Friday, October 31, 2008

Links of Interest

I'm usually ticked off in some way when I write in this. But the election has just made me sad, depressed and tired.

Political Links
Joe the Plumber
More Whoppers of 2008
Rich vs. Poor
Slime Dog Awards 2008
Politi"fact": Note that a nasty right wing ad often shows at the top
Barack Rap

Links of Interest
White Nose Syndrome Fungus Identified and here
More on Hubble
Orion Capsule
Time for the Ray Gun
Spider God
Mud Eruption Caused by Drilling
Heron Eats Rabbit
Sisyphus takes a Beach Vacation
Pig Fights Lion
How to catch an escaped Rhino
The Dresden Codak Show

Links of Interest: Halloween Special

(Courtesy NASA)
The Witch Head Nebula

Political Links

Democrat Lies
Lies in Spanish
A Whole Bunch of Lies
Nature Endorses Obama

Links of Interest
10 Things You Don't Know about Black Holes
The Eyeball Game
The Bacteria Bots are Coming!
The Prix Pictet
A Million Little Fibers
Hooking Up for Obama

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Relligion and Me

(Courtesy of Creative Instigation)

My friend Jan Sokoloff Harness asked me "out of all the issues and all the controversies in all the worlds, why is it that religion (specifically, Christianity and esp. Southern denominations) is such a touchstone for you?"

Here's my response:

1) From my perspective, if you look at my fiction, there is a recurring theme: I'm interested in the process of moral decisions. How they happen. What sort of circumstances surround them. When do they occur. How are they made. I write about this all the time. Clearly, the process of moral thought and decision is important to me. So I'm already starting on the same playing field.

2) Another recurring theme to me is freedom of thought. This puts me square in opposition to a lot of the religious fundamentalists I don't like.

3) My personal moral decisions are decidedly liberal and in strong opposition to the political and moral issues of many of the same fundamentalist groups above.

4) They are politically very powerful. Powerful enough to (IMHO) endanger my freedom of thought and freedom of action. They've been doing so for the last twenty or so years.

5) To my point of view they are unscrupulous for what they think are the very best of reasons. When you are Serving a Higher Power, lower moral decisions are meaningless.

6) My feeling is the problems I have with them are written into the DNA of (at least) their interpretation of Christianity. The triumph of symbol over substance, the preternatural and canonized afterlife, the apocalyptic vision, the evangelistic imperative. This is the source of the issue.

So: is it any surprise I'd talk about it?

But hey! I talk about politics, too!
Political Links
Palin Saturday Night Live
Hey Sarah Palin
The Latest Creationist War

Links of Interest
Hot Undersea Action
New Greenhouse Gases
Rotavirus Vaccine
New Moon Rover
Ghosts by EMF
Are You Evil?
Evolution of Bats
How Stuff Works

Friday, October 24, 2008

Religious Quality Assurance

(Picture from an unknown source. If you know, post as a comment.)

I'm an engineer. I was trained originally as a scientist-- a zoologist to be precise-- but ended up in software engineering. I like science because it has the capacity of expanding its own understanding and discarding things that don't work. Religions don't do that well. There's a sacred set of ideas that are considered unquestionable and these are not open to examination.

Most religions, I should say. I think all religions have a set of axioms that are unprovable and upon which the religion is built. However, many religions proceed to extend that same protection to all components of the religion. However, some religions, such as Judaism, have such a vibrant and powerful self-examination process that it functions nearly as adaptively as science. Where would modern Judaism be without the Talmud, for example?

Science has a similar set of presumptions-- the presumption that reproducibility implies common cause of results, for example. Or the presumption that the physical behavior of the universe in one locality is the same in another locality. There's no way to prove such things-- though there is mounting evidence of it. Where science is different is the way it treats presumptions when they become testable: they're tested.

My original religious upbringing was Southern Methodist-- different from Southern Baptists only in the mind and heart of Southern Methodists and Southern Baptists. Both branches of Christianity are beautifully designed to reinterpret the transcendental experience into their own framework and bend it to their own purposes. So I went for some years.

I got nervous when the religion invaded my sexual understanding-- I heard several discourses on how sex outside of marriage was a bad thing. I became truly restive when that included sex with myself. When I was in college and the woman I was involved with decided she was Born Again I became downright rebellious. Since then I find religion a rich vein of metaphor to be mined but otherwise not of much use.

It was the capacity for self-examination (and the absence of an official afterlife) that drew me to Judaism. I did flirt dangerously close to converting to Judaism but when I looked deep in my heart and found unbelief rather than belief, I figured it was better to part cleanly.

But that flirtation and subsequent reading has made it hard to dismiss the idea that some religions are just better than others. Or, at least, more in keeping with my own world view.

I think you must judge a religion by its adherents. I had some long arguments in my youth about this. For example, Jesus says to follow him give everything you have, take up your cross and follow him. Pretty unequivocal.

It's pretty hard to reconcile that clear statement with prosperity ministries or the excesses of televangelists. Or even a particular car dealer that went to our church. I found out there were true Christians and false Christians. Further, within the faith of true Christians it was okay to own property. But what about what Jesus said? He was speaking metaphorically. He means giving your material goods to God-- while somehow keeping it for yourself. It reminds of the old joke about the minister deciding on his own salary: he through the money skyward and what God wanted, He kept. The minister got everything that fell back down. One interesting side note. I've met a lot of fundamentalist Christians that believe in the literal truth of Genesis but aren't so willing to accept the literal truth of Jesus actual statements.

No, I reasoned. We judge everyone and everything else by what they do. There's no reason not to judge religions by the same criteria.

Christianity doesn't do very well in this respect. It has been said to me that Christianity does pretty good compared to the competition. But that's a pretty low bar to step over. The comparison shouldn't between this religion or that religion. That's bad science. You need a control. So: is a world without religion better or worse than a world with Christianity?

That's the fundamental question that fundamentalists have to answer honestly.

Political Links

NRA Lies
Alabama Lies
NYT (surprise) endorses Obama but it's out of money

Links of Interest
Imagining Death
Energy vs Water
The Milky Way Analogue
Dino Feathers for Show and here and here
Scotch Tape X-Rays and here and here and here
Stealing even more water from Mexico
Selective Memory and here and here
Another Dead Sea
Revisiting the Miller Experiment
Rural Migration
Mapping Lung Cancer
Night of the Treeple
Antibody Art
Exoplanet Moons
Carbon Math: We're doomed

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Small Government

I notice a lot of conservatives like this truly strange idea of "small government is good government". I don't think government should be bigger than it needs to be but a "small government" means ineffectual oversight of financial systems, an impoverished EPA and a blighted FDA. It means no increase in funding for NIH and NSF-- which, given inflation and the increase of costs, means funding reduction. It means a reduction in NASA, implying not only a reduction in the space program but also reduces the possibility of improvement in air traffic control.

Personally, I don't have a problem with a non-small government. I'm in Teddy Roosevelt's camp on this one: Government should be big enough to manage those entities it must regulate. Small government means societal control by entities larger than government: Citibank, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Enron.

Yeah, those were real success stories.


Political Links

Fact Check Covers the Kilkenny Email
House and Senate Lies

Links of Interest
Ancient Microbial Magnets
Solar Refrigerators
Sewer Diving
Inventing a Better Toilet
Christian Evolution
Best Illusions of 2008 (Not political)
The STD Dating Service
Slowing Solar Power in Spain
Carbon Nanotubes: Solar Cells
Cyprus Turtle Project
The Vietnam Graffiti Project
Courthouse Confessions
Middle East Reactors
Reinventing the Ferret
India to the Moon and here
True Call
Sea Shanties

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Utility of Religion

I've been reanalyzing my fundamental bias against religion, trying to figure out where it comes from. I've spoken before about the hypocrisy of creationists but there are a lot of people who either are not creationists or at least apolitical creationists-- meaning they're not trying to change my mind or alter the way science is taught.

But when I think about it my bias against religion is much deeper, much more fundamental to my view of religion. My understanding of religion is colored by my bias against Christianity as much as anything. This is probably not as surprising as I would prefer to think. I was raised as a Southern Methodist and, logically, when I rebelled against religion that was what I was most familiar with.

On the other hand, I have no little affection towards Bhuddism and Judaism, a slight bias against Islam and in my mind Hinduism marks a blank spot in my consciousness. Lots of gods? What's that all about?

But it's Christianity that drives my anger. So it becomes apparent that my bias against religion is really a bias against Christianity. Whatever negative feelings I have towards other religions probably the result from behavior that is similar or different from Christianity.

I have a lot of issues with Christianity: substitution of internal motivation for behavior in the judgment of sin, the concept of original sin, the cult of Mary, the reliance of revelation in spiritual change, the lack of rigorous logic, rigid authoritarianism. Different strains of Christianity have a different complex of these issues. But when I boil them down, when I really figure out what bothers me about Christianity, it is this: Christians are not better humans than non-Christians. Christians have their saintly idols but an inspirational idol is only valuable if it inspires the rank and file. If the rank and file are not fundamentally better as human beings, then what good is the religion?

I base my subjective interpretation of this purely on my own experience but, since religion is a subjective experience, I think that's just fine.

Humans are just humans, right? Why should we expect a religion to make us better humans?

There's a simple response to this. If a religion doesn't make us better people what good is it? How can a religion, any religion, justify the financial expense, mental cost and human effort if it doesn't make us better people?

By and large, I've been impressed with the Jews I've met. They tend to be better educated, more tolerant and more interesting to be around than most Christians. I have the same feeling towards Bhuddists-- but my sample size is small so I can't vouch for a trend.

The first thing that attracted me to Judaism was its mandate of education. To pursue learning, religious or secular, is a good thing as defined by Holy Scripture. Christianity is a Johnny come lately on this since the common folk weren't even encouraged to read until a couple of centuries ago. Contrast this with the Bar Mitzvah in Judaism, where a young man must read the Torah in the original Hebrew, and understand it, as part of his manhood ceremony. Education is a mitzvah-- a good work in the world. A blessing. I've met devout Christians who could barely write their name in the ground with a stick, much less understand and read the bible.

But even worse, I've met a number of highly intelligent Christians who have had to put their minds in straitjackets, sold themselves into intellectual poverty in order to satisfy the requirements of Christian dogma. The resulting limited minds are hard to watch. What makes humans unique is not our gift for altruism, our kindness or our love of beauty. Our cousins, the great apes, have all of these things. What sets us apart is our intelligence, our ability to transcend our biology. To deliberately dumb yourself down, to refuse to look at what your eyes and ears tell you, is tantamount to selling your soul. To deny the intelligence that is every human's birthright is to deny one's humanity.
Links of Interest
Iceland's Geothermal Power
Offshore Wind
Tidal Power
More Melamine in China
Piglet Squid
UK Makes Biotech Deal with California
India Moon Probe
Stop Jenny McCarthy
Dinosaur Graveyard
Dietary Treatment for Drug Addiction

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pay More Income Tax

Massachusetts has that famous non-representative democratic institution, the referendum, where the populace is not swayed by facts or statistics but by advertising and slogans. This year, the libertarians have managed to get a repeal of the income tax on the ballot. A better venue for half-truths and out and out fabrications can't be found outside of a presidential debate.

So, let me be clear on my position. I like paying income taxes. Taxes are the usage fees of society. That's worth repeating. Taxes are the usage fees of society. Income taxes appropriately tax those who have used society more than those who have not.

I make a good wage. I'm not going to lose any more money to taxes according to the plan of Mister Obama, but I can see the country from here. Why should some single mother who makes a quarter of what I do pay the same taxes? A 25% bite on me is much smaller than a 25% bite on her. The fairest way to scale taxes is by that same income. I'm using the system more than that woman and therefore should pay more.

The least fair way to apportion out the usage fees of society is a constant value system such as property taxes. Property taxes are applied to all owners of property equally. Therefore, that mythical single woman who makes 1/4 of what I do, but might have inherited 100 acres from her farmer uncle, is taxed more. If she can't pay, she has to put the property up for sale. Maybe she'll make money. Maybe not. In any case, the land gets developed and, up here in Massacusetts where the land is pretty much overdeveloped, that's a bad thing.

Instead, I think we should pay more income tax. And do away with property taxes. Income tax is the best and fairest way to pay for society.

So, who wants to get rid of income tax? Well, I see two groups: the greedy and the stupid. Those who make a fair amount of money (I'm in this group) are taxed disproportionately to those that don't make very much. Why is this surprising? We have been given disproportionate advantages by society. We should pay more. In my example, I work for a company that pays a sizable health benefit. I get a really good salary. I get vacation time. I get various transportation subsidies. I went to school on the NDSL program.

Now, to be sure, I was able to navigate the software industry very well and managed to turn liabilities into assets. But that very software industry is itself a product of societal mechanisms. Anybody who thinks industries are only inventive people with merely the sweat of their brow and imagination is mistaken. Every industry has at its root societal mechanisms that enable its existence. The internet was invented by DARPA under government subsidy. It continues to be subsidized in that it is exempt from certain taxes. Therefore, the s/w industry in which I managed to make a good living was a product of societal decisions and I took advantage of it! It follows that I should pay for that-- otherwise I'm a mere parasite.

We all should pay for infrastructure-- public health, roads and bridges, public transportation, maintaining transparency in the free market, information transfer, education-- because we all benefit. A population of critical thinkers makes for a better republic. Part of the reason I think we have so many political and social problems is that we have neglected educating ourselves. For example, rabid environmentalists could benefit from understanding finance. Rabid free marketers could benefit from understanding a little elementary biology. Bad drivers could benefit from a basic understanding of physics. It is a matter of civic health to be better informed and to have a good infrastructure. With my salary, I'm able to benefit more than others. People who make less, benefit less and should pay less. People who make more, benefit more and should pay more.

In my opinion, since repeal of the income tax only benefits people who pay tax and benefits most those who pay a lot of tax, we should consider who's behind the movement. I see two groups: fanatics who will sacrifice anything to follow an ideology and rich folks who don't want to pay their fair share. I don't want them running my state.

Political Links

Obama's Lies
McCain Stock
The Race to the Bottom

Links of Interest
Nice Discussion of Algis Budrys and here
Against Transcendence
Dino Dance Floor
Jurassic Ark and here
Fusion, Antimatter and the Space Drive
Project Daedalus
SloMo Saturn V Launch
Vision for Space Exploration
Exofly. No need to wonder why.
Buy your own meteorite
Enceladus Flyby
Comet Holmes
Dark Matter
Miguel Alcubierre and FTL
Punkin' Chunkin'

Links of Interest

Political Links
The ACORN Conspiracy and here
Thinking about Obama
Misleading by Union
McCain Lies
Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State
Reforming NIH Funding
Blunderbanking: A Short History of Modern Finance

Links of Interest
Ten Fossils that Shook the World
The First Dog
Search for Spock
Grading Federal Agencies on Scientific Opennes
New Software to Decipher Alien Languages
Testudo Taxonomy
Biocomputers in Cells

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Links of Interest

Political Links
Obama: Say it to my Face
Republican Nuremberg Rallies
Retirement gone. College at Risk.
Blunderbanking: Here.

Links of Interest

Links of Interest

Debt Clock Rolls Over -- Thanks, George

Links of Interest

Political Links
Hey, Sarah Palin
Obama's Keating 5 Documentary

Links of Interest
The Real Food Pyramid
Top 10 Nobel Snubs and here and here
25% of Mammals Face Extinction
Tipping Temperature
The Other CO2 Problem
Hypnosis and the Brain
Woodworking and Mandolins
Trash on Earth
Climate Change and Diseases
Genetic Intelligence
Indian Science Fiction
The Left Hand of Biochemistry