Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More autism scare tactics

So apparently someone got bored of the vaccines cause autism nonsense, and decided a new brand of nonsense was needed to keep new and future parents afraid of advanced medical technology.  His name is Dr. Manuel Casanova:
Dr. Manuel Casanova believes something very common to all pregnant women may be contributing to the growing number of autism cases.
Nearly every pregnant woman gets an ultrasound - or two or three.
These days, parents post the pictures on websites; everything from YouTube, where you’ll find images of babies in-utero with background music, to their own personal blogsites.
In ultrasounds, high frequency sound waves get images of the baby, measurements are taken, abnormalities detected, and the sex of the baby is learned
Now, though, Dr. Manuel Casanova, a noted research scientist at the University of Louisville, is sounding a warning about ultrasounds.
“It's not just about taking a picture of your baby,” he said.  “This has physical and chemical effects and it's poorly regulated by the government.”
Casanova published a report earlier this year in the journal “Medical Hypothesis,” spelling out his concerns of ultrasounds.
OK, so ultrasounds are more common than in the past, and diagnosis of autism is more common than in the past.  Therefore, ultrasounds cause autism.  Anyone else see the problem with this reasoning?

But I'll bite, what other evidence does he have?  The article is useless, but that doesn't mean anything.  Science reporting is almost always poor, without presenting anything useful from the original publications.  Unfortunately, I can't get to the full original article by Dr. Casanova (and no other links found on Google Scholar).  But here is the abstract:
The phenotypic expression of autism, according to the Triple Hit Hypothesis, is determined by three factors: a developmental time window of vulnerability, genetic susceptibility, and environmental stressors. In utero exposure to thalidomide, valproic acid, and maternal infections are examples of some of the teratogenic agents which increase the risk of developing autism and define a time window of vulnerability. An additional stressor to genetically susceptible individuals during this time window of vulnerability may be prenatal ultrasound. Ultrasound enhances the genesis and differentiation of progenitor cells by activating the nitric oxide (NO) pathway and related neurotrophins. The effects of this pathway activation, however, are determined by the stage of development of the target cells, local concentrations of NO, and the position of nuclei (basal versus apical), causing consequent proliferation at some stages while driving differentiation and migration at others. Ill-timed activation or overactivation of this pathway by ultrasound may extend proliferation, increasing total cell number, and/or may trigger precipitous migration, causing maldistribution of neurons amongst cortical lamina, ganglia, white matter, and germinal zones. The rising rates of autism coincident with the increased use of ultrasound in obstetrics and its teratogenic/toxic effects on the CNS demand further research regarding a putative correlation. 
I don't know enough about NO pathways and the suggested effects to know how good his reasoning is in this summary.  If any biologist/med students reading know about this stuff, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.  Also, if anyone has access to the article, I'd be very interested in reading it.  (I'm going to try accessing the article when I'm at work tomorrow; I can sometimes get access to articles on Northeastern's wireless service that I don't have at home, but I don't expect this journal to be accessible.  If I do, I'll amend this post, or create a new one.)

But even if he is right on about NO pathways, the number of assumptions made from NO activation to autism here suggests to me there's a lot of conjecture that needs to be baked up by evidence.  The ending of the summary simply states that rising autism rates coincide with increased use of ultrasound, with no mention of testing all of these connections in the reasoning chain, suggesting he doesn't address them in the paper (or its a poor summary of what research was actually done, which is what I expect to see in an abstract/summary).

Given that, I tentatively suspect that the news article is unnecessarily puffing up a very preliminary idea as something we really need to fear.  In addition, it appears that Dr. Casanova may not be very objective:
Dr. Casanova admitted autism is not just a professional pursuit.  For him, it's also a personal matter.  His grandson is autistic.
 Bertrand is Dr. Casanova's first grandchild.  Until he was 18-months-old, Bertrand played, babbled, and developed normally.
Then, he was diagnosed with Retts Syndrome, a rare form of autism in which the development regresses.
Dr. Casanova began to sound his warning about ultrasounds after seeing photos of Bertrand at his daughter’s house.
“She had in her coffee table a book that summarizes my grandson's first year of life,” he said. “For every year we have pictures.  The first picture, first page of that the first year of life, do you know what was his first picture?  Ultrasound.”
Dr. Casanova is a scientist who relies on years of painstaking research to draw conclusions, but this time, he’s raising his concerns early .
“My daughter, when I told her about ultrasound, she told me ‘Why, Daddy, why didn't you tell me you always suspected it could be a risk factor?  Why didn't you tell me?’” he said. “ I said, we have to be cautious. Right now maybe that has colored my perspective, and I’m not that cautious, but I know if I can prevent this even in one patient, I will have made my life's work.”
OK, now I'm much more confident in my assessment.  "But this time, he's raising his concerns early?"  How can anyone take this seriously?  He sees an ultrasound of his grandson, and concludes that must be what did it.  You'd think a scientist would be able to separate personal, emotional responses from his research.  Or if he can't, at least be aware that his personal experience may be clouding his judgment and be more cautious about drawing conclusions.

This sensationalist article isn't a surprise:  it seems to be popular for the news media to encourage people to fear everything about our modern society.  I hope this doesn't result in fear of ultrasounds and other important medical procedures, as the anti-vaccine movement has done for vaccinating children.

Intelligent Design Sort

For all my fellow computer geeks out there, I present Intelligent Design Sort:


Intelligent design sort is a sorting algorithm based on the theory of intelligent design.

Algorithm Description

The probability of the original input list being in the exact order it's in is 1/(n!). There is such a small likelihood of this that it's clearly absurd to say that this happened by chance, so it must have been consciously put in that order by an intelligent Sorter. Therefore it's safe to assume that it's already optimally Sorted in some way that transcends our na├»ve mortal understanding of "ascending order". Any attempt to change that order to conform to our own preconceptions would actually make it lesssorted.


This algorithm is constant in time, and sorts the list in-place, requiring no additional memory at all. In fact, it doesn't even require any of that suspicious technological computer stuff. Praise the Sorter!


Gary Rogers writes:
Making the sort constant in time denies the power of The Sorter. The Sorter exists outside of time, thus the sort is timeless. To require time to validate the sort dimishes the role of the Sorter. Thus... this particular sort is flawed, and can not be attributed to 'The Sorter'.

The argument seems air-tight to me, assuming, of course, you already hold that Intelligent Design is true...  So I guess all that time I spent in my algorithms classes was wasted.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Homo Depot

Apparently The Home Depot is promoting the homosexual agenda!

From the American Family Association's website:

For several years, The Home Depot has given its financial and corporate support to open displays of homosexual activism on main streets in America's towns.
Rather than remain neutral in the culture war, The Home Depot has chosen to sponsor and participate in numerous gay pride parades and festivals. Most grievous is The Home Depot's deliberately exposing small children to lascivious displays of sexual conduct by homosexuals and cross-dressers, which are a common occurrence at these events. 
Judge for yourself by reviewing the photos below, taken during recent homosexual events sponsored by The Home Depot. Should The Home Depot be helping advance the homosexual agenda? And more importantly, will you choose to boycott The Home Depot?
The goal of every homosexual organization supported by The Home Depot is to get homosexual marriage legalized. The information below provides just a glimpse of how broad The Home Depot's support for the homosexual movement is.

Let's take a look at some of those photos they're talking about:

My god...  Seriously, what exactly are these picture meant to show?

Go support your local Home Depot store!

Priest drowns baby during baptism

This is just sad:
A priest in eastern Europe has been accused of drowning a baby boy as he baptised him.
Father Valentin had denied being responsible for the baby's death during the baptism in Moldova.
The six-week-old baby died on the way to hospital and an autopsy found he had drowned, the baby's dad Dumitru Gaidau told Romania's Publica TV.
Mr Gaidau, 36, said his son was clearly in distress during the ceremony.

"He couldn't inhale, his face turned blue and he was foaming at the mouth. He [the priest] said we should not interrupt this their ritual," he said.
"We couldn't believe it that he just put his hand over his belly and over the head and submerged him three times in the water."
When the baby's angry relatives confronted the priest, he told them he knew what he was doing and was experienced at baptisms, Ms Vacarciuc said.
If found guilty of accidental homicide, Father Valentin could spend three years in jail.

He was obviously experienced with baptisms, he did that part right.  What he doesn't have experience with is common sense, basic medical care of an infant, and human decency.  Only religious wing-nuts could decide it was worse to interrupt an idiotic bronze-age ceremony than to make sure a baby isn't fucking drowning.  Perhaps the parents and family will get a clue and stop putting children at risk around these fools.

Would it be considered accidental homicide if I submerged the priest's head in water for a few minutes (or hours)?  What if I told you it was part of my religious tradition?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Faith Healing - In Pictures

Even once in a while, we hear about some fundamentalist parents keeping their children from receiving medical care, and instead relying on prayer.  This often leads to disastrous consequences for the children.  What we don't often see the effects of this child abuse so clearly as the following case.

Another couple from the Followers of Christ church in Oregon City stand accused of criminal mistreatment for deliberately withholding medical care from their child. Timothy and Rebecca Wyland of Beavercreek believe in treating sickness with prayer rather than medicine, even when prayer doesn't work.
Their infant daughter, Alayna, has a serious eye problem, which they chose not to treat. Someone notified authorities and the state intervened, and now the Wylands are trying to regain custody of their daughter. 

Medical experts describe the eye problem as a hemangioma, a fast-growing mass of blood vessels. Normally the condition could be diagnosed and easily treated at the first signs of swelling or discoloration. Left untreated, the mass pushed Alayna's eye down and out, placing profound pressure on her eyeball and eye socket, as The Oregonian's Steve Mayes reported.

It's not clear whether Alayna will go blind in that eye or somehow recover. The only certain thing is that the Wylands deliberately withheld medical care, and admitted in court to doing so, from a baby whose injury was painfully obvious. 
In addition to the article, there are images of Alayna in her condition below.

NOTE:  The image below is graphic and may be upsetting to some.  I'm putting it below the fold, in case anyone would prefer not to see it. The link to the original story also contains the image, so be warned if you follow the link.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Phil Plait's Bad Universe

This looks amazing:


Seriously, though.  I'm a huge fan of Phil Plait, and his blog at Bad Astronomy.  He's been talking about a super-secret TV project he's been working on for a while now, and I'm really excited to finally find out what it is.  I'll definitely be tuning in to see this!

There isn't an air date for the show yet, but I'll certainly be keeping my eye out for it.  I'll let you know when I hear more.

EDIT:  Apparently the original video was taken down on YouTube.  Luckily, Phil Plait posted a new one that's upYou can see it here, if my new embedded one doesn't work.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Random Reddit Readings

Being the procrastinator that I am, I often spend time reading through random posts on reddit when I'm bored and in front of a computer (which is way too often).  By some strange coincidence, it seems like every other post I read yesterday was something I thought would be of interest for the blog.  So rather than put up a bunch of really short, unoriginal blog posts about each one, I decided to create one big, unoriginal post!

First, the first bathroom stall counter-argument I've ever seen:

Unfortunately, it ends with an argumentum ad baculum.  Too bad, it was quite a well thought out exchange before that, if you ask me.  

Maybe those fundamentalist Jains are right, after all.

I also learned that Religulous (by Bill Maher) is now available on Google Video.  Although I'm not a fan of Maher (calling yourself a rationalist while denying the effectiveness of modern medicine is obnoxious to me), I thought it was a good film, with plenty of funny and cringe-worthy moments.  It's worth a look if you haven't seen it before:

Next we get a late submission to the Draw Muhammad Day festivities, along with an old internet meme that I thought was dead by now:

It took awhile for me to parse that sentence, but I assure you it makes sense.

Finally, a few more serious posts.

First, this is apparently the website of a group of religious black supremacists, called YTPolitics - The Kingdom of Israel.  The images on the site are extremely graphic and offensive (very NSFW).  I'm not posting any of them here directly, because I'd prefer to stay off of government watch lists if I can.  As disturbing as this material is, its important to realize that even "extremism" has various levels of crazy and dangerous.

That said - here's the link to their site.

To end on a more positive note: There was a recent news story about Israeli bloggers finally getting  authorities to connect a Palestinian village to the water supply, with a two-and-a-half month campaign:

Hundreds of Israelis managed to overcome years of bureaucratic battles in only two and a half months – without ever leaving the house.

The viral activists used blogs, emails and social networks in order to pressure authorities to connect a Palestinian village to running water.

The group, in cooperation with Bimkom – Planners for Planning Rights Foundation, launched a blog entitled 'One action a day', with the aim of getting the Palestinian village of al-Tawana, located on Israeli territory south of Mount Hebron, water.

After two and a half months of activity, the tables finally turned. Two of the activists received phone calls from head of the Civil Administration Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, who thanked them for the numerous letters and said the Civil Administration plans on connecting the village to a water supply in the near future.

"Truthfully, we didn’t think we would succeed. We simply wanted to raise awareness to one of the village's many problems. We were pleasantly surprised," said Uziel. 

It's nice to know that, despite religious difference, and tension in the region, there are a number of Israeli concerned about to condition of others, regardless of religion.  Not only that, but that an online community can make a difference in those situation.

So that's everything I found yesterday.  I'm like a pack-rat for internet posts and pictures, apparently.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Picking Up The Slack

Since Pharyngula is on strike, we may not get our normal quota of cephalopod photos for a while.   So I'm doing something to pick up some of the slack:

I'm not sure if it's a tiny octopus, or a giant finger...

The Second Annual Blag Hag Blogathon

Jen McCreight from Blag Hag (and of Boobquake fame) will be Blogathon-ing for the second straight year.  Starting Saturday, July 31st at 8:00am, she plans on making a new blog post every half hour, for 24 straight hours!  She's doing all this for charity, She's asking readers to donate to the Secular Student Alliance, in support of her amazing feat.  She also has other ways you can help:

2. Spread the word! Post this on your blog, tweet it, tell a friend. And remind people to "tune in" on the 31st!  [[Jeff:  I'm on it! :-)]]

3. Inspire me! If I haven't been answering your emails or questions on, it's because I've been saving up (sorry!). But I can never have too many blogging prompts. Ask me a question anonymously, or email me an idea at blaghagblog(at)gmail(dot)com.

4. Keep me company on the 31st. It helps knowing people are actually reading the posts I'm pumping out. And I try to keep them the same quality of my normal posts - I won't throw up stupid filler just to meet my quota. It should be entertaining for everyone involved, especially since you can literally watch me get more delirious as the night goes on. And hey, it can get lonely at 5am. It's good to know there's another night owl out there.

I'll definitely be checking in on her throughout the day, you should as well.  We can be comment buddies!

And if you can, make a donation; the SSA is a great organization that could use your help.

Pharyngula goes on Strike

In light of the problems going on with ScienceBlogs, and its parent company, Seed Magazine, many bloggers have left the ScienceBlogs community.  If you're not familiar, ScienceBlogs has been plagued with a number of bugs that are have not been fixed for months.  And recently, Seed added a new blog about food science, except that it was written by representatives from the Pepsi Corporation.  Many bloggers on SB felt this was blurring the lines between the bloggers content and advertising, essentially giving advertisers a seat at the table with objective science writers.  Seed finally canceled the PepsiCo blog, but not before a number of SB bloggers left. 

Most recently, Bora, who blogs at A Blog Around The Clock and was a key to building the SB community to what it is today, has decided to leave.  Many other bloggers there have followed suit, and more are considering it, including Orac over at Respectful Insolence, if his lately entry is of any indication. 

PZ Myers at Pharyngula is also fed up with Seed and ScienceBlogs ineptitude, but he's taking a different approach.  He has decided that Pharyngula will go on strike, until Seed meets some demands:

So this is my last post for a while. I don't know how long; maybe SMG will contact me right away and surrender to my demands (which are pretty mild, so it's entirely possible). Or maybe the pattern of silence will continue, and with regret and exasperation, I'll have to find a new host somewhere else. Whatever happens, we can't keep going as we have.
Oh, right. Demands. You can't have a strike without some goal that will resolve it. Here's what I want from Seed:
  1. Immediate formation of a mechanism for communication between management and bloggers. We're an unwieldy group, so setting up a small committee of bloggers with regular (monthly) conference calls, and the option for ad hoc calls when serious issues come up, such as the PepsiCo mess.
  2. Prompt responses from management. When Bora left, that was a major event; there should have been a quick in-house response that would have involved scheduling a conversation within the week. No more long silences.
  3. Regular updates on the status of tech support, and input from bloggers. We've got bugs, they get ignored, and the priorities are biased towards advertising opportunities. Ads are important, but who is going to want to advertise at a place that's falling apart? Or has big signs saying "ON STRIKE" out front? Throw us a bone now and then.
  4. Transparency. Bloggers need to be informed about any problems in the parent organization, and we'd also like to hear more good news, too. Fly new plans by us so you can get feedback before they go live and blow up.
  5. More trust. This may be an odd one, but the bloggers are dependent on the financial health of Seed, too. It's OK for management to suggest to us what they'd like to see more of on the blogs; I have no problem with suggestions, for instance, that we throw in more nutrition or food blogging this month, because we've got an advertising contract from PepsiCo, as long as our response is optional and as long as we're also free to criticize.
See? Those demands shouldn't be so hard to meet. Now the test is whether Seed can exhibit a little agility and respond to them expeditiously.
This is going to be quite a blow to the traffic coming to ScienceBlogs.  I'm not familiar with the numbers, but Pharyngula has got to be one of the most, if not THE most, popular blogs on their network. I doubt advertisers are going to be happy about the decreased traffic.

Although it will be tough to lose, at least temporarily, one of my favorite atheist blogs, I completely support this decision.  ScienceBlogs needs improvement, and it won't happen unless someone puts pressure on them and on Seed to make the necessary changes.  If you haven't already, show PZ some support in the comment section of his ON STRIKE post, and perhaps let Seed and ScienceBlogs know how you feel about all of this.

Monday, July 19, 2010

NurdRage Makes Glow Sticks!

I recently ran across a YouTube channel called NurdRage, containing all kinds of really cool science experiment videos.  This one, for example, explains how glow sticks work, and how you can make your own (if you're willing to buy a few not-so-common chemicals):

I think the reason I like the video so much is that it's not just showing how to make a glow stick. It's teaching all about how it actually works, and even does some simple experiments to test his explanation of how it works. He makes a mixture that doesn't contain any fluorescent dye, to show that it won't light up, even though the energy source still exists in the jar. It's cool to watch, and it gives you real science, all at the same time.

If you have kids, these videos would be a perfect way to get them excited about science.  Since I don't have kids, I need to find another excuse to watch all of them...

(No excuse is actually needed, they're incredibly interesting and really well done.  Don't feel any guilt if you get sucked into them like I did.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Downloadable Drugs

What's the latest threat to our nation's children?

Apparently, digital drugs:

Where should I begin?  First, binaural beats' effectiveness are questionable at best.  Brian Dunning already did a Skeptoid podcast about them, if you're interested in more details.  It appears that most effects of binaural beats have to do with the expectations of the listener (i.e., the placebo effect).  Note that this doesn't necessarily mean that they are harmless.  If it were true that these kids' experience is due to the placebo effect, it is still an effect on their consciousness.  The theory presented in the video is that users of binaural beats will be more likely to try other, illegal drugs due to their experimentation with binaural beats, which could be harmful, of course.

The problem, though, is that this "theory" is absolute horseshit.  Because it's not a theory at all, it's a blind conjecture.  There is zero evidence that users of binaural beats are any more likely to try illicit drugs later on.  Why people think they can just postulate anything that comes to mind, and present it as the next threat to our children boggles my mind.  And now cell phones and iPods are banned from this school, based on ignorance and fear.

Next thing you know, they'll be claiming music and video games are dangerous!

Oh wait...

(via Skepchick)

Worcester Humanists hold BSA's feet to the fire

Although I work and go to school in Boston, I actually live out in the suburbs, closer to Worcester (pronounced Wu-ster, for those not from the area) than to Boston.  It was cool to see the local humanist group, the Greater Worcester Humanists, on the front page of the AHA's newsletter this week.

The Worcester Humanists have written a letter to several local Boy Scouts council leaders, urging them to make a statement about the BSA's national policy of denying membership to atheists and homosexuals.  The problem, according to the article, is that while the national leaders of the Boy Scouts have made it clear they support this discriminatory policy, local BSA groups remain quiet about the policy (and in some cases they tell some potential donors that they reject the policies, but that it is in place over their heads).  This allows local BSA groups to keep public support, while the discriminatory policies at the national level are not even challenged.

I think this is a great move by the Worcester Humanists.  Either the local groups speak out against the national policies, and put some pressure on the national BSA, or they admit they support the policies.  The latter would be disappointing, but at least it would be out there in the open.  People would know that local BSA groups discriminate, and can make a decision about supporting them in the future.   

So far, there has been no response from any of the local BSA leaders.  However, I think if more people were to ask these questions of local leaders, they would have to respond.  If you care about these discriminatory policies, please consider sending email to your local BSA chapters, asking about their attitudes towards discrimination.  I will be contacting the same members that the Worcester Humanists did, whose contact info can be found on their council sites:

If you decide to write the councils, please don't be antagonistic.  It's quite possible that they do not support these discriminatory practices at the higher levels of the BSA.  We simply want to know where they stand, and make those opinions known.  As the article stated:
It should be made clear, however, that this is not an attack on the local council leaders. They are the ones who work so hard, often as volunteers, to help local children grow into respectful and capable adults. The Telegram & Gazette quoted GWH spokesman Christopher Lackey as saying, "It's our understanding that the local councils are run by decent people who want to do the right thing and it's a shame that the national BSA casts a cloud of intolerance over scouting."
Hopefully we can get some local leaders of the Boy Scouts to speak out more publicly against discrimination against the organization.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Awesome photo of Lutetia

Rosetta is a robotic spacecraft, launched by the European Space Agency in 2004.  It's ultimate goal is to study the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, and place a lander on it in 2014 (which is mind-boggling!).  But on it's way, it has also been taking really cool photos of asteroids.  

Most recently, it has been photographing Lutetia, and this one was featured on The Planetary Society Blog:

Not only do we get a close-up look at an asteroid, but Rosetta also happened to catch something else in this shot.  If you said: "Hey, that looks like Saturn..." you're absolutely correct!

This shot reminds me of how empty our solar system really is.  We generally see picture of planets, their moons, and stars in the distance, all of which make it seem like the universe is filled with all kinds of objects.  And it is, but there's also a LOT of empty space in between those objects.  This shot illustrates that beautifully.  

You can see more photos of Lutetia on the Rosetta Blog.  They're all incredible to look at.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What would convince me?

Recently, Greta Christina wrote a piece on AlterNet about what evidence would convince her that she is wrong: God (or in one case, a supernatural soul) actually does exists.  If atheists claim to value scientific reasoning, than our beliefs should be demonstrably falsifiable.  By pointing out reasonable ways for our belief, that god does not exist, to be shown false (or that we can be convinced it is probably false), we are showing others that we are as open-minded and reasonable as we can be.  You can't reasonably ask for much more than that from us.  So I thought I should present my own list of things that would convince me that I was wrong about God.

I should start by saying that I mostly agree with Greta's examples.  If there was a clear, unambiguous message from God that a significant number of people in many locations received, it would cause me to at least consider that the existence of a god is much more likely than I currently believe.  Sam goes for evidence showing that a particular religion has vast benefits than are best explained by supernatural forces.  For example, prayer tends to be much more effective for this religion than all others, followers of a specific religion tend to be much healthier, or wealthier (or wiser :-)).

Of course, this type of evidence is still mitigated by the well-known problems with explaining why the world is the way it is, if a god actually does exist.  Why does evil exist?  Why do seemingly good people suffer?  To me, there are two possible solutions to this problem.  First, the examples presented above could be so convincing and unambiguous that I would have to conclude that god exists, enough to conclude that my objections above are more easily explained than the evidence presented.  On the other hand, someone (perhaps God, or just a smart person) could also give me a good answer to the problems of evil and suffering; a logical argument or explanation that I had never come up with by myself.  In that case, the standard for evidence could be a bit lower, because I would no longer have to contend with the perplexing problems of evil and suffering.

I tend to be a logical guy, so if someone could present me with some arguments that deal with my common objections, I suspect the evidence needed to convince me God probably exists wouldn't be too extraordinary.  It would still need to be of the same character (a clear message, effective prayer, etc.), but it wouldn't need to mitigate the fact that a so-called loving god seems to be a giant dick.

An objection I anticipate is that these examples are not reasonable.  It's true that some examples sound extreme.  However, we have to remember that this is evidence for a supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, supernatural being.  In fact, any evidence for such a being has to be extraordinary, enough so that the supernatural explanation (such as a god) is more likely than a natural one.  If the evidence isn't extraordinary, why would it require a god?

Finally, I suspect that if a god did exist, there are a number of ways he could convince me that I can't conceive of now.  I'm tempted to bring up the argument that if God is omnipotent and omniscient, then he would know what would convince me, and have the power to do it.  So if he exists, and he wants me to believe in him, I should already believe in him.  While it does seem like a convincing argument, it also seems a bit like begging the question: if I should believe in God, then I would already believe in him.  Perhaps it's not the perfect argument, but it is at least a piece of evidence that either God doesn't exist, or he doesn't want me to know he exists for some reason (and no, the argument that God wants me to believe based on faith is not convincing).

So you the faithful (or perhaps God himself, if I'm important enough to garner his attention) appear to have two avenues to change my mind.  Either present some extraordinary evidence, or convince me that common problems (such as the problem of evil or suffering) are not really problematic, and then provide a much more reasonable set of evidence.

What about all of you?  What would convince you to change your mind?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mark Twain's autobiography to finally be released

I read about this story a while ago, and completely forgot about it, until Atheist Media posted this video:

Apparently, Mark Twain requested that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death, which has just past.  Now that it has been a century, the University of California Berkeley will publish the first of what will be a three volume set of Twain's memoirs in November.  As of now, there are 5,000 pages of his unedited thoughts in their vault.

I'm very excited to read this when it's finally published.  Twain's humor and intellect is spot-on in all of his writing, and his critiques of religion, and specifically Christianity, are no exception.  If you've not read his views on religion, I recommend Thoughts of God, from Fables of Man, which asks the question "Why would God create the fly?".  I first read it in The Portable Atheist (which I also recommend very highly), and it's still one of my favorite essays.  Twain has this uncanny ability to have you laughing while reading one paragraph, and in solemn contemplation during the next.

I would definitely be on the lookout for this in November when it's published.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Catholic Priest Steals $1.3M from church

And guess what he was paying for?
He allegedly spent the money on lavish hotels, dining, and expensive clothing. But he also is reported to have provided three men with funds, too -- one he met at a park, one he met at a male strip club, and another he met through a male escort service.
If you guessed gay sex, you'd be correct.  I don't think I've ever been less sympathetic to either side of a dispute before.

The video is even funnier.  Apparently, not only was he taking money from parishioners, but he also leased out the steeple of his church to a wireless company to put in a cell phone tower, and pocketing the money.

I suppose that's one way to make a church useful.

And the priest from the archdiocese at 1:13 is absolutely right.  The church believes in reconciliation and forgiveness, like when a priest rapes children.  Unless, of course, you fuck with the church's money.  Then you're going to jail, asshole (especially if you're a fag).

You know, the pope is right.  We here in America DO need to rediscover our Catholic roots.

So that's how it all started!

I like this creation myth a lot better than the Christian one (mostly because it makes a cool desktop background, when I'm not using photos from Bad Astronomy):

Bonus:  It also answers the immortal question.  The egg came first!

(via Reddit)

Stoning and Music

Two stories regarding Islam caught my attention in the past few days (haven't had a spare moment to write about them until now).

First, the more horrific story:  An Iranian woman is sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery.  Jerry Coyne already said it very well:
Capital punishment is barbaric, capital punishment for adultery is more than barbaric, and stoning to death for adultery is so far beyond the bounds of human decency that I can’t imagine a mind that would promote it.
I can't imagine it either, except when such actions are condoned in a holy book, believed to be the words of a god.  Unfortunately, compassion and reason usually takes a back seat in those situations.

The second story, while less barbaric, got to me personally:  "Hundreds of Muslim parents are withdrawing their children from music lessons because their beliefs beliefs forbid them from learning an instrument" (from Atheist Media Blog).  The video below talks more about the exodus from music education:

So music is harmful to a Muslim, but stoning a woman to death is perfectly fine...

This story affects me so much because I know that my education was greatly enhanced by music.  And it seems to me that music education is one way for everyone: Muslims, Christians, atheists, etc., to come together and create something beautiful.  I've always liked the fact that unlike most classes in primary and secondary school, music classes are a completely cooperative effort.  Everyone does their part to make the piece sound as it should.  Everyone in a band or orchestra has to work together, and each person has responsibilities to the group to do their part.  There's a certain bond that exists between musicians, that you don't often develop in your other classes.*

This just seems like one more way to divide children, creating even more of an "us versus them" mentality as they continue through school.  Not to mention the fact that Muslim children are being denied part of their education, as music is required curriculum in Britain.  While I'm sure some of the children would never have developed much of an interest for music, there certainly are a few who are being denied something that can grow into a beautiful passion, as it did for me.  Though I don't play much anymore, I know that I appreciate music more than I ever could if I wasn't a musician myself.  And all of that is taken away from a child because their parents decide that Muhammad's musings are more important than their child's education.

* I suppose sports teams, as another example, have a similar bond.  But music is one way to include a lot more diverse children in a single group (athletic skill isn't required to learn an instrument).  Music always seemed more accessible to me than sports.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Future Is Now

God damn this is disappointing...

Stuff like this makes me think that the future isn't going to be anything like I thought it would be when I was a kid...