Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hovind disappears

Earlier today, it seems that Kent Hovind's wikipedia page took a trip down the memory hole. Fortunately, it only took 9 minutes for his lying, tax cheating, history to be reposted.

It seems that a user with IP address (stemming from Milledgeville, GA) has been on a vandalism spree for Hovind recently, tearing down the page and replacing it with "Hovind ROX!"

Due to the grammar, I strongly suspect that this is a high school student that slept through his biology (and perhaps English) class.

Friday, March 30, 2007

I guess the Force wasn't with him

More news from the UK: It looks like Bono, from U2, was recently knighted. Apparently his youngest son, age 5, thought this this honour would come with a lightsaber.

Yes, it's true

Via xkcd

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Book Review - Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch

When asked to name a famous British fantasy author, most Americans first inclination would be to name J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. But while Rowling may be more popular, another fantasy author holds the dubious title of “most shoplifted author” in Brittan. This position is held by author Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett is primarily known for his Discworld series; A comic fantasy series about a flat world on the back of four elephants which rides through space on the back of a giant tortoise.

One particular subset of this series is a collection of three books, written with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen, from the University of Warwick, known as The Science of Discworld.

Ironically, there is almost no Discworld science in the series. Rather, the series chronicle an experiment of magic (the wizards of Unseen University were attempting to split the thaum, the basic unit of magic), which produced our universe when the Dean twiddled his fingers in some raw firmament.

The series is somewhat difficult to get ahold of in the states since no American publisher has picked it up yet, but this is made easier due to the internet.

Each of the books has a similar structure in which the odd numbered chapters tell the fictional perspective through the eyes of the wizards (and one wizzard) as they explore the universe, our universe, that they have created. They are then followed by a chapter explaining the scientific perspective of the events that occurred in the preceding chapter.

I enjoyed the first book thoroughly (perhaps due to the fact that a large amount was physics and astronomy), and decided to skip the second and go directly to the third due to the title: Darwin’s Watch. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much.

The main plot to the fictional chapters was that, for an initially unknown reason, when Darwin was supposed to write The Origin of Species, he instead wrote a book entitled Theology of Species, in which he makes arguments similar to William Paley (hence the reference to a Watch in the title). The result of this is that the scientific community takes the position that the unknown is just divine causation, and stagnates, leaving humanity unable to flee the planet when a global ice age occurs. As such, the human species is rendered extinct.

Since the wizards feel responsible for this universe they created, they seek to set the course of history right and set about to interfere in order to ensure that Darwin writes the right book.

Overall, the chapters written by Pratchett were very entertaining, as most of his writing is. The trouble was that the scientific treatments were annoyingly unbalanced. In addition to scientific explanations, there was also a good deal of history, detailing the (in come cases, highly improbable) events that led up to Darwin’s voyage. Much of this I didn’t mind. I like science. I like the historical context of scientific discoveries.

What I don’t like is “pop science”. That is to say, as I progress further and further into the scientific field, I have a growing distaste for the cutting edge science that stands on shaky ground, and is still presented to the public as “good science.”

A perfect example of this is a good deal of quantum physics. While it’s convenient mathematically to describe things as occurring in some sort of parallel universe, that doesn’t mean that this is reality any more than breaking a complicated wave down into fundamental modes via Fourier analysis would imply that there are an infinite number of violins playing each of these tones.

This analogy is used in the book, and I’m quite fond of it. But for some reason, this doesn’t stop Stewart and Cohen from spending several tedious chapters discussing that very fuzzy edge of science in the form of time travel.

Sure, it’s fun and exciting to play with such notions in science fiction, but to present such things as well established science similar to that of gravity is to paint a distorted picture. And we wonder why so many people can’t figure out how science works…

As I see it, there’s good, solid science at one extreme. There’s science fiction/fantasy on the distant other. In the middle is things like The Physics of Star Trek which seeks to rationalize fantastical stories in fringe science which will very likely end up being tossed out in the future given that very little of the numerous ideas generated on the forefront of science make it into the core.

This misportrayl of sound science (and the endless amount of technobabble) is the reason that I can’t watch Star Trek anymore. Especially the newer series. I caught an episode of Voyager a few weeks ago and choked on some of the technobabble the chief engineer was spouting. At least with the original series, the worst you had to worry about was Shatner’s choppy acting and zippers on the backs of aliens. Now, I just stick to Star Wars where they don’t bother trying to explain anything and just leave it all up to “the Force.”

But I digress.

Despite the monotonous explorations by Stewart and Cohen, there were occasional parts that stood out. The authors never get much into the creationism controversy. Instead, they flatly condemn it and ridicule it, pointing out that it’s accepted as obvious to the scientific community and pretty much everyone in the world except America.

Additionally, they too realize that Intelligent Design merely uses old arguments from creationism. My favourite quote from the entire book is on just this subject and comes from page 47:
Yes, the proponents of intelligent design understand the eye . . . but as only one example, not as the basis of a general principle. ‘Oh yes, we know all about the eye,’ they say (we paraphrase). ‘We’re not going to ask you what use half an eye is. That’s simple-minded nonsense.’ So instead, they ask what use half a bacterial flagellum is, and thereby repeat the identical error in a different context.
The entirety of chapter 20 was also quite good, although somewhat confusing due to a sudden increase in the amount of technical jargon. This chapter explores the current understanding of evolution, which goes beyond simple natural selection as the driving mechanism of evolution.

As usual, Pratchett’s writing was an entertaining read, although not among his best. All said and done, it wasn’t my favourite book by Pratchett, but I’m not sure if I’d consider it my least favourite.

If you’re a Discworld fan, it’s worth picking up, but would probably be little value otherwise.

ZOMG! Persecution!

It seems a student has been suspended for his religious beliefs.

Apparently the school thinks that pirate regalia worn to class is a distration. I hardly agree with that.

Now... if it was Johnny Depp walking into a class, I think that would qualify.

Regardless of what he was wearing.

A Shining Example

A new facebook group has just started up declaring ID is a science. Taking after their big brother at Uncommon Descent, they've quickly adopted the practice of censorship it seems.

Yesterday, Andrew Stangl, president of SOMA, asked the group to provide a testable hypothesis that ID proposes. Instead of answering the question, they initially ignore it with a childish "Well what about evolution?"

From there, they continue to ignore the question and state that ID is completely compatible with evolution and all together different than creationism. After pointing out that the Wedge Document clearly states otherwise, the pro-ID group suddenly wasn't so nice. They accused Andrew of using "empty rhetoric" and subsequently deleted his remaining posts and warned him not to come back. Sounds much like the boys over at UD; unwanted information just disappears down the memory hole.

Registration for the group is now moderated, so new members will have to get approval. All the more easy to keep out those peksy facts bits of "empty rhetoric" they don't like.

Meanwhile, they still haven't answered the question. They did at one point, throw out the flagellum, but have never shown how this can potentially falsify ID given that they can just keep moving the goalpost, or refuse to admit that they've been defeated by demanding infinate detailing of the process, or just ignore it all together as Behe does with the flagellum.

This new group is a shining example to all creationists out there.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Evolution =/= Cosmology

This past summer, I posted regarding misconceptions about the big bang. One more that I could have included is the creationist notion that evolution includes the big bang theory. It doesn't.

PZ posted a link to a very nifty graphic that shows this quite nicely.

The way this image works is that different fields are placed together as points on a graph, and then made to repel eachother. When fields have journal articles linking them, it creates "rubber bands" that overcome the repulsive element thereby making nodes of fields. If fields have a great deal of overlap, they will be right next to eachother on this image.

Interestingly enough, evolution and cosmology are about as far apart as you can get! This means there's nothing connecting them.

So next time you hear a creationist making this absurd claim, point them to this image. Even if they can't understand it, it's quite possible that the pretty bubbles will distract them long enough for your brain to recover.

Not under God

As mentioned in this previous post I’ve been intending to write something about the use of “under God” and “In God We Trust” for some time now. However, it’s a very large topic and many ways to tackle it. And even after several weeks of wondering how I should go about it, I still don’t have any good solution. So I apologize if this post is a bit ranty.

I suppose I should start by saying that I absolutely feel that both are completely unconstitutional and that I’m completely amazed that they snuck by in the first place. But now that it’s there, one of the first questions I suppose is important is whether or not it matters. Obviously, many people, including many atheists, feel it isn’t a problem. “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to say it,” they point out. “So what if it offends you. There’s no constitutional protections against being offended and it’s not like it hurts anyone.”

I think it should be obvious that I feel it does hurt people. How so? Allowing the government to endorse these phrases perpetuates the myth that this government is Christian and that non-Christians, or even the wrong kind of Christians, are second-class citizens. America is supposed to be a nation in which all people are inherently equal and all are welcome, but the sad fact is, that’s far from reality. These phrases send the distinct message that non-Christians aren’t welcome.

Is this just atheists feeling victimized though? Are we the only ones getting this message? Hardly. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

During his talk, Michael Newdow referred to a case of an immigrant who assisted the United States during a time of war, was nearly denied citizenship because he was an atheist. The judge presiding over the case pointed out that this was “one nation under God” and refused him citizenship. The immigrant was later approved on appeal.

Last month in an Alaskan newspaper, a letter to the editor (free registration required) was submitted stating
It's time to stomp out atheists in America. The majority of Americans would love to see atheists kicked out of America. If you don't believe in God, then get out of this country.
And what was the rationalization offered for this diatribe?
Our currency even says "In God We Trust." So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country.
But who really cares what some dingbat in Alaska thinks? It’s not like they will have any effect on public policy.

But the president does. And what does former president George Bush Sr. think?
I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.
That’s rather significant. If atheists aren’t citizens, they cannot be afforded the same rights.

These are just a few examples, but you can rest assured that any time you find theists denegrating those of non-Christians faiths in America, the “one nation under God” fallacy isn’t far behind.

So clearly, these phrases are being used as ammunition to target and denigrate non-Christians and atheists in particular. The question then becomes, is that illegal? As far as I’m concerned, when the government is the ones giving people this ammo, absolutely.

One of the tests applied to determine constitutionality of an act of government is the Endorsement Test. This states that an act is unconstitutional if it
sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.
The examples I’ve just provided show pretty clearly that this particular act of government is sending a definite message. The judge in the first example thinks that “one nation under God” means that atheists shouldn’t be allowed into the country. The woman in Alaska thinks it means that atheists should be kicked out. A former president thinks it means that atheists shouldn’t be considered citizens.

So, from where I’m standing it looks very much like the phrases “under God” and “In God We Trust” are sending messages to nonadherents. This is the issue that I take with it.

Many excuses are made to legitimize these infractions, most notably to attempt to make it pass the first prong of the Lemon Test which requires that government acts have a legitimate secular purpose. The frequent claim is that the Founders intended this nation to be rooted in Christianity. I find this about as plausible as the excuses made for the Mt. Soledad cross. It’s simply a rewriting of history to rationalize ones privileged positions.

Debunking this notion was the main thrust of Newdow’s speech two weeks ago. He pointed out many things, many of which I can’t recall at the moment, but it did strike me that the oath of office originally had two references to God. They were all removed. Urban myth held that George Washington, upon taking this oath added “so help me God” to the end, but in reviewing historical documents, Newdow discovered that there is no historical basis for this. The improved addendum did not make its debut until more than half a century after the fact.

Similarly, our constitution was stripped of all religious references. Thus, to imply that our Founders intended a religious government, after removing all references to God in our founding documents, it more than a bit disingenuous, rewriting of history aside.

The true history of both these phrases is a sense of Christian pride that built up in the 1950’s. The insertion of these words was to serve as propaganda and distinguish ourselves from the godless communists. So while there is a historical narrative, I don’t see that perpetuating propaganda is one we should be especially proud of.

This means there’s no legitimate secular purpose. The first prong of the Lemon Test is failed, and the Endorsement Tests shows that it also violates the second and third prongs. So I don’t see why there’s any reason to preserve phrases that have no function except to deride others with an unconstitutionally government endorsed acts.

So that’s where I stand. And from what I learned of Newdow, that’s where he stands too. We both want these acts removed because they’re illegal and harmful. It’s not because, as many theists assume, we’re “angry atheists”. In fact, Newdow is amazingly collected about it. During his presentation and even at the gathering afterwards, Newdow never expressed anger about the case.

However, those of us present at the gathering later did get to see him quite livid about an entirely different topic. The topic that really got him going was the issue of losing custody of his daughter. Although he couldn’t prove it, he strongly suspected that the judge denied him custody primarily due to his atheism as has frequently occurred.

The reason I bring this up isn’t to show that Newdow wants to feel victimized, but rather that he too is human. He gets upset over things that anyone should get upset about. If you prick him, he will bleed. Even if he, and I, are atheists.

We’re human.

We’re American.

And whether or not Bush Sr., Ms. Shannon from Alaska, or anyone else likes it, we’re also citizens; We’re patriots; And we deserve the same rights and respects from a government that’s neutral to religion.

Side Note: ID proponents also uses the “under God” fallacy as part of their Wedge Strategy by trying to force citizens to choose whether they’re “under God” or “Under Darwin

Yeah, I'm alive

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything. Midterms followed by a spring break without easy access to a computer sort of have that effect, I suppose. Not that my break wasn’t enjoyable.

I spent quite a bit of time seeing friends from high school. I finally started making good on a three year old promise to my best friend that I would help decorate her room with glow in the dark stars. We started off with a scale model (distance wise) of the solar system in her room. I managed to get up the three constellations of the summer triangle before quitting. So I suppose that ancient promise will have to hold off a bit longer before it comes to complete fruition. I suppose I’ll ask her if she can get a picture of it for me to help illustrate the scale of the solar system.

I also spent quite a bit of time geeking out and working on some new Star Wars costumes. My rebel pilot is nearly finished and I also began a rebel trooper by putting the helmet together I ordered this summer.

But now I’m back at school now and I have an evening before getting back to the daily grind. So I apologize in advance to those of you that don’t like me posting several things back to back. I promise I’ll take a break for Battlestar Galactica tonight though.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Of Coins and Constitutions

For those that haven't heard, a series of dollar coins were mistakingly printed without "In God We Trust" on their edge. I thought this was quite an appropriate accident given that, as far as I and many others (not just atheists) are concerned, such words have no place being there.

But of course the misprint has already prompted infuriated responses from Christians too blinded by their piety to bother checking any facts. The letter to the editor states:
This nation was built under “One God,"
Really? Then why does the Treaty of Tripoli (passed by congress and signed by the president in 1796) state,
the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion
The writer goes on to make several more astoundingly ignorant statements stating,
as far as I know “In God We Trust” has always been on our currency
Guess what! As far as I know, I have always been alive. I certainly can't remember a time before then. As such, the universe must have popped into existance with a pre-formed history at the instant of my divine birth!

Laughable, I know. In reality, I'm quite certain that the world was around long before me, and I'm sure it will carry on quite well after I'm gone. Similarly, reality exists outside of the head of Dot Beckner. The words "In God We Trust" weren't added to coins until the late 1800's and not on paper money until 1955.

But the idiocy doesn't quit there!
Why change it now? Because some liberal is offended.
It has nothing to do with being offended. Rather, it has everything to do with constitutional legality. The government endorsing religion, especially a specific religion is in direct opposition to the founding principles of this nation.
They have taken the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer out of our schools.
More uninformed falsehoods. Both the pledge and prayer are still completely legal in school. Currently, "under God" remains in the pledge and in most districts, there is no judicial ruling prohibiting the government from leading this sectarian affirmation. Prayer is allowed in schools as well, but it was ruled that this was unconstitutional if school officials were leading it, in numerous cases (many started by theists) including Murray v Curtlett, McCollum v Board of Education, and Engle v Vitale.

Dot keeps huffing and puffing though:
What next? Are they going to make us close our churches and pray in the dark corners of our basement, not to be seen or heard?
That'd be wonderful. However, this is expressly forbidden by the constitution. And since I have no interest in trying to subvert the laws of a nation that I love churches are quite safe and Christians are free to preach all they want, so long as they're not getting the government to sponsor it.

Overall, Dot is clueless as are many of the posters responding to her drivel.

But this entire occurance has serindipitously occured right as Michael Newdow visited KU last night. As you can probably expect, I was in attendance.

The issue of "under God" on our coins and in our pledge is one I've been having a growing interest in, and as soon as I have a few hours to write up a summary and review of Newdow's talk as well as some of my own research I'll be having a few more posts on this topic.

Happy Pi day

That is all.

Monday, March 12, 2007

America Fails Religion

Here's a noteworthy but not at all surprising article. Americans don't know religion, including their own. This becomes a problem when we're becoming more and more religiously diverse in America and also fighting across seas with opponents whose mentality is rooted in a religion very different than the most popular at home.

The article points out that 60% of Americans can't even name five of the 10 commandments. Perhaps their faulty memories are the reason that they feel the need to plaster them everywhere?

It goes on to mention the problem with teaching about religion in the classroom and the thorny issue it's become. Religious leaders obviously fear that anything except a glowing affirmation of their faith will lead children away from God. I'd agree with them. If you want your religion taught in schools, that's fine, but it should be done with warts and all.

For those that want to try out their luck, there's a quiz along the left side of the article. I scored about a 70%. The questions I had trouble with were the ones regarding Buddhism and some of the less popular texts of Christianity.

Beating The Same Old Drum

Phelps does it.

The pope does it.

I guess Muslim leaders just felt left out of the blame lack of faith for all problems game.

I wonder who's going to jump off a bridge first.

Please let it be Phelps.

Friday, March 02, 2007

"Book It" faces critisizms

Back when I was in elementary school, I remeber a program which offered two free passes to the local Six Flags amusement park to any child who read for a certain amount of time (I think something like 260 minutes) within a period of a few months. I never was a huge fan of roller coasters but I always thought that programs whose intent was to get children reading were a good idea.

Another program of which I wasn't previously aware, is known as "Book It" which offers free Pizza Hut pizza to motivate children to read.

However, it seems this program has come under attack after nearly 22 years in existance. The reason? It encourages junk food consumption.

While I'm not one to think that eating pizza for every meal is especially healthy (despite me being a college student), I don't see anything particularly wrong with a single pizza being offered as a reward. Rewards are supposed to be something special.

So I wonder what these parents encourage as an alternative.

"Here dear. Read this book and I'll give you a nice juicy carrot," doesn't have quite the same ring.

If parents don't want their kids entering in the program, that's fine. But why ruin the good work that Book It has done because some parents are health food nuts?


I don't typically do too much posting on my geek streak, but tonight's a special occasion.

For those that aren't aware of the phenomenon, there's a very dedicated group of fans of various films that create what are known as "fan films". This occurs predominately among fans of the Star Wars universe given that George Lucas is very supportive of his fans, whereas other producers and film companies are highly antagonistic towards such ventures.

Generally, Troops (a Star Wars themed parody of COPS featuring stormtroopers) is considered the forerunner in this field. Since then scores of fanfilms, have been produced.

But these films are frequently more than just kids in halloween costumes running around with toy lightsabers. With the advent of modern technology, it's become possible for amateurs to create realistic special effects.

Entire forums are dedicated to the making of these films. In that particular forum, in late 2002, early 2003, the first ever lightsaber choreography competition was hosted. The winner of that competition was a duel between two of the forum veterans: Ryan Weiber vs "Dorkman" Scott. (Ryan pioneered the creation of lightsaber effects for amateurs and later went on to get a job at Lucasarts as a result of his work in this competition).

It was hinted that there would, at some point, be a sequel, and finally, four years to the day later, Ryan vs. Dorkman 2 is on the web! So if you have ~9 minutes to kill, check it out.

For the high def version, you can find it here (requires DivX player).

Now if they'd just finish Tydirium....