will help StumbleUpon further refine the types of sites it sends you to. You can submit new sites you come across to StumbleUpon by rating them (and in a fit of shameless self-promotion, I submitted my blog).

It's kinda fun and I've found some interesting sites through it. Check it out.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Kaprekar Numbers: Kinda cool and totally useless*

*not totally useless, I guess. Please, if you're a mathematician, don't send me angry letters.

I like math. I don't write alot (re: ever) about math, but I find it absolutely fascinating. As a mathematics layman who loves trivia, I get a kick out of mathematical "oddities" and neat little patterns - things that seem to have little practical value but are interesting nonetheless.

One math fact that I'm particularly fond of are called Kaprekar numbers. They can be defined as follows:

Take a number, a with n number of digits. Square a and write out the result. Add the right n digits to the left n (if it's even) or n-1 (if it's odd) digits. If the sum is a, then a is called a Kaprekar number.

For example: 703 is a Kaprekar number.
703 has 3 digits (n = 3)
7032= 494209
494 (the right n digits) + 209 (the left n digits) = 703

The largest Kaprekar number I can find after a very rudimentary search is 533170. I haven't the capacity for math to work out any numbers larger than that.

Also, I really don't know if determining Kaprekar numbers has any sort of practical relevance. Perhaps some mathematician out there could shed some light on them.

This has got to stop. Seriously.

The alarmists crying out over the LHC "destroying the Earth" need to stop. Despite repeated attempts from the scientific community assuring the public that the Earth is not going to be destroyed, people still worry that it will be.

It wont. Seriously.

And even though there is nothing to worry about, we need to stop the antiscience crowd from getting the public all worked up. This is why:

"A TEENAGE girl in central India killed herself on Wednesday after being traumatised by media reports that a "Big Bang" experiment in Europe could bring about the end of the world, her father said.

The 16-year old girl from the state of Madhya Pradesh drank pesticide and was rushed to the hospital but later died, police said."
This is incredibly sad, not just at the needless loss of life, but also because someone died believing in the words of uneducated antiscience non-experts.

I don't know how many times I need to say it: irrational beliefs HURT PEOPLE.
Tragic events of this nature happen when people hold irrational beliefs, be it religion or antiscience sentiments.

Although, if you ask me, killing yourself because you think the world is going to be destroyed seems kinda, well, futile.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Someone buy me some Sulfur Hexaflouride, STAT

Everyone knows about the old trick where you inhale helium and it makes your voice sound really high pitched. The reason is because helium is much less dense than air, and it makes sounds travel through it faster, increasing the pitch.

But what many people don't know is that the general principal works just as well in reverse, as MythBusters star Adam Savage demonstrates:

I've always wondered what kind of gas I could use to do that. Apparently xenon also works, but it has an anaesthetic effect so it probably wouldn't be a good choice. So it seems SF6 works well.

Apparently its expensive, but I must find some!

Monday, 8 September 2008

A sharp and poignant social cartoon form.

I've never heard of the Dork Tower series of comics but I stumbled upon this one. I think the politician is a pretty good representative of conservative America.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Think the LHC is big? Think again.

The LHC is a massive piece of machinery. With a circumference of 27km, it's the largest machine mankind has ever created and has had lots of press coverage on that detail alone. But it might not be holding on to that title for long.

Meet LISA. LISA stands for Laser Interferometer Space Antenna and is poised to dwarf the LHC when it's launched sometime in 2018. But before I tell you how big LISA is, I need to tell you what LISA does, so you can understand the need for such size.

What does LISA do, you ask? LISA, as the name implies, is an interferometer. Interferometers were made famous by two guys , Michelson and Morley, in the late 1800s when they attempted to find evidence for the luminiferous aether (they found none, and Michelson won the Nobel Prize for this and subsequent research). A classic interferometer is set up like in the picture to the right: A beam of light (like a laser) is intercepted by a half-silvered mirror, which splits the beam in two; half is reflected at a 90° angle and half passes through. Each half then contacts a regular mirror, and get sent back towards the half-silvered mirror, whereupon the beam that was originally reflected passes on through and the one that wasn't gets reflected at a 90° angle. The result is that both halves reach a detector at precisely the same time (since their paths were precisely the same length). The detector can determine how long it took each beam to arrive based on the interference pattern.

LISA uses such a setup to search for gravitational waves. Gravitational waves arrive as a result of Einstein's theory of general relativity. Massive objects warp the curvature of spacetime, and as such objects move around, they can cause the spacetime to ripple like water in a pond. These ripples are gravitational waves. If one could detect gravitational waves, then it would serve as further proof of Einstein's ideas.

How does one go about detecting gravitational waves? With an interferometer, of course! One consequence of gravitational waves is that they cause space time to ripple; to an observer, this would appear as a stretching and shrinking - an oscillation - of space. If a gravitational wave were to pass by an interferometer, the oscillation of space would cause one beam of the interferometer to take slightly longer to reach the detector than the other, resulting in a change in the interference pattern. A sufficiently precise interferometer, then, serves as a gravitationalwaveometer (yeah I made that word up).

Such a device already exists - LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory - consists of three laser interferometers in separate areas of the US (three are used to make sure changes in interference are caused by gravitational waves, which should be recorded by all three, rather than local disturbances). These devices are very large (2-4km in length for each arm of the device), but not LHC-big. And how have the results been so far? Well, lousy. You see, gravitational waves are small. Very very small. Theoretically, they should cause a change in the distance between the arms of the detectors by 10-17m, a fraction of the width of a proton. It is incredibly difficult to measure such a minuscule change, and so far, LIGO has not put out any conclusive data. Perhaps a more precise machine is needed. Or perhaps...a bigger one.

At the scale of 4km, gravitational waves cause a difference in 10-17m, but as the measured distance gets bigger, so does the discrepancy caused by gravitational waves. A bigger device would be able to detect gravitational waves much more easily. Enter LISA.

LISA is poised to be, not just the biggest laser interferometer ever built, but the largest, well, ANYTHING ever constructed. How big is LISA?

Each arm of the interferometer will be some 5 MILLION KILOMETERS long.
That's 5,000,000km.

That is HUGE.

Now, in the LHC's defence, the lasers will pass through empty space rather than down a long tunnel, so the actual physical parts of LISA are not 5 million km long, but still. The ends of LISA need to be placed in space with the utmost precision, and over such a distance, that is quite the task. That's not even factoring in solar winds, and light pressure, which can have a tangible cumulative effect at such distances, and can throw off the lasers.

But at 5 million km per side, LISA is one impressive machine, which might finally give us evidence for gravitational waves and prove Einstein right once again.

Creationist tries real hard, gives scholarly reference, epic failure ensues

One thing that really casts the shadow of doubt across the events depicted in the Old Testament has to do with the story of the Exodus. In case you're not familiar with the story, it goes something like this:

A guy named Moses was born into a Jewish family but his mom stuck him in a basket and floated him down the Nile (he's damn lucky the crocodiles didn't get him). He was found by the Pharaoh's daughter and subsequently raised as an Egyptian until one day he kills a dude and God tells him "SURPRISE YOU'RE A JEW LOL". Moses then attempts to get the Pharaoh to let all the Jews leave Egypt by sending a multitude of plagues to convince him. Once free, they took a trip across the Red Sea by foot and wandered in the desert for 40 years.

No there lies a big problem with this story. A very big historical problem. The Egyptians were incredibly good at keeping records. They recorded everything. And we have lots of those records from the time that the Exodus supposedly happened (somewhere between 1600. BCE and 1200 BCE). Unfortunately for the Moses story, there is no record of it at all.

None. No record of anyone named Moses being adopted son of a Pharaoh, no record of plagues (they most certainly would have some reference to the worst of the plagues, the death of all first born sons in the kingdom!), no record of a mass number of Jews packing up their stuff and leaving, no mention of the Red Sea splitting in half so they could walk across... There is no reference at all to any of the Exodus story in the Egyptian records. And I've never heard of any explanation for why the Egyptians seemed to be too absentminded to record any of these events.

Until today.

From a guy named Enforcer from (of all places) the World of Warcraft forums:

"Totally false. Egypt very much has ancient records of Israelites in Egypt. One example is on the stele (an upright slab or pillar with an inscription) of Merneptah, the son of Rameses II, who reigned as Pharoah in the first half of the 13th century BC/BCE. It was discovered in Thebes in 1896. This is very important historically, as it shows that the Israelites were indeed present in ancient Egypt in significant numbers.

But aside from the artifacts, historians also say you're wrong. at the University of Pennsylvania - An estimated one mil
lion Jews were present in ancient Egypt.

Moses' existence is corraborated with books from other independent authors. You never heard of Isaiah and Corrinthians too I imagine, besides the books of Deuteronomy?"

Will you look at that! A JSTOR reference and everything! How cute. Too bad he misses the freaking point entirely.

First of all, no one argues that there were no Jews in Egypt. There were plenty of Jews there. What we are arguing is that the Jews that lived there didn't gather their belongings one night and leave the next morning. Egyptian stelae showing Jews lived in Egypt does not prove that it did occur. In fact, stelae dating to periods later than the supposed Exodus which tell of Jews in Egypt might disprove the story since all the Jews were supposed to have left by then (assuming the stelae did not depict historical references; the context is important).

The JSTOR reference doesn't help his case. Again, it proves that Jews lived in ancient Egypt, which no one doubts. What it does not show is evidence for the Exodus. This is further evidenced by the creationist's lack of rudimentary reading skills: the paper goes into detail about Jews during the Hellenistic-Roman (aka Ptolemaic) period, which lasted about 305-30BCE. The Exodus supposedly occurred during the time of the Pharaoh's, which ended in the early 11th century BCE. The time referenced in the paper is about 1000 years too late!

And finally, he closes with a classic "using the Bible to prove what's in the Bible" argument. Isaiah and Corinthians might have originally come from different authors, but they're both books in the Bible, and have been subjected to the same mistranslations, twisting and editing that the other books in the Bible have. If you want to use independent sources, you need to look outside of the Bible. Good luck though, because there's yet to be a single independent source which corroborates the story of the Exodus.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Someone explain to these people what "foreign policy" means.

Via Ed Brayton:

Steve Doocy of Fox News, ever the bastion of non-facts and sleazy pseudojournalism, has declared that Sarah Palin is a great pick for VP because of her ample foreign policy experience. Just wait until you hear why:

You heard him right. She has tons of experience with foreign policy because she's from Alaska, which is close to Russia.

I'm dumbfounded. This might be the most idiotic argument I've heard in a long while.

But wait! Fox News isn't alone; here's John McCain's wife, Cindy, offering the same argument:

I'm baffled how people can be so stupid.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

These things just write themselves!

Via Ed Brayton:

Who needs to criticize Republicans? They do a pretty good job at doing it themselves (emphasis mine).

In an alley behind a non-descript row of brick buildings on North Speer Boulevard, and on the other side of a large metal gate with armed guards standing in front, Republicans have set up a "war room" in Denver... Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said the team of nearly two dozen staffers at the opposition headquarters will be "fact-checking" statements made by the Obama campaign and by speakers during the convention.

"Just consider this the Ministry of Truth," quipped Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

Maybe it's been a long time since Wadhams has read 1984, if he's read it at all, but anyone who is familiar with Orwell's classic knows what the Ministry of Truth is. It was the Ministry in charge of "rewriting history"; in other words, fabrication of outright lies to support the government.

A fitting title for a Republican "fact-checking" "war room".

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Dennis Miller on Religion

Here's a clip of Dennis Miller from all the way back in 1990. Be forewarned, as is common with Miller's style, there is an abundance of NSFW language:

I've always been a fan of Miller even though he's been labelled as a conservative and supports John McCain (though he's pro-choice and supports gay marriage). It's nice to see him taking potshots at religion.

Best line: "They say they don't favour any particular denomination but I think we've all seen their eyes light up at 10s and 20s."

Monday, 25 August 2008

Jesus: Tired of toast and windows, tries sinks

Jesus has returned again, this time as a rusty sink stain.

I'm sorry guys, but that isn't Jesus. It's obviously Darth Vader. May the force be with you.

Science and religion: are they mutually exclusive?

The argument over whether or not science and religion are incompatible is almost as old as empirical science itself, and the debate rages on today. Recently, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a video response to the propaganda-ridden documentary film, Expelled. The video is below:

It features a slew of scientists, like Francis Collins, talking about how their faith and their science don't compete with each other, hearkening to Stephen J Gould's non-overlapping magisteria. Now, I know that the idea that religion and science are compatible has come up alot recently concerning the subject of evolution, and I know that "theistic evolution" seems to be gaining popularity (that is, more theists are accepting evolution, rather than evolutionists accepting theism). The argument goes that God created the world and gave the spark of life, and then used evolution to guide the development of organisms.

But if you ask me, this is blatant doublethink. The Bible gives special precedence to humans. We are supposedly God's chosen organism. After all, he supposedly created the whole universe just to have a place to put us so we could worship him. Now, suppose that you could roll back time and start everything over again. God gives the spark of life and pushes the START button on evolution. What would happen? There are two possibilities. First, due to the random nature of mutations and chance effects of environmental pressures, evolution would proceed differently than it had the first time around. After 4.5 billion years, it would be very likely that humans would not be the dominant, intelligent lifeform, if humans would evolve at all. If that was the case, then how could humans be the "chosen" organism if our development was never a guarantee? The second possibility is that evolution would proceed exactly as it had the first time, the same mutations being made, the same environmental pressures arising; in a sense, evolution would be guided by God's hand, and each chance occurrence was fated to happen. In this case, the rules of evolution - namely, random mutations being directed and chosen by the environment - are violated; there is no chance or randomness if they were always fated to occur. In other words, God would have effectively created humans, albeit through a lengthy and drawn out process. Whichever of the two possibilities would occur, the conclusion is seemingly the same: there are areas of Biblical religion and evolution that are incompatible. Acceptance of one means you cannot accept 100% of the other.

But let's put theistic evolution aside for a moment. The bigger question that remains to be answered is whether or not science as a whole is incompatible with religion. As stated before, the AAAS seems to take the stance that religion and science are two separate fields that answer different kinds of questions. They are compatible because they have nothing to do with each other. I disagree with this idea completely.

If you accept the Biblical, Abrahamic God, then you accept a god who has influence on our physical world. Even if God is supernatural, and supposedly outside the reach of science, if he has an effect on our natural world, then there has to be an entirely naturalistic mechanism by which this happens. Even the creation of the universe, a material, physical thing, would require a naturalistic explanation. Such mechanisms ARE within the realm of scientific inquiry. Science and religion, therefore, do overlap, do conflict. Unless, of course, you subscribe the the belief of a God that is utterly outside physical experience, and does not interact with the material world. Then, I ask, what is the point of such a God? The existence of such a God would have no practical difference than if he did not exist at all; belief would be pointless (and a waste of time with all the praying and worshipping).

Moreover, scientific investigation has time and time again shown many things in the Bible to be blatantly false; and if some parts of the Bible are false, how can we be sure that other parts of the Bible are not also false? How can one believe that any part of the Bible is true - literally or otherwise - if science has continually shown it to be flawed?

It seems to be that science and religion are mutually exclusive. You cannot be 100% scientific and 100% religious simultaneously. Full acceptance of one requires only partial acceptance of the other; and if you are only "partly" scientific then you're a bad scientist. Likewise, if you are only "partly" religious, you're a poor Christian/Muslim/Jew etc (or at least, you're cherry picking the parts you wish to believe in, with no clear criteria for your choice). I feel that any attempt to reconcile religion with science is merely an attempt at desperately holding on to something that makes you "comfortable" with life, something that makes you "happy".

Science is not about what makes you happy. It's about finding the truth. And when it comes to truth, religion has a habit of falling short.

T-Rex - Chicken Link Looking a bit Tenuous?

Remember that paper published in Science last year? The one that described how researchers at North Carolina State University had extracted collagen fibres from a Tyrannosaurus Rex bone? The one that showed how the T-Rex collagen was similar to collagen taken from chicken bones, and gave us all hopes for extracting biological material - maybe even DNA - from ancient bones?
Yeah. Turns out that the evidence for the T-Rex/Chicken link might be a bit tenuous.

Last month, Tom Kaye at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture published a paper in PLoS ONE showing that the collagen that was extracted might not be collagen at all! His paper showed that, instead, it is possible that the "collagen" was a biofilm, a layer of bacterial growth. He explained that "[when] biofilms coat a substrate, and that substrate is subsequently removed, the biofilm will retain much of the original morphology. This can explain the quantity and similarity of structures found in fossil bone and indicates that these structures are unlikely to be preserved dinosaurian tissues but the product of common bacterial activities."

Of course, this doesn't disprove that the sample was collagen. Rather, it provides an alternative interpretation of the data. You can read both papers and weigh the evidence and decide for yourself. However, it does not end there.

Pavel Pevzner et al. at the University of California, San Diego, have written a rather scathing critique of the dinosaur collagen claim (here and here). Calling the original paper "computationally illiterate". He claims that the protein spectra data that has been released so far is insufficient to show the data is statistically significant and cannot rule out false positives. Mary Schweitzer and colleagues, the original paper's authors, have so far kept most of the 48,000 pieces of mass spectrum data under wraps. This comes after they already retracted three of the proteins for not being statistically significant.

Now, I'm not saying that their claim was falsified. But to keep all of their data that should show that their conclusions were relevant hidden is kinda...suspicious. When someone publishes an article claiming that you were looking at slime and not collagen, then wouldn't you want to release the rest of the data to back up your claim? I don't understand how the original paper was published sans data in the first place. Science does not make the matter any better by only publishing the critique online as a "technical comment". Could they be down playing the controversy to keep the sensationalism of the original paper?

Hopefully the creationists don't get their dirty paws all over this. Undoubtedly, they'd use this as fodder for a "evolutionists are faking evidence again. Dinosaurs and birds aren't related" argument. You know how they keep bringing up Piltdown Man...

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Yndi Halda

Yndi Halda is a post-rock band out of the UK. They play some of the most stunningly beautiful music I've ever heard. It's incredibly atmospheric and even feels optimistic, something that differs them from alot of post-rock bands. The video above is a clip from one of their songs (their best, in my opinion), "We Flood Empty Lakes" - the full track is 14 minutes long. The song really reaches a climax at about 4 minutes into the clip. One of the greatest pieces of music. Ever.

Friday, 22 August 2008

And so it begins.

I've posted before about how dangerous the "Green Vaccine" movement is. I've pointed out how Japan shows a perfect example of what happens when fears over vaccines keep parents from vaccinating their children. And I predicted a similar trend would start in North America if the "antivaxxers" weren't stopped.

And it's already begun.

"Measles cases in the U.S. are at the highest level in more than a decade, with nearly half of those involving children whose parents rejected vaccination, health officials reported Thursday. Worried doctors say they are troubled by the trend fueled by unfounded fears that vaccines may cause autism. The number of cases is still small, just 131, but that's only for the first seven months of the year. There were only 42 cases for all of last year[...]In a typical year, only one outbreak occurs in the United States, infecting perhaps 10 to 20 people. This year through July 30, the country has seen seven outbreaks, including one in Illinois with 30 cases, said Seward, of the CDC's Division of Viral Diseases."
Measles was a big problem in America prior to the introduction of vaccination in the 1960s, after which, cases and outbreaks plummited. Parents have began to reject vaccinations, and now measles are becoming a big concern again. Why don't people realize this? Why must people insist that vaccines are harmful despite the plethora of scientific evidence showing otherwise?

Scientists and doctors need to speak out about this. Facts and evidence have to be given to the general public to counter the complete ignorance of the Green Vaccine. This literally can be a matter of life or death.

Ooh Fancy

I just got me one of those FeedBurner things. I don't really know what it does other than keep track of the hits my blog gets and who (if anyone) subscribes to it.

All I know is that I have now developed a compulsive habit of clicking refresh on my "Live Hits" page over and over....


...One hit! Another Google Bot! Score!

EDIT: I ust realized that I dont have any way of knowing whether or not messing around with FeedBurner has screwed up my original blog feed. So, if you're reading this post via a feed and not through my actual blog site, It'd be appreciated if you left a comment telling me everything's a-Ok.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Scientists are so ignorant!

EDIT: For some reason this entire post disappeared. I cant embed the video at work because the computers in the lab hate Youtube...I'll fix it when I get home

EDIT AGAIN: Alright, fixed :)

If I didn't know for a fact that Edward Current's videos were satire, then I would be compelled to think that this video was entirely serious. That's the sad reality of the anti-science being pushed by Evangelical Christians.

Check out Current's other videos if you like satire done well.

More sillyness from the crazies at WorldNetDaily

The crazies over at WorldNetDaily have sent their monkeys to their typewriters again and have produced an article not entirely unlike what you would expect from simians banging away at a keyboard. Columnist Dennis Prager has written up a list of the "deleterious consequences of secularism". Alot of them are simple rehashes of the same, tired, religious arguments we've all heard a million times over. Nevertheless, let's dissect them one by one, shall we?
1. Without God, there is no good and evil; there are only subjective opinions that we then label "good" and "evil." This does not mean that an atheist cannot be a good person. Nor does it mean that all those who believe in God are good; there are good atheists and there are bad believers in God. It simply means that unless there is a moral authority that transcends humans from which emanates an objective right and wrong, "right" and "wrong" no more objectively exist than do "beautiful" and "ugly."
Prager here has made one large, fatal, assumption: he assumes that "good" and "evil" can only be defined by God. In actuality, "good" and "evil" have been determined almost entirely by our societies and by simple facts of human nature. Stealing is "evil" because it puts innocent people at a disadvantage. Buying a homeless guy a sandwich is "good" because it helps someone live their life easier. These are not metaphysical concepts handed down by some sky God; rather they can simply be explained as artifacts of our human evolution. Humans everywhere, regardless of whether or not they live in a secular society, have morals because morals were necessary for our distant ancestors to survive. Living in a society conferred a distinct survival advantage, and those acts which helped such societies flourish are those which we deem "good". Likewise, acts which were detrimental to the functioning of society are those we deem "bad". Our morals are not inscribed on slabs of stone, handed down from the Mount. They are inscribed on us through the course of our evolution.

Furthermore, if our moral compass were given to us via God, then one would expect that there would be some sort of moral absolute. This is indeed not the case. While, for the most part, societies have the same morals - no killing, stealing, lying - many societies have slight variations. Why did the Vikings think it was morally acceptable to pillage helpless monks along the coasts of England, while at the same time, they had very harsh punishments for murder? If there was moral absolutism, then their actions should have been morally abhorrent to them. Pillaging was something that helped their society survive, and it is likely that this is a large contributing factor to the moral acceptance of their pillaging actions.

Not only this, but God is possibly one of the worst candidates for determining "good" and "evil". If he were the authority on such matters, then I suppose slaughtering children for laughing at baldness is "good", and wearing polyester is "evil". I'd trust the moral relativism of human societies over the moral absolutism of God anyday.

2. Without God, there is no objective meaning to life. We are all merely random creations of natural selection whose existence has no more intrinsic purpose or meaning than that of a pebble equally randomly produced.

Again, Prager is making an unwarranted assumption: who says there needs to be a "higher" purpose to life? What intrinsic purpose is there to the life of an ant or a gazelle? Humans have no more of a purpose than any other animal, and assuming that humans should have a higher purpose is unjustifiably anthropocentric. Is this to say humans have no purpose beyond passing on our genes? Hardly. Humans can have a higher purpose - but that purpose is not given by any God. You give yourself a purpose in life. My purpose in life is to do scientific research, to learn, explain, and help make the world a better place. Living in a secular society, or denying God does not subtract from having a "purpose". Quite to the contrary, it gives you the freedom to choose your own purpose in life.

3. Life is ultimately a tragic fare if there is no God. We live, we suffer, we die – some horrifically, many prematurely – and there is only oblivion afterward.

I fail to see how this is a detrimental effect from a secular society. Sure, it's depressing, but that's the nature of reality. Life is not always sugar coated fun and games. Believing in something simply because it makes you happy is a pretty lousy reason for believing. If I were to go to the doctor, and he were to tell me that I was diagnosed with cancer, what good would it do to say "No, I prefer to believe that I'm healthy. Having cancer would be such a tragic fare"? One cannot forsake truth simply for comfort. All other creatures on the planet face the same tragic fare of life, suffering and death, and they seem to accept that fate. What we as humans can do is strive to reduce the suffering in the interim.

4. Human beings need instruction manuals. This is as true for acting morally and wisely as it is for properly flying an airplane. One's heart is often no better a guide to what is right and wrong than it is to the right and wrong way to fly an airplane. The post-religious secular world claims to need no manual; the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and to making a good world.

We do have instruction manuals. We call call these instruction manuals "laws". To say that secular society claims that no manual is needed to keep our behaviour on the right track is tantamount to claiming secularists crave for anarchy. This is entirely untrue. As outlined in Point 1 above, we need rules for a functioning society, regardless of where those rules are derived from.

5. If there is no God, the kindest and most innocent victims of torture and murder have no better a fate after death than do the most cruel torturers and mass murderers. Only if there is a good God do Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have different fates.

Again, this is simply the cruel nature of life. It might be comforting to think that good people will suffer a fate better than those who are evil, but it isn't reality. In fact, belief that doing good will get you into heaven when you die only cheapens acts of kindness; shouldn't one be kind out of the goodness of your heart and not because you want to belong to some kind of exclusive club when you die?

6. With the death of Judeo-Christian values in the West, many Westerners believe in little. That is why secular Western Europe has been unwilling and therefore unable to confront evil, whether it was Communism during the Cold War or Islamic totalitarians in its midst today.

This is one giant non sequiter. What does "believing in little" have to do with "confronting evil"? Western Europe has not confronted the "evils" of Islamic totalitarians today or communism during the Cold War not because they didn't believe in anything, but because they did believe in something: acceptance and tolerance of people who's views may disagree with ours. If "believing in something" is simply rightwing speak for "intolerance and discrimination", then Western Europe is better off "not believing".

7. Without God, people in the West often become less, not more, rational. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed in the utterly irrational doctrine of Marxism. It was largely the secular, not the religious, who believed that men's and women's natures are basically the same, that perceived differences between the sexes are all socially induced. Religious people in Judeo-Christian countries largely confine their irrational beliefs to religious beliefs (theology), while the secular, without religion to enable the non-rational to express itself, end up applying their irrational beliefs to society, where such irrationalities do immense harm.
And it was largely the religious, not the secular, that burned "witches" at the stake in Salem, that believed a woman could turn into a pillar of salt, that believed in slavery was entitled to them by God. If you want to compare the irrational beliefs of secular people to those of religious people, you'll find the scale dips mightily on the religious side. It is absurd to say a secular society would breed irrationality because we have ample evidence both historical and modern that shows religious belief to spawn irrational thoughts that extend beyond the realm of theology (one only needs to take a look at the 2012 doomsayers/Nefilim conspiracy theorists to see this!). A secular society would teach people critical thinking, how to be rational, so irrational thoughts wouldn't need a place to be expressed. It is in a religious society, where every aspect of life is guided by an irrational belief based on an irrational book about an irrational god that does immense harm.
8. If there is no God, the human being has no free will. He is a robot whose every action is dictated by genes and environment. Only if one posits human creation by a Creator that transcends genes and environment who implanted the ability to transcend genes and environment can humans have free will.
The topic of free will is one of deep, interesting philosophical discussions, the details of which are not of the essence in this post. But to say that free will is only possible if humans were created by a Creator is setting up a false dichotomy. It is entirely possible that free will (or the illusion of it) came about during our evolution. I am by no means an expert on this subject, so I will direct interested parties to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page on Free Will.
9.If there is no God, humans and "other" animals are of equal value. Only if one posits that humans, not animals, are created in the image of God do humans have any greater intrinsic sanctity than baboons. This explains the movement among the secularized elite to equate humans and animals.
Again, who says that humans need to have "greater intrinsic sanctity" than baboons, or lions, or goats? I have yet to hear a rational argument (or even an irrational one) regarding why humans need to be "better" than mice or deer or cattle. And if we really must have a greater intrinsic value, might it not be our sentience, our higher cognitive functions, our ability to think and reason (at least for some of us) that gives us that value? Why look to God to give us a special place on Earth when it can be found in our very own humanity?
The reason the "secularized elite" wish to equate humans and animals is because humans ARE animals. Animals can be defined as "A multicellular organism of the kingdom Animalia, differing from plants in certain typical characteristics such as capacity for locomotion, nonphotosynthetic metabolism, pronounced response to stimuli, restricted growth, and fixed bodily structure." Do we not fit such a description perfectly?
10. Without God, there is little to inspire people to create inspiring art. That is why contemporary art galleries and museums are filled with "art" that celebrates the scatological, the ugly and the shocking. Compare this art to Michelangelo's art in the Sistine Chapel. The latter elevates the viewer – because Michelangelo believed in something higher than himself and higher than all men.
This is probably one of the most absurd claims Ive heard. Admittedly, the works of many of the greatest artists have been inspired by religion, but to say that without God, there would be no inspiration for great art is ridiculous. The contrary is evident when you consider the likes of Pablo Picasso. Unarguably one of the most influential artists of modern times, Picasso was an atheist. God inspired none of his works, yet his works were great. Frank Lloyd Wright, an architect who designed some of the most famous modern buildings, was also an atheist. It should be obvious that God is not a requirement for great art.
11. Without God, nothing is holy. This is definitional. Holiness emanates from a belief in the holy. This explains, for example, the far more widespread acceptance of public cursing in secular society than in religious society. To the religious, there is holy speech and profane speech. In much of secular society, the very notion of profane speech is mocked.
Yet again, who says there needs to be "holiness"? Prager seems to have a habit of saying a secular society would be without something, yet not showing how that something is needed to a proper, functioning society. Of course there would be nothing holy in a secular society! Its a secular society! Unless someone can show me how holiness is necessary, then I fail to see how this is a detrimental effect of secularization.
12. Without God, humanist hubris is almost inevitable. If there is nothing higher than man, no Supreme Being, man becomes the supreme being.
See above.
13. Without God, there are no inalienable human rights. Evolution confers no rights. Molecules confer no rights. Energy has no moral concerns. That is why America's founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed "by our Creator" with certain inalienable rights. Rights depend upon a moral source, a rights giver.
Another "moral" argument. Humans have human rights but they were not given to us by God. We have decided on our own inalienable human rights based on our own humanity, based on helping other humans, in the name of fairness and equality. Why does the United Nations, a secular organization which represents countries of all cultures and faiths spend so much time on human rights if such rights do not exist in the absence of God? It's because they are right we have decided amongst ourselves to ensure everyone on the planet gets treated fairly and equally. In a religious society, the situation would be quite to the contrary. In a religious society, not everyone is equal, and not everyone is fair. "Human rights" would only apply to a select few - those that subscribe to the religion of choice. One only has to look as far as gay marriage to see that religious society denies rights rather than bestows them.

14. "Without God," Dostoevsky famously wrote, "all is permitted." There has been plenty of evil committed by believers in God, but the widespread cruelties and the sheer number of innocents murdered by secular regimes – specifically Nazi, Fascist and Communist regimes – dwarfs the evil done in the name of religion.

Ah, it was only a matter of time until Prager whipped out a reductio ad hitlerum argument tied into a strawman argument. First of all, the Nazi regime was not a secular regime in the least. Gott Mit Uns was the national motto for crying out loud! Hitler was explicitly Christian, and anger over the idea that the Jews killed Jesus was one of the contributing factors to his plan of wiping out the Jews. There is a literal wealth of information identifying Hitler and the Nazi regime as religious that I wont bother to go into all the detail. Not to mention that fascist Italy had direct ties with the Vatican, and Mussolini was endorsed by the Pope himself.
Secondly, there has never - NEVER - been a case where innocents have been murdered in the name of secularism. I cannot deny that there have been atrocities committed in secular societies but the question is whether or not it was the secularism that lead to such atrocities; the answer is no. It was not secularism that caused the murder of innocents, but twisted political ideologies irrespective of secular beliefs. Did Stalin kill innocents because he was an atheist? No. He killed innocents because he was a power-crazy dictator. When it comes to atrocities and the murder of innocents, the Bible trumps all on nearly astronomical scales.

So really, none of Prager's 14 arguments holds up to any scrutiny. Many of them do not even explain how the effects Prager posits secularism leads to are detrimental to society. And many more are age old misconceptions on morality.

Then again, what else does one expect from WorldNetDaily?