Thursday, March 31, 2011

Staying Power

On Jerry Coyne's recommendation, I rented "Never Let Me Go" and watched it last weekend. Jerry had written of this movie, "You’ll either love it or think it’s meh." My initial reaction tended towards "meh"; I thought the film was well acted and beautifully shot, but it didn't have much emotional impact on me at the time. In the days since I watched it, though, scenes have been replaying themselves in my head, a sure sign that it worked its way into my consciousness even though I wasn't giving it my undivided attention. (That happens a lot when I watch movies at home—too many distractions.) The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro (who also wrote "Remains of the Day"), and now I want to read the book to more fully explore ideas that were only briefly touched on in the film.

Some words and images hit you immediately: Racial or sexual epithets directed at you, or someone you love. Photos of a coed screaming as she crouches over the body of a fallen student, a man in a white shirt blocking the progress of a line of tanks, a Y-shaped trail of smoke and debris from an exploding space shuttle. Other inputs seem to need a while to sink in: Seemingly offhand remarks that don't trouble you until late at night in the quiet darkness, when your mind is mulling over the day's events. Images that were viewed only briefly but intrude on your thoughts hours or days later, demanding your attention. You can't escape them; you will deal with them, or they'll keep dealing with you.

As I watched "Never Let Me Go" a second time this evening, two lines from the school song that the students sing at the beginning of the movie—"When we are scattered afar and asunder, parted are those who are singing today"—took on an entirely new meaning. Now I understand that this film will be with me for a long, long time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Making Enlightenment Work

I love this quote from Annie Laurie Gaylor (who, along with her husband Dan Barker, is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation) about the FFRF's latest billboard campaign in Raleigh, North Carolina:
It worked for the gay rights movement. It’s time for atheists and agnostics to come out of our closet...Many faces make enlightenment work. We know many people in North Carolina have never knowingly met an atheist or unbeliever, much less someone who is proud to advertise their nonbelief. We are so proud of our North Carolina members and participants.
The decision to "come out of the closet" (sexually or spiritually) is a highly personal one. Even in situations where the culture and/or the legal system offer some protection, coming out isn't a safe option for everybody. I wouldn't urge someone to be open about their atheism (or agnosticism, or humanism, or "Brightism," or whatever label they prefer) if that would endanger their livelihood or essential relationships. Even if you don't face those risks, you don't have to be an "out" atheist just to satisfy the FFRF, Richard Dawkins, me, or anybody else. Maybe you're just the private type, and only share your sexual preferences, taste in TV shows, or beliefs about religion on a need-to-know basis. It's your call.

If you are a nonbeliever who's not out, though, give it some thought. If you were raised in an area (like most of the US) where some kind of religious belief is assumed but you've broken from the pack and acknowledged your lack of belief to yourself, it's probably because you place a high value on truth and reality. How better to demonstrate that value than to show your genuine self to the world?

H/T to Hemant at Friendly Atheist

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Loving IT

My iPad 2 is here. I think I'm in love. After using it for a few hours, holding one of my iPod touches feels like holding a toy, like switching from an oversized coffee mug to the thimble-sized plastic cups that little girls use at tea parties for their dolls. Still, the iTouches fit easily into a pocket or purse while the iPad has to ride in the zippered pouch on the outside of my laptop/messenger bag, so I won't be getting rid of the iTouches anytime soon.

I knew I'd be using the iPad to read eBooks, and oh my, they look gorgeous. Yeah, I know, the Kindle's "E Ink" is legible even in sunlight and the device has a great battery life, but since I spend as little time outdoors as possible and am rarely far from a power outlet, the ability to read in bed without a clip-on booklight is far more important to me. What I hadn't anticipated is that the iPad with the Smart Cover "rolled" into a triangular shape fits perfectly on the console of my treadmill. I can read while walking, something I could never do easily with "real" books. Hardbacks won't lay flat unless the spine's been cracked, and paperbacks are just too light to lay flat without being weighted down. Most magazines are so big they cover the controls on the treadmill, and the font size is usually too small for me. The iPad fits nicely between the treadmill's elevation and speed controls, though, and the font size (using the Kindle app) can be adjusted up to the point that I could almost read without glasses. I was so happy that I actually bought a book on yesterday (Any Human Heart by William Boyd; so far I'm enjoying it as much as the dramatization that was on Masterpiece Classic last month) after years of downloading just freebies. And if I don't feel like reading, there's the NetFlix app, and a keyboard big enough that I could actually type while walking (at my usual leisurely pace, anyway), and who knows what else.

My productivity at work was nil yesterday after the package showed up, so it's a good thing that the iPad was a gift/bonus from my boss. I can blame him for being distracted!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Choosing My Words Less Carefully

A few weeks ago I discussed my efforts to stop using expressions that refer to religion or superstition, such as "oh god" or "bless you." Rebecca Watson at Skepchick has responded deftly to a correspondent who challenged her to stop using "phrases such as 'Oh, my God', 'Christ, or others that are direct or indirect entreaties to a god":
Stop making direct entreaties to Thor. Every time you use the word “Thursday” it honors the ancient, well-debunked concept of a man who lives in the sky and throws lightning bolts. Try using “fourth day of the week” instead, or perhaps “fifth day of the week” depending upon when you consider the week starts.

For that matter, stop honoring Tyr, Odin, Frigg, Saturn, the Sun, and the Moon.
Rebecca makes a valid point. I've realized that it's no big deal if I let an occasional "oh god" slip out, and I'm relieved that I'll no longer have to consult Bartlett's to determine if the saying I want to use is from Shakespeare or the Bible. (I have so much trouble keeping those two straight!) I mean, I could live without the expression "the land of Nod," which I don't think I've ever actually used, but without "pearls before swine," I'd have nothing pithy to say to friends who hold doors open for me!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wishing For a Speedy Recovery...Or Not

Two names that are well known in skeptical circles have been in the news recently for medical reasons. Outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Hitch 22, has been battling esophageal cancer since last year and has now enlisted the help of Francis Collins, a prominent Christian scientist. And from an article that sounds like a press release from her publicity agent, we learn that "world famous psychic, author" Sylvia Browne had a heart attack last week and is recovering in a hospital in Hawaii.

Other than the obvious jokes like "I guess Sylvia didn't see this coming,"1 I can't work up much emotion about her illness. Unlike those who pay big bucks for her "readings" or "salons," I don't think she has any "psychic" talents whatsoever. In fact, I consider her downright harmful because she hands out "medical" advice that's she's in no way qualified to dispense, and she spews both false hope and unwarranted grief to those seeking news of missing loved ones.2 A heart attack in a woman in her seventies who smokes and has used a wheelchair (offstage) for years is no big surprise, and while I'm not hoping for her death, I do hope that she's sidelined for a good long while. She's caused enough pain to others already.

On the other hand, I wish Christopher Hitchens all the best with his new treatment. I guess there's supposed to be some irony in the fact that one of the "four horsemen" of the "new atheism" movement3 has turned to a doctor who's an outspoken Christian,4 but an atheist going to a Christian doctor isn't news; that happens every day. Depending on where you live and/or what your insurance covers, you may not have a lot of choice in healthcare providers, and while my insurance company's web site has a "search" feature that lets me look up doctors by specialty, gender, or language, there's no option to search by their religion. This hasn't been a big deal for me personally (probably because I so rarely go the doctor in the first place), but I'd be willing to put up with things like Christian magazines in the waiting room or "Have a blessed day" from the front-desk clerk so long as the doctor knew his/her stuff.5

The real news in the Hitchens/Collins story isn't that Hitchens and Collins disagree about religion. They both knew that already; they've debated each other about religion in the past and are now friends. The real news is that Dr. Collins' team tested Hitchens' DNA and found a mutation in the cancerous cells. That mutation is known to respond to an existing drug, so Hitchens now takes one tablet of the drug daily instead of enduring other, more grueling treatments. If the drug works, as I sincerely hope that it will, I trust that Dr. Collins will take some credit for that and not play down his own efforts by declaring any success to be "a miracle from God."

1 Browne has written that she's "not psychic about [her]self."

2 For details, visit the web site created by Robert S. Lancaster. It's a bit out-of-date due to Robert's own health issues but has plenty of examples of the kind of havoc that  Browne wreaks.

3 The other three "horsemen" are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. As far as I'm concerned, "new atheism" (often referred to disparagingly as "Gnu Atheism" by Jerry Coyne) is the same as "old atheism" except that we "new" atheists tend to be more open about our lack of belief.

4 Francis Collins is the former head of the Human Genome Project, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, and the founder of the BioLogos Foundation, "a group of Christians...who are concerned about the long history of disharmony between the findings of science and large sectors of the Christian faith."

5 What I couldn't tolerate—and I've no idea how often this actually happens—would be a physician who deliberately withheld relevant information because it conflicted with his/her personal beliefs. For example, I suppose that most teenage girls have heard of emergency contraception (the "morning after pill"), but there must be some who haven't. If one of those unlucky girls had unprotected sex (because a condom broke, or because of rape, or whatever) and went to a healthcare professional, she'd have the right, in my opinion, to know that emergency contraception exists, even if she had to go elsewhere to get it. Whether to take it would be her decision, not the doctor's, but she'd be entitled to know all her treatment options.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Forsaking Their Future

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) has had a special hatred for Oklahoma since somebody in McAlester slashed the tires on the family's minivan during their protest at a local soldier's funeral. WBC has used that hatred to justify picketing the funerals of not only Oklahoma's fallen soldiers, but Oklahoma's fallen children. On Thursday, WBC members (who were vastly outnumbered by area residents) protested at the funeral of a young man who'd died in a motorcycle crash. And although they didn't show up as promised, they'd also planned to protest at the funeral of a young woman who died in the same crash.

I already knew that WBC and its founder Fred Phelps have no regard for children. According to Nate Phelps, who fled from the family literally the moment he legally could, his father Fred regularly beat and emotionally abused him and his siblings. I don't know what goes on inside the Phelps' family compound in Topeka, but I can and do judge them from what they display to the public, namely children smiling as they hold signs bearing hateful slogans:

westboro baptist church child

It's like watching a child who's sick with a disease that's beyond our comprehension. We're disgusted by the symptoms of the disease, as we'd be disgusted by oozing sores, projectile vomiting, or explosive diarrhea, but if any WBC kids ever read this, I hope they understand that our disgust is outweighed by our compassion for them. If they can overcome the intellectual and emotional holds that their elders have on them, we can overcome our abhorrence of the things they were forced to do as children.

Their fanatical elders have done their best to infect them with hate. Let's hope that didn't take, but their parents' toughness did. Whether the kids stay with the family or flee, they're going to need every bit of backbone they can muster.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Skating To Work

Somebody named Rob Bell is making a splash on the interwebs. He's written a book (which I haven't read) in which he claims that his god truly loves us and wants us to be happy during our lives and our afterlives. I guess if you're going to believe in a god (and an afterlife), that's the kind to believe in, but Bell is being criticized by some conservative Christians who think he's a "universalist," someone who says that ultimately, everybody gets "saved" and nobody goes to hell. Bell denies this but says that modern Christians put a lot more emphasis on hell and damnation than Jesus did.

I've got no horse in this race so I find it amusing to stand back and watch the bickering. It's like a group of kids debating which comic book superhero is more powerful, and it only emphasizes the fact that the label "Christianity," by itself, doesn't mean much. Which Christianity? The Catholic version? Orthodox? One of the many flavors of Protestantism, or something else? Denominations, even individual churches, have split over differences of opinion on abortion, same-sex marriage, the role of homosexuals and/or women in the church, and on and on. Wikipedia's list of modern English Bible translations contains more than 50 entries, and even groups that can agree on a particular version of the Bible may interpret it differently. Even if I wanted to be a Christian (and I don't, so don't send tracts!), I'd have no idea what kind.

I've encountered a few people who considered themselves "Christians" in the "followers of Christ's teachings" sense rather than the Jesus-as-Messiah sense, but they were the exceptions. Most Christians around here take the "Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life" stance, and take it very seriously, with emphasis on "the [only] way [to escape eternal damnation]" and "the Truth [with a capital 'T']." It's perfectly reasonable to ask those who make such extraordinary claims to back them with some extraordinary evidence, but that's not been forthcoming. Jerry Coyne at "Why Evolution Is True" has blogged recently (here, here, here, and here) about what kind of evidence might convince him and other prominent scientists/freethinkers of the existence of god(s). Something that might convince me that Christianity contains a grain of truth would be all its many adherents agreeing on what they actually believe. An end to the infighting and the "s/he's not a true Christian" finger-pointing. All the sects and denominations and movements and cults coming together under a common leadership, with common doctrines for all Christian churches everywhere. No more Catholics or Baptists or Mormons or Lutherans or Seventh Day Adventists or anything other than "Christians." Just Christians.

And on that day, Satan will be skating to work.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Envying Their Jobs

I love my job, and my boss and coworkers are the best, but I can't help but envy these zookeepers at Busch Gardens Tampa who are hand-raising a baby cheetah. His mother abandoned him so he's going to need a lot of attention for a while:


Edited to add: My (fully-grown) cat is curled up next to me on the sofa, snoring. She sounds just like the cheetah cub!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Scouting Is Out

According to the "Boy Scouts of America [BSA] National Council Legal Issues Website and Blawg" (which was "created on behalf of the Boy Scouts of America"), "Boy Scouts of America believes that an atheist or agnostic is not an appropriate role model of the Scout Oath and Law for adolescent boys. Because of Scouting’s methods and beliefs, Scouting does not accept atheists and agnostics as members or adult volunteer leaders." And apparently your sexuality is your own business so long as you don't discuss it, but being "openly homosexual" makes you persona non grata in BSA's eyes.

If BSA was truly a private organization that received no government support in the form of preferential access to public lands or facilities, I'd say they were welcome to whatever membership policies they wanted. The fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) sponsors more Scouts and Scouting units in the United States than any other organization would make me instantly wary of BSA anyway.

Since BSA's leaders believe it inappropriate for me to be around impressionable youth, I've decided to spare them the horrors of dealing with my money, which must surely be tainted. I wish I didn't have to tell my nephews who are Scouts that I won't buy their nuts or popcorn or whatever they're peddling this week, but when they're a bit older, I'll make sure they know why I won't buy them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Growing Up Godless

I was raised in one of the many locales that claims the title "The Buckle on the Bible Belt," but thankfully in an only moderately-religious household. My exposure to fundamentalist Christianity was mostly limited to occasional visits to relatives' churches. The Parental Unit was clearly disappointed that I didn't show more (make that "any") enthusiasm for attending church, but eventually gave up on forcing me to go. When I finally acknowledged my own atheism as an adult, there was no great sense of loss because there'd never been any great sense of having or belonging to a religion. It's only been fairly recently, as I've encountered other freethinkers in books and online, that I learned how much harder the journey from faith to freethought was for some. Those who were raised as strict Baptists, Catholics, Mormons, etc., and not allowed to mingle with heathens sometimes didn't realize that life without religion was even an option until they were well into adulthood.

But the times, they are a-changin'. Many churches are up in arms about dwindling participation by teenagers and young adults. Try googling "youth falling away from the faith" (or "...from the church") to get an idea of how many denominations and churches are truly worried. The reasons for the exodus aren't entirely clear (although one group blames secular influences like "government schools," TV, and parents who leave the spiritual "reprogramming" of their children to their church...preferably one with a curriculum that "examine[s] everything in the light of biblical truth"). A July 2010 survey by the Barna Group concluded that "teenagers are much less inclined toward spirituality than were teens a dozen years ago," and the president of the Barna Group commented, "Teenagers view religious involvement partly as a way to maintain their all-important relationships. Yet perhaps technology such as social networking is reconfiguring teens' needs for relationships and continual connectivity, diminishing the role of certain spiritual forms of engagement in their lives. Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook."

How much longer can religion wield its authority in a society with so many options? Unlike religion, science can back up its answers with evidence, not just appeal to authority and old books. Technology (born of science) lets kids communicate with friends over any distance, whenever and wherever they want, not just on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook and campus groups at high schools and colleges, youth who might previously have been afraid to voice their doubts to the religious majority are realizing that they're not alone in their disbelief. Even the evangelicals admit that "The trends are frightening." If I made my living off the tithes of churchgoers, I'd be frightened too.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Wearing The Scarlet Letter

I don't have a Facebook account so I'm just now discovering that this is Atheism Week on Facebook. The organizers of the event seek to "raise awareness of how many people are 'Good Without God' and don't need religion to influence their lives." Online atheists are encouraged to display an "Aas their profile picture from March 20th through March 26th.†

"Atheism Week" isn't about being "anti-religion" or converting believers to non-believers; it's about demonstrating just how prevalent atheists are in society. You almost certainly know aatheist or two, but they may not consider it necessary—or wise—to share their lack of faith as readily as believers broadcast their opinions via their jewelry or T-shirt slogans or bumper stickers. As Dr. Dawkins wrote in his introduction to the Out Campaign, "...a major part of our consciousness-raising effort should be aimed, not at converting the religious but at encouraging the non-religious to admit it — to themselves, to their families, and to the world."

It's not my place to "out" anyone or to recommend actions that would place anyone in peril. If being open about your atheism could cause you to be an unemployed or homeless atheist, openness should probably wait. On the other hand, if the greatest danger of openness is that you might annoy someone, consider the possibility that outing yourself to those who know you best is a great way to demonstrate that normal, kind, loving people can indeed be "Good Without God."

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism

† Christianity has the cross, Judaism has the Star of David, and Islam has the crescent moon, but atheism—which lacks official leaders or central beliefs other thaaabsence of belief in gods—has no one universally agreed-upon symbol. A red letter "A", as suggested by Richard Dawkins' Out Campaign, seems to be catching on, though.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Caring for the Kittehs (and Goggies)

The human death toll from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami has officially exceeded 7,000 people, with more than 10,000 still missing. Donations to charitable organizations working in Japan have lagged way behind those for other crises like last year's earthquake in Haiti, perhaps because people believe that a developed nation like Japan can take care of itself.

One group that cannot take care of itself is the house pets who have been separated from their humans. (Note that I didn't say "owners"; anyone who's lived with a cat recognizes the silliness of a concept like "owning a cat"!) According to this story from NPR, most Japanese families have some kind of pet—a dog, a cat, birds, a rabbit, etc.; many of those pets are in dire need of assistance. Three Japanese groups that were working long before the earthquake/tsunami have united under the common banner of "Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support." Their volunteers are combing the rubble, searching for cats and dogs, which I hope brings some small measure of comfort to the people who are stuck in shelters, unable to return to their homes (if they even have homes to return to), not knowing whether their beloved pets are dead or alive and struggling to survive on their own.

You can get more details about Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support through their Facebook page, or you can jump straight to their ChipIn page to donate. (NOTE: When you click the orange "ChipIn!" button at the right side of the page, you'll be taken to the group's PayPal page, which is displayed in Japanese by default. If, like me, you don't read Japanese, just click on the 3 Japanese characters at the top right corner of the page and select "English" from the drop-down list. If the page is down, please try again a little later.)

It's not my place to tell people how to spend their money, but if you do want to help, this seems to be a reputable organization, and I'm happy to support them with my money and my words. If I were faced with the loss of my home, my possessions, perhaps even much of the city I grew up in, I'd be devastated, of course, but I think I could get through it if I knew that my loved ones—all my loved ones, including the four-footed one—were safe.

H/T to erv and ICanHasCheezburger

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Courting the Gentiles

I was raised as a mainstream Protestant in a state with relatively few Catholics, so Catholicism always seemed foreign and exotic to me. I watched "The Nun's Story" with fascination and read books about families whose lives revolved around their Catholic faith, like "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers" (on which "The Sound of Music" was based) and "Karen" (about a young woman with cerebral palsy). I never actually attended a Mass or even set foot in a Catholic church so far as I can recall, but through television and books, I reveled in the pre-Vatican II Latin, the flickering candles, and the solemn ceremonies.

My interest in Catholicism—which was later supplemented by a similar fascination with Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism—must seem odd, considering that I grew up into an atheist, but in retrospect, the explanation seems obvious to me. By the time I hit middle school, I knew that my relatives' religions didn't offer good answers to the questions that mattered to me. Since reading and asking and thinking about religion didn't provide the information I wanted, I wondered if practicing religion would work. The churches I'd attended bored me, but could I lose myself—and find the god that seemed so obvious to everybody else—in the elaborate rituals and standardized prayers of Catholicism? No; I realized that chanting the rosary and kneeling and crossing myself weren't going to satisfy. I never got any closer to being a Catholic than reading about them.

Now I read that the Vatican is reaching out to atheists through an initiative known as "The Courtyard of the Gentiles," in reference to the area outside the Jewish Second Temple in Jerusalem (516 BCE-70 CE) where non-Jews were allowed. The head of the Vatican's culture office, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, says that the aim of the meeting is not to convert nonbelievers, but rather to open a two-way dialogue and remove confusion. There will be no uppity atheists like Richard Dawkins among the panelists, though. According to Ravasi, "someone convinced of already possessing all the answers, with the duty simply to impose them" is not suited to take part in such an exchange. I take this to mean that the "infallible" pope will also not be in attendance.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Booking It

My iPad 2 has been ordered and is expected to ship in a couple of weeks. It's hard to predict what I'll actually do with it until I've got it in my hot little hands, but my plan is to keep using my iPod touches for productivity-type stuff (checking email, tracking contact info, etc.) and to use the iPad for entertainment: making and watching videos, surfing the web, and especially reading. I love being able to store an entire library on a pocket-sized iPod touch and I find ebooks quite readable even on the small screen (being able to adjust the font size helps!), so I'm hoping the experience will be even more enjoyable on the iPad. has set a pretty high bar for ebooks with their Kindle e-reader. Once your Kindle is set up, you can browse the online store right from your device and download books in less than a minute. Talk about instant gratification! I use the Kindle iPhone app and have downloaded a lot of free/public domain titles, but I haven't bought any current releases; I hesitate to buy books that I can borrow for free. My local library has offered downloadable audiobooks for some time but only started offering ebooks late last year, and obtaining them is...well, it's free, which is important for a cheapskate like me, but the process is less than straightforward.

For one thing, I can't even set up a standard username/password combination on my library account like I can on nearly every other web site I use; they want my library card number instead. At least I can store that securely online and copy/paste it on the library login screen, but it would be so much easier to pick a combination that I can actually remember. Somewhere in the online library catalog, there's a way to specify that I want to search just for ebooks, but search results include audiobooks (which I don't want), so I usually end up browsing the "recently added" section to see what's new. The only iPhone app that can be used to view library ebooks is free but limited, especially in comparison with the Kindle iPhone app. Since I often start reading a book on my laptop and switch to my iPod touch when I'm reading in bed or away from home, I especially miss the Kindle's "Whispersync" feature that keeps track of my place when I switch from one device to another. Selecting the library ebooks I want to download is a lot harder than it should be, and the app frequently needs several tries if my WiFi signal strength is anything less than "excellent."

At least I'm capable of working through these issues by myself. I feel sorry for librarians who not only have to try to help patrons with a variety of e-reading devices and apps, but are also dealing with a quickly changing landscape as electronic media becomes more popular. HarperCollins, one of the world's leading English-language publishers, has announced a new licensing policy under which new ebooks will only be allowed to circulate 26 times before their licenses expire. Since digital media doesn't suffer from wear and tear as physical books do, publishers are scrambling to ensure a steady income. As we move from printed to electronic media, we're going to have to devise ways to deal with content, not just with the containers it comes in.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Preaching Tolerance

Even the best of families can have "black sheep" so it stands to reason that the worst family in America (in my humble opinion) has at least one "white sheep." Nate Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps (of Westboro Baptist Church infamy), is an advocate of gay and lesbian rights, which must drive Daddy Freddy crazy...if it's even possible for Daddy Freddy to be any crazier than he already is.

A high school senior who happens to be one of the co-chairs of Clayton (Missouri) High School's Gay Straight Alliance contacted Nate Phelps via Facebook and arranged for him to tell his story at the school last week. The younger Phelps' talk was well received, with many of the students holding back tears as they listened to his account of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. According to Nate, his father Fred "...not only was this violent, cruel and insensitive person with other humans but he insisted that we be that way." Fred Phelps' cruel tactics seem to have worked with most of his 13 children, but Nate and a few of his siblings did manage to escape. As Noam Kantor said after Nate's presentation in Missouri, "I really think it spreads a message of hope that people in these groups aren't necessarily in it for life."

And it gives me hope to hear about gay kids forming clubs in Missouri high schools! Some day in the not-too-distant future, we'll look back and wonder why atheist teens were given such a hard time when they wanted clubs of their own.

3/18/2011: Edited to add that Nate Phelps blogs at Thanks for the link, Prosey!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Going Too Far?

Atheists and fundamentalist Christians hold opposing views on many subjects, but occasionally an issue comes up that unites people all along the spectrum. Monday's "GOD IS SO GOOD!!!" video from "TamTamPamela" is an example of how to get on almost everybody's wrong side. A few people think the video was funny, but in my opinion, if the majority of your audience is left wondering "Is she serious or is she joking?" then the attempt at humor failed. According to the "coming clean" video that "Pamela" released after the furor reached a crescendo but before she shut down her YouTube channel, her intent with this and her earlier videos was to "piss people off." She succeeded, but I don't think she was hoping for the death threats she got. I don't know what she hoped to accomplish.

Annoying people can be an unwanted but unavoidable side effect of honesty and openness. I can understand a willingness to piss people off if the alternative is deception or evasion, but by her own admission, Pamela wasn't sharing her honest opinions. She was posing as something/someone she's not and deliberately trying to get a rise out of people. Was she doing it to make people aware of wacky Christian fundamentalists? If so, I think she wasted her time. Real-life examples like Westboro Baptist Church and Pat Robertson are already on the job, and they're far more visible than she was.

While acknowledging that Pamela had the right to create and post her videos, I hope that her experience will deter others from attempting similar parodies. If the actors are going to mingle with the audience to the point that one can't be distinguished from the other, the audience should at least be aware that they're attending a play.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Flying the Uninformed Skies

I imagine that folks on the West Coast are exposed to Orthodox Judaism somewhat less than residents of, say, New York City. Still, I'm surprised by this story about an Alaska Airlines flight crew that alerted law enforcement because a trio of Jewish men donned their tefillin (a.k.a. "phylacteries," or prayer thongs) and started praying in Hebrew during a flight to Los Angeles. Even if you don't know a word of Hebrew, I would think that the style of Orthodox Jewish prayer would be very distinctive and recognizable, especially the back-and-forth rocking motion ("davening"). Maybe I'm just one of the few goyim who's read Chaim Potok. (Come to think of it, my high school library's copy of My Name is Asher Lev was in pristine condition...)

The flight attendants said they were concerned not only by the unfamiliar prayer rituals and language, but also because the men failed to comply with repeated requests to remain seated. Some understanding on both sides would have gone a long way toward preventing a minor misunderstanding from escalating into a major fiasco. The passengers should have complied with the flight attendants' requests and perhaps given more detail about what they were doing. (The CNN story said they "responded" to the flight attendants "but provided very little explanation.") The flight attendants evidently need a "World Religions 101" class. But then, so do most Americans.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thanking a Thug?

In Internet terminology, a "Poe" is a parody of fundamentalism that can't be distinguished from genuine fundamentalism. Poes are possible because religious extremism is just so freakin'...extreme!

Here's a YouTube video of a young woman thanking her "amazing," "good," "loving" god for the massive earthquake in Japan:

"...Any place that there is an atheist, we've been praying for god to open their eyes and to see that there really is a god, that he does exist, that he loves them, and that he is the god of the Bible, that the Bible is true. And just a few days, not even a few days later, god shook the country of Japan...It's just so amazing to see how god can just answer prayers like this, and I am just so overjoyed and so encouraged. For the rest of this Lentil season, I am gonna be praying even harder..."
Yes, she said "Lentil," not "Lenten." That and her cheery attitude give me hope that this is a Poe, but I just can't be sure. Her YouTube channel features 41 videos that have been uploaded over the last year. If she's faking her fundamentalism, she's spending a lot of time on it. I can't speak to the quality of her efforts, beyond the single "GOD IS SO GOOD!!!" video embedded above, because I can't bring myself to watch any of her other videos. I just ate dinner, after all.

H/T to PZ

Update (3/15/2011): The YouTube video "is no longer available due to a copyright claim by LaughAloneTV," and "TamTamPamela's" YouTube channel "is no longer available because the user closed their account." I can't get to LaughAloneTV's YouTube channel either, but their Facebook page is working, so this does seem to have been a Poe. I'm relieved; in a world where Pat Robertson and his like can exist, anything is possible.

Update 2 (3/15/2011): The original video is still available here, along with a "coming clean" video in which "Pamela" (I'm not sure if that's her real name or not) admits that she's "been making troll videos for a while now."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Soakin' Up Teh Warmz

The days are growing balmy but nights and early mornings are still chilly. Miss Kitteh's favorite spot in the house is wherever it's the warmest. When my lap won't hold still for her, she makes do with what's available:

"Yez, Ai *knoe* teh gubment sez 2 set teh thermo-thingy 2 68 degreez but mah butt iz freezin.
Turn teh warmz on."

"Mah belly is *almost* warm enuf. U may rub it 4 me, hooman."

"Teh warm rumbliez haz stopped. Turn dem bak on."

"Ai grow weary ov u, hooman."

(Not familiar with LOLcats? Confused by LOLspeak? Help is available! And dere r lots moar kittehs here!)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Choosing My Words Carefully

I was raised in a society in which phrases like "oh my god" and "bless you" (offered to someone who's just sneezed) are common, so I grew up using them. Now that I'm an "out" atheist, though, they make me uncomfortable even if they are just figures of speech. I know perfectly well that using an expression like "holy cow" doesn't imply the existence of a blessed bovine, but I still prefer not to perpetuate religious or superstitious language.

There are some unwanted behaviors that, given sufficient willpower (or maybe it should be called "won't power"), we can simply decide to stop. If you dislike the effects of a bad habit such as biting your nails, you can quit doing it. That's the route I decided to take with saying "bless you" to someone who's just sneezed. If the sneeze appears to be a one-time event, I ignore it, just as I would ignore a burp or a loudly rumbling stomach or...other...bodily noises. If the sneezing continues, I offer a tissue and ask if there's anything I can do to help (like removing a flower arrangement that might be triggering allergies).

Sometimes it's difficult to simply stop a behavior, though; an acceptable alternative must be found to replace it. When I'm shocked or surprised, for example, I generally say something. I'd prefer it not be something of the "oh god" variety, but finding a substitute phrase and teaching myself to use it has been a challenge. For the moment, I've settled on "oh my word" as my new "emergency phrase."† It's appropriate for a writer, and nobody's likely to object to it. (If somebody happens to mishear it as "oh my lord," that's their problem.)

I'm making progress in training myself to say "oh my word" instead of "oh my god," but quite often one part of my brain wants to revert to the old habit while another part knows better, so I find myself stopping after saying just "Oh, my..." I hope George Takei hasn't trademarked that phrase!

† This is an occasion on which the original definition of the word "ejaculation"—"an abrupt, exclamatory utterance"—would come in handy, but English (like all living languages) evolves, and that word has a wholly different meaning for most people now.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Everything Happens For a Reason

You've surely heard by now of the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in northern Japan. According to the news reports, waves up to 30 feet high swept inland for miles (the first report I read said three miles, later reports said six; it probably varied by location). Hundreds of dead bodies have already been found, hundreds more people are missing, thousands have been dislocated from their homes, and many of those who still have homes are without power as nuclear plants were shut down.

The Japanese have been dealing with earthquakes for centuries; they have strict building codes and people know what to do when disaster strikes. Still, a calamity of this size is beyond my comprehension. My heart goes out to all those affected.

I've been following Jerry Coyne's blog, "Why Evolution Is True," for several months now. Jerry's official Japanese correspondent, blogger "Yokohamamama," who lives in Yokohama (south of the area most strongly affected by the quake), just happens to be visiting San Diego this week, but her husband and children stayed behind in Japan. Thankfully, they're OK and she's been in touch with them via Skype, but before that, she spent a frantic night in the lobby of her hotel (where the Internet reception was best) trying to get through to them. She was approached by a group of young Christians who—probably sincerely wanting to be supportive—told her that "everything happens for a reason." In this case, as Jerry points out, the reason "was simply the slipping of tectonic plates."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Supporting Woo

My local PBS affiliate is in the midst of a fund-raising effort and I'm of two minds about donating. On one hand, since I don't have cable or satellite and my only supplement to over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts is a $10/month NetFlix subscription, PBS is a significant source of entertainment for me. My favorites include "Masterpiece," "Great Performances," "Nova," "Frontline," and let's not forget "Doctor Who" (which I can now get instantly from NetFlix, but still, I saw it on PBS first). When my niece and nephew are visiting, PBS is a reliable source of shows that I'm comfortable letting them watch. On the other hand, some of the stuff that shows up on PBS is crap.

You'd think that a network focused on art and science and education would be choosy about the programs it airs, and PBS' everyday fare is usually quite good. But during "pledge periods," they trot out whatever will get people to donate. Apparently that includes hours-long specials on how "all health ailments can be linked to an imbalance in the digestive system" (oh good, HIV and basal cell carcinoma can be avoided just by eating right!) and how "we each have the potential to create absolutely everything and anything we want." (World peace and cheap, plentiful, non-polluting fuel. Now, please; I'm running low on gas but the price just shot up another 10 cents.)

In the interest of fairness, I admit that I haven't watched either of these programs, and it's possible that whoever wrote the descriptions for them exaggerated the programs' claims. I understand that the "P" in "PBS" stands for "public," and that part of serving the public is broadcasting shows the public actually wants to watch. But the other side of "public" is "public funding," as in, "My tax dollars and contributions paid for this?" PBS' mission is " create content that educates, informs and inspires." How about adding "...without woo" to that?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Passing Out

It's not official until some paperwork gets filled out, but my company's Electronic Health Record (EHR) software passed its certification exam today. I'm tired, but very happy. And my awesome boss is buying me a new iPad 2!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fast Forwarding Through Life

My home security cameras, which both comfort me and make me paranoid, have given me an idea for an art project. (Well, what a geek with minimal creativity considers an "art project"!) Each camera takes a still photo every 30 seconds, and most evenings, I fast-forward through the pictures from that day. Hardly a day goes by without something interesting being captured: squirrels chasing each other up and down trees, that sweet but shy orange tomcat who likes to hang out under the wooden deck behind my house, and flocks of birds that descend on my yard en masse for a few seconds then disappear as fast as they came. Watching snow accumulate over a period of hours or intricate patterns of dry leaves formed then dissolved by gusts of wind is fascinating. And those are just the natural events; I’m not even counting the human passers-by.

I think the view I enjoy the most is from the camera that points at the driveway. That’s the one that has the best view of the vegetation in my yard and in the neighbors’. What if I picked a time of day (late morning, I think, when the sun is well up but not shining right in the camera and causing lens flares), and saved the picture from that time, from that camera, every day for a year, then fast-forwarded through those? Wouldn’t it be cool to watch the seasons change? And given the number of crimes that have been captured by Google Street View, who knows what else I’ll see?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Matching in March

The post that went up in a blaze of electrons last week mentioned Skepticon III in the most positive possible terms, so it's a darned shame you didn't get to read it (although I may still resurrect it). Just take my word for it that SIII was a blast, and hie yourself over to the web site for Skepticon IV, where donations are particularly welcome this month since Polaris Financial Planning is generously offering to match all donations up to $2,800...but only if at least that much is received!

Skepticon IV, "the Midwest's largest skeptic conference," will take place in Springfield, Missouri this coming October and promises to be even bigger and better than SIII, so start saving up your vacation days now!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Spraining My Brain

I don't feel totally ready for my company's all-day certification test on Wednesday, but after reviewing output files and the test script all weekend, I can no longer think straight. When I got home from the office this afternoon, I forced myself to walk on the treadmill for a half hour because my butt was numb from sitting in front of a computer all day. I can put my body on autopilot while I walk so long as I've got something distracting to watch or listen to, but I was so brain-dead that I could hardly follow a TiVo'ed episode of "Law & Order: SVU" that I've probably seen three times already. So I watched "America's Next Top Model" instead. That's pretty freakin' brain-dead.

I'm probably going to dream in XML tonight. Yuck.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Naming Names

The certification test for my company's Electronic Health Record (EHR) software is next week, so this week (and weekend) are busy for me. One of the many tasks on my list is entering a bunch of sample patient data into the program in advance. I wish we could just create two patient accounts, one for "John Doe" and one for "Jane Roe," but the government wants a little more than that to work with.

I'm paranoid about even giving the appearance of accidentally releasing a real patient's information, so when I'm testing software in-house, I use names that are (to me, at least) obviously fake. Characters from cartoons and sitcoms of my childhood are good; my test databases almost always include "George Jetson," "Wilma Flintstone," and "Greg Brady." I went through a "retro" period once, but that kinda backfired for my boss when he demonstrated our software for a potential client. The poor lady had never heard of "Betty Boop" and thought that Mark was teasing her when he tried to get her to type that name.

For a serious test like the one next week, I need serious amounts of data. Names, lots and lots of names. Downloading names from the U.S. Census Bureau works pretty well (they have lists of the most popular first and last names from past censuses), but when I'm switching back and forth between patient accounts, common names all tend to blur together in my mind. It's hard to remember whether I wanted the chart for Ms. Anderson or Mr. Baker or Mrs. Clark. I find it easier to work with names that are more memorable, so I've been creating alphabetical lists of items like animals, flowers, and colors. The hardest part is coming up with things whose names start with letters like "u" and "x," but thanks to Google and Wikipedia, I can usually find something. I don't insist it be recognizable or pronounceable so long as it's unlikely to be mistaken for a real patient's name. (For the record, a "uakkri" is a kind of South American monkey.) And if you come across what looks like a medical chart for "Amy Amaryllis" or "Zebediah Zebra," just send it my way, OK?

Friday, March 4, 2011


I spent hours last night (and a little while this morning and a few minutes this afternoon) crafting a new post, only to have it disappear in a blaze of electrons. I don't know if the problem was with the Blogger editor, or if I hit a wrong combination of keys, or what, but *poof*...there it went. And then auto-save kicked in and "helpfully" saved my newly-empty post, and "undo" did nada.

Perhaps it was for the best; I was hesitating to publish the post anyway. I'd originally intended to publish it last night, but instead used one I kept at the ready for occasions when I have no time or original thoughts. I'd had qualms about publishing the evaporated essay because I'd written some things that friends might well take amiss. Since it was hardly a life-or-death matter, I'd decided that letting it "cool" awhile then re-reading it (and editing it, if needed) would be best. And now it's gone. Oh well, I wasn't perfectly happy with its wording, anyway. (Sour grapes? Moi?)

I've made some notes on what I can remember of the post (which is quite a lot, actually) and will keep it in mind for the future. If the idea keeps screaming to be let out, I'll write it up again, probably making it better in the process. So why do I keep thinking of Porlock?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Paying to Pray

I don't get a lot of door-to-door evangelists in my neighborhood, but the ones who do show up tend to pick the most inconvenient possible times, usually right in the middle of dinner. The last Mormon "missionaries" who came to my house (a trio rather than the usual pair, for some reason) didn't seem to realize that a polite but pointed "No thanks, I'm not interested" is supposed to signal the end of the conversation. (That's what I read somewhere, anyway...that if you say you're not interested, they're supposed to write "NI" beside your address on their list and leave you alone for a few years.)

To discourage these and other unwelcome types from knocking on my door, I've posted the following sign at eye level:

We charge $10 per minute
to listen to religious, sales,
or political messages.

$50 advance deposit required.
Have cash in hand before knocking
or ringing doorbell.

Do not leave brochures or tracts.
We don't litter on your property;
please show us the same respect.

If you want to try posting this on your own door, feel free. The "don't litter" request doesn't seem to have much effect; I still get fliers for lawn services and suchlike occasionally. Nobody's knocked, though, at least while I've been at home. And if someone does want to pay me to listen to their spiel, I'll let them, once I've got their cash in my hand. Hell yes, I'll take $600 per hour to listen to them babble! My watch has a "stopwatch" feature and I'll make sure they get their 5 minutes worth (or whatever they're willing to pay for), but not a second more. I'll be concentrating on the time, not what they have to say, anyway.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Disgusting But Fair

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), which I've previously mentioned, has won its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in a case about free speech. WBC had been sued for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy by the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder because the church staged a protest at Cpl. Snyder's funeral in 2006. Snyder's family said that WBC had intentionally harassed them and caused emotional distress, and so should pay damages, but the Court disagreed. In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court said that WBC has a right to promote a "broad-based message" on public matters such as war, even when that message consists of slogans like "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God blew up the troops" displayed on signs at the funerals of service members who died in the line of duty.

This decision is sure to disappoint and even outrage a lot of people, but it was the right decision. I'm disgusted by WBC's leader, Fred Phelps, and the hateful messages that he and his congregation/family spread, but freedom of speech doesn't give me the right to not be offended by what someone else says. After all, I've said and written things that disappoint and even outrage people, and I plan to keep doing so. WBC's message is hateful crap, but to my simultaneous dismay and relief, they have the right to share it.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Playing the Hand You're Dealt

I wish I could find the quote—or even remember who said it—about the difference between a "writer" and an "author." The gist was that a writer is a craftsman who cares about doing the best possible job, and an author is a pretentious git who cares about royalties. The elusive quote is nagging me because I just finished watching the third and final part of the dramatization of the novel "Any Human Heart" on Masterpiece Theater. I mean "Masterpiece." No, I mean "Masterpiece Classic," which I think is a silly name for a TV show that features dramatizations of works that haven't existed long enough to be "classics" yet, but I suppose that "Masterpiece Period Pieces" would be long and redundant.

Anyway. "Any Human Heart" is about the fictional English writer Logan Mountstuart. I'd have loved the story just for the following conversation between Logan and his friend (and fellow English writer...hmm, maybe the term "author" applies here) Peter Scabius. Peter has just completed a new book titled Guilt, which is about his wife Tess, who committed suicide because of his multiple infidelities.
Logan: (as he reads the title of Peter's new book, Guilt) "Oh, please tell me you're joking."
Peter: "It couldn't be further from a joke. It's part of my penance. The penance I owe to Tess."
Logan: "Penance? 'Guilt'? Anyone would think you were..."
Peter: "I'm converting. I'm becoming a Roman Catholic."
Logan: "Oh, no. What, like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh?"
Peter: "No, like Peter Scabius."
Logan: "Why is it that all English writers are converting to bloody Catholicism? Why not just be a very devout Anglican?"
Peter: "Because I need a savage, unforgiving, brutal god. Since Tess's death...don't you see? I don't want some bourgeois Anglican god I can have a nice cup of tea with. I want to be frightened of my deity. In awe."
Logan: "You do know it's all complete mumbo-jumbo, don't you? Life's about luck. Good luck and bad luck. The good luck you have, and the bad luck you have, that's all."
Peter: "What utter nonsense. You can't live with a philosophy like that."
Logan: "Forget it."
Logan does live with a philosophy like that. He has bad luck aplenty—lovers, friends, and family members leave his life, sometimes tragically, and World War II leaves its scars on him—but he appreciates the good luck when it comes. And he writes, in spurts. Not so much professionally, although his early works had some success and his journalism skills were well respected; mostly he writes in his journals. He takes breaks, sometimes for years, but he always starts up again eventually. And when he has his "final bit of bad luck" and his "individual journey" ends, he is buried under a (crucifix-free) tombstone that labels him as an "Escritor -  Writer - Ecrivain," in reference to his Uruguayan mother, his English father and upbringing, and his final years and death in the south of France.

What defines a writer is the undeniable impulse that results in the act of writing. Whether one's words are paid for or not, published or not, ever seen by anyone else or not, is irrelevant. A writer writes.

N.B. I haven't read the novel Any Human Heart (although I now plan to); I've only seen the dramatization, which may well differ from the book.