This Weeks Reader February 2, 2008  

Saturday, February 02, 2008

MySpace: No place for Atheists?
Early this month, MySpace again deleted the Atheist and Agnostic Group (35,000 members). This deletion, due largely to complaints from people who find atheism offensive, marks the second time MySpace has cancelled the group since November 2007.

What’s unique in this case is that the Atheist and Agnostic Group was the largest collection of organized atheists in the world. The group had its own Wikipedia entry, and in April won the Excellence in Humanist Communication Award (2007) from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Secular Student Alliance.

The Middle Ground
Atheists don’t argue from the assumption that god does not exist, which you would expect if we were on opposing sides, where the common perception places us. The only assumption an atheist makes is that the evidence, if properly pursued, will lead to the right conclusion. From that assumption we look at the evidence, both pro and con, and accept or reject it, as appropriate until a conclusion can be reached. So in a theist/atheist debate, the atheist is the only one with no ax to grind. The atheist is the only one who is arguing from a neutral position. The atheist is the only one taking the middle ground.

My Conflict Over Religious Bigotry, Part 1
My feelings about bigotry are far more conflicted. If a Christian hates someone he or she has never met, dismissing them as immoral, destined for hell, unworthy of citizenship, and the like, simply because the person is labeled an atheist, this is anti-atheist bigotry. But it also happens to be a part of the Christian religion insofar as the Christian in question intends to follow his or her bible. Does this change things, and if so, how?

Defensiveness, Rationalization, Mulishness... What Does That Have To Do With Religion? Mistakes Were Made, Part 2
And of particular relevance, I think, is one of the book's main themes: the human tendency to reject any and all ideas coming from people we disagree with. The more entrenched we get in a belief, the more unwilling we are to acknowledge that our opponents have any useful ideas whatsoever, or any valid points to make.

From the Sublime to the Absurd
Do we mourn something different when someone dies young? Largely, I think we mourn the promise lost. But somewhere and very oddly, I think, we savour, perhaps even envy them in their death the fact that they will be remembered in eternally youthful images of varied hues of machismo, vulnerability, desirability and passion. We, on the other hand, if at all remembered, will be all wrinkled and frail.

EA responds to FOX Mass Effect fiasco
The resulting coverage was insulting to the men and women who spent years creating a game which is acclaimed by critics for its high creative standards. As video games continue to take audiences away from television, we expect to see more TV news stories warning parents about the corrupting influence of interactive entertainment. But this represents a new level of recklessness.

Unreal licensees subpoenaed in Silicon Knights versus Epic case
The problem with this unveiling of licensing contracts, in the eyes of Epic and the various contract holders, is that the crucial information on intimate fee negotiations and other "trade secrets" would be exposed, which would pose a serious problem for Epic when it comes to selling to future licensees.

PTC throws down gauntlet, argues for video game legislation
It was time to ask the obvious question: why focus on games? The FTC has found that children are for more likely to be able to buy R-rated movies than M-rated games, so why fight so hard for legislation on the smaller issue? "We frequently hear from our members and parents that keeping violent video games out of their children's hands is a top priority," McKiernan replied. "And the evidence is conclusive: countless independent studies confirm that repeated exposure to graphic sexual, violent and profanity-laced video games has a harmful and long term effect on children."

Cooper Lawrence apologizes for Mass Effect attack
Let us focus on the fact that FOX viewers aren't likely reading the Times, meaning this is a nice case of having your cake and eating it too. Let us also discount the likelihood that she apologized only because her book was getting pounded by negative reviews on Going by her words, she showed up to talk about games, was told what to think, and then aggressively argued about a game she knew nothing about. The fact that she was comfortable taking that a demeaning tone on the topic and then admitting that she had no clue what she was talking about when called on it makes her look worse; her argument seems to be this isn't her fault, since she can't be expected to actually learn about what she's attacking.

Declarations of War
For the separation of powers system to work properly, each branch is supposed to be jealous of the few powers it’s granted — unwilling to allow the other branches to usurp their powers.

When the Congress, which has the authority to declare war, turns their power over to the President, to use at his discretion, they are engaged in “delegation.” Delegation is un-Constitutional. It breaks the separation of powers.

The problem with Untraceable is that it tries to cater to two audiences: those who like Hostel or Saw, and those who enjoy Diane Lane movies and “adult thrillers” (read: movies in which putting a child in momentary danger is considered “edgy”). And it ends up satisfying neither.

Like I said though, the film could be a bit shorter, because they sort of go overboard with how much these average looking hipsters can survive in a short time. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that there are two points before the ending where the movie could have conceivably ended, and with each “addition” you are required to put a little too much of your disbelief on hold. Considering that the whole film hinges on the “reality” presentation of this event, it’s a little strange that they expect you to believe regular people can survive 2.5 incredibly violent acts (sorry for slight spoiler, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to word it for like 10 min without spoiling anything and gave up).

Nonbelieving Literati
NL: The Plague by Albert Camus
It is Tarrou's philosophy, to some extent, but mostly Rieux's, that Camus approves of. Man finds meaning only inside himself; no meaning exists elsewhere. Not in the universe—that notion is absurd. In fact, the Absurd in Camus's philosophy is precisely this realization, that there is no meaning in the universe, that life is defined by death and is fleeting, and that the meaning of life is what we bring to it: a fight for happiness in the face of death. Tarrou acknowledges the Absurd, but fights it only when he must; Rieux, on the other hand, battles the Absurd on a daily basis and refuses to yield, though his "victories will never be lasting".

I’ve heard there aren’t any atheists in a Plague
This is not to say that Camus suggested that many people in the town were not religious and did not pray about their situation. Naturally, in any such situation, god will insert himself (in a calamity which, presumably, he could have prevented in the first place). But Camus populated his story with people faced by an unreasonable, uncaring death – people that I as an atheist could fully understand and sympathize with. Fortunately, Camus gave us insights into how humans handle such tragedy sans god. There were no victories in The Plague. The plague won and then disappeared. But each man and woman carried on in their own very human ways, prostrating themselves before the powers of nature, but not before the supernatural.

Nonbelieving Literarti: The Plague
I felt like I was missing something. When I read that it was likely a metaphor for the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, more of the story clicked into place. A human, mortal enemy seemed to fit better than nature itself, though in that enemy some of the impact in the implied theme that there is no control over one's life is lost.

Humans vs. Death: La Peste (The Plague) by Camus
I think The Plague succeeds at delivering its message: We're all in this together. In the struggle against death, death always wins in the end. But we can't (and shouldn't) give up the struggle. Because we're human.

Choosing Between a "But" and an "And"
Ah, the writer: ever the optimist. Whether it’s Albert Camus, or those of us ranting and raving in the Atheosphere, or the clerk who secretly scribbles his novel night after night after night, we must tell ourselves — delude ourselves maybe — that we can take a bunch of words, throw them onto a piece of paper or a screen, and have other people understand what we’re trying to say. Writing is unlike other learned skills that get easier with practice. The more you do it, the better you get at it, the harder writing becomes. That perfect sentence never wants to happen.

no excuses: thoughts on camus' the plague
You either remain caught up in your own reasons, living like your everyday habits and worries actually mean something, or admit to yourself that you have no reasons. If you do that and choose to go on living, then you accept the consequences. You have no excuses for yourself, but you are free. Everything is permitted, and you bear the burden of your own decisions without anything or anyone to hide behind. In many ways this is a very bleak and lonely way to look at the world. Part of me shrinks away from it, but part of me knows that my reaction to it doesn’t make it any less true. Whether we choose to face it or not, it’s there.

The Plague, aka, Insipid Women
Bind me, gag me and whip me! Please! Do something to put me out of my misery! Is this not one of the most pathetically bland female characters ever to populate a novel? Rieux’s wife is even blander, a literary accomplishment that I would have presumed impossible had I not read it myself.

The Politics of Science
With all the problems this country is facing, the presidential candidates are heavily focused on issues of change, the economy, and the war in Iraq. It is difficult to discern their positions on many issues that are important to the scientific community. Even if the other issues are more important, some small part of my vote is still going to be based on a candidate's support for the sciences, and I would like to know where they stand.

Democrats, Horse Races, and John Edwards
And the fact that people don't vote for the person they most want to win is, I think, one of the main reasons the Democrats have traditionally coughed up such a pathetic succession of hairballs. I think the horserace mentality, the "Is he/she electable?" mentality, is what keeps the attention focused on such a narrow field... and what keeps attention off of anyone outside that field.

Stir the Pot or Drown at the Bottom
We have been watching this mindless charade being played out in Congress since the decisive 2006 elections. Then, as well as now, the majority of Americans expressed their displeasure, frustration, and downright vitriolic anger at the insanity that had become the Iraq War, economic lunacy, ridiculous tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans, and a scandalous “me and mine,” “good ol’ boy” administration. We wanted to transform the mutilated anatomy that was America in order to reflect its true constitutional, democratic form once more. We had demanded a new direction, an end to the bullshit, and a cease and desist on all attempts to negate our Constitution for the instant gratification of the powerful few.

Christian Culture
Many Christians do not hate atheists; they simply forget that we are there and don't understand why we aren't more willing to indulge them. They see us as complaining about an endless parade of trivial issues (e.g., god in the pledge of allegiance or on money, Christmas displays at city hall, etc.). These issues do not bother them because their religion is the one being promoted. While it would bother them if it was Islam being promoted instead of Christianity, this is not the case, and so they do not have to confront it.

God will pay your medical bills IF…
I also don’t have time to be nice, so excuse me in advance. Apparently there some idiot Christians in Denver who think we don’t need health insurance because some unregulated Christian group takes their money and helps pay their medical bills — a sort of catastrophic insurance policy — but get this: ONLY if you’re a Christian. (The baby Jesus must be crying. Shouldn’t Chrstians help others?) What a crock of shit. I can’t even get my bile down enough to write about this coherently.

Empathy For Christians
When I attempt to relate to Christians in an empathic manner, I can begin to understand why atheists are so threatening. Most (if not all) Christians experience periods of doubt. Their faith conflicts with reality, and they are not immune to perceiving the conflict. I imagine that some of these times are scary. After all, many Christians will tell you that their faith is an important part of their identity. Questioning one's identity or encountering threats to how one has defined oneself provoke the sort of existential anxiety with which we can all relate.

On the Character of Jesus
Unless one is a moral relativist, a label most Christians would fiercely deny, the moral conclusion must be that if slavery was ever wrong, it was always wrong. That being the case, we would expect a divine being not bound by the culture and prejudices of the time of his incarnation to have condemned it unequivocally. Instead, he speaks of it and works it into his teachings as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Light Bulb Time
Look at the big one. Immortality. Religion says that when we die, we really don’t, we just go somewhere else; to a better place where all of the people we loved in this life will join us, and we them, in the next. And we’ll all congregate with god, for eternity, in an place of immense joy and bliss. It sounds so wonderful, but in reality what religion is promising is the negation of a natural phenomenon - death. Death, we know, is a reality. The promise of immortality, so far, is nothing but words.

Scientists discover way to reverse loss of memory
The accidental breakthrough came during an experiment originally intended to suppress the obese man's appetite, using the increasingly successful technique of deep-brain stimulation. Electrodes were pushed into the man's brain and stimulated with an electric current. Instead of losing appetite, the patient instead had an intense experience of déjà vu. He recalled, in intricate detail, a scene from 30 years earlier. More tests showed his ability to learn was dramatically improved when the current was switched on and his brain stimulated.

Artificial Life? Old News
So, ultimately, putting together a synthetic organism would simply confirm what scientists have known for a long time. The challenge to the project is not conceptual, but technical. And if you actually read the paper in which Venter’s team report the latest step in their project, it is supremely, fiendishly technical. They have a lot more tedium to survive before they create new life. And once they figure out how to build a viable genome and get it safely into a host cell, and if the two can cooperate nicely, what else would you expect but for life to emerge?

Asteroid 2007 TU24 Passes the Earth
Asteroid 2007 TU24 passed by the Earth yesterday, posing no danger. The space rock, estimated to be about 250 meters across, coasted by just outside the orbit of Earth's Moon. The passing was not very unusual -- small rocks strike Earth daily, and in 2003 a rock the size of a bus passed inside the orbit of the Moon, being detected only after passing. TU24 was notable partly because it was so large. Were TU24 to have struck land, it might have caused a magnitude seven earthquake and left a city-sized crater. A perhaps larger danger would have occurred were TU24 to have struck the ocean and raised a large tsunami. This radar image was taken two days ago. The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico broadcast radar that was reflected by the asteroid and then recorded by the Byrd Radio Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. The resulting image shows TU24 to have an oblong and irregular shape. TU24 was discovered only three months ago, indicating that other potentially hazardous asteroids might lurk in our Solar System currently undetected. Objects like TU24 are hard to detect because they are so faint and move so fast. Humanity's ability to scan the sky to detect, catalog, and analyze such objects has increased notably in recent years.


Uri Geller’s Confession and Human Fallibility
In an interview with me (not yet published) and in his online newsletter, Swift, Randi reported that recently, in an interview with German magazine Magische Welt (Magic World), Geller is quoted as saying:

I’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. My entire character has changed.
That is quite a revelation. Taken at face value it is a confession that all these years he has been nothing but a garden-variety mentalist and that he lied about having psychic power. I don’t know if this is the last word on the matter from Geller (he may have second thoughts about this reversal) but it confirms what skeptics and magicians have always known - it is not necessary to postulate paranormal powers in order to explain Geller’s feats.

So how do we resolve this problem? It ain’t easy. We can’t do all the experiments - at some point we have no CHOICE but to rely on authority. But part of the solution is to remember that authorities are themselves frequently wrong, or update their own views. We have to recognize where we are relying on authority, and be extra careful to recognize the weakness inherent in this approach, even though it is absolutely necessary. Finally, we have to try to be aware of our inherent biases, and be extra careful to examine the arguments of the very authorities with whom we most agree. After a while, we develop a sense of what makes sense and what doesn’t, but even that must be constantly checked. There’s a feedback loop in this, of constant checking and revising, but the danger of referring to authority is that it can short-circuit this process. Making sure that doesn’t happen is a lot of work, but hey, that’s why skeptics get the big money.

Childish Attachment To Ideas
It seldom matters how intelligent we are. If we are attached to an idea, we will stick with it even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary — irregardless of how smart we are. Brains alone won’t overcome an emotional attachment to an idea: One needs some measure of emotional courage to overcome an emotional attachment.

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