Wednesday, August 03, 2005

I am a Bright

You probably know this about me already, but I don't believe in astrology or voodoo. Or in past lives, ghosts or Santa Claus. Or God.

If you're the same way, you've probably noticed our worldview isn't very popular right now. Policy decisions are being made under the assumption that everyone believes in something, and those who don't are amoral and irrelevant. People are dying in wars over religion. So-called psychics are preying on the bereaved for profit. Every major newspaper runs a column wherein someone uses the alignment of stars to predict the future. Hardly a nuance of our lives can be found free of the scars of supernaturalism.

The line between fact and wishful thinking is barely sharper than it was centuries ago. While the scientific method has provided us with immeasurable riches in information, humanity continues to pick and choose the bits we want to redeem for answers.

There's a movement out there to fight this. I've mentioned it before, but I think a reminder every year or so is probably appropriate. Please, please check out the Brights if you have any interest in helping this situation.

It's not a club. It's not a group with membership. It's simply a loose collection of individuals who have chosen to label themselves "Brights" as part of their larger effort to help the way we're perceived in the world.

I think the word "renaissance" is beautiful. What about you?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Screams in the Ignorant Darkness

There are few things less interesting to read right now than one more piece about the pope. One of those things is a rant about excessive media coverage the papacy is getting. Still, here we go, because many people are saying that while this election shouldn't concern them, they realize the far-reaching effects of the papacy on world politics, yet I haven't seen them follow that up with the obvious question that raises: What the fuck is wrong with us?

A group of superstitious people has elected a superstitious man to lead them through the modern world, not in spite of his obsessive and irrational dedication to superstitions, but because of them. Instead of being marginalized and ridiculed, this group maintains much of the power it's had since it was calling heresy on those who dared suggest the Earth rotates around the sun.

For some reason, we focused our attention, our media, our cameras, and our discussions on the color of the smoke they sent out of their ancient building. We used our technology to beam their primitive smoke signals around the world in realtime. It's as if they were daring us to write them off by showcasing their obsolescence and rigorous adherence to tradition in the face of better methods and better ideas.

Sure, the colored smoke is a tradition, something that lets them feel connected to their predecessors. I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong with embracing tradition. What I'm suggesting is that this particular tradition is a great example of how religions are clinging to the comforts of the past, and keeping the world from moving forward.

You see, the colored smoke was chosen as the most effective way to get a message from a sequestered group to the outside world, without risking other information leaking out, or influence sneaking in. Modern technology provides a variety of more effective and more reliable ways to do this, and the smoke could easily continue alongside anything else. Military drill teams still toss around 1903 Springfield rifles, but nobody is suggesting we continue to fight wars with them.

Still, a group that would accept a new communications medium would be a group that would be open to allowing the use of condoms to help cut into the AIDS epidemic in Africa. They'd consider contraception as an effective way to reduce the number of abortions performed. They'd allow their believers to listen to modern biology as it screams answers about the origin of life into the ignorant darkness. Obviously, this isn't that group.

Much of the world is so infatuated with faith, so eager to embrace easy answers without question, that they've turned their minds over to the vestigial institutions of our dim past. The rest of us are so afraid of controversy that we sit idly back, and smile at them as they play pretend about gods, angels and brimstone.

I'd like to suggest it's about time for us to stand up and push the Vatican and the other capitols of today's religions to take their place in the history books next to the Pyramids, the Parthenon and the Maya temples. Theocracy never wanes without a fight.

This is a fight of reason, of words, of ideas. There is no blood, there is no risk, so why aren't we fighting?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Great 43rd Avenue Seam

Since Google added satellite images to their mapping service, I haven't been able to get enough of scrolling around and playing voyeur-from-space. It's pretty easy to notice where two satellite images have been stitched together, but it's usually due to a change in lighting, not a problem with alignment.

...but here we have 43rd Avenue in West Phoenix. I think this may be one of the more conspicuous seams on Google Maps.

It's the piece shown on the left of both of those links that seems to be the problem. I've followed the seam all the way around, and it seems that this one square just didn't quite fit in.

After a little more searching, I found that the Loop 101/Loop 202 interchange was passed through an automated image stitching program that couldn't really handle what it was given. Automatic stiching also caused some craziness over at Sky Harbor airport, where you can see some ghost planes and other weirdness.

Has anyone else discovered any particularly egregious misalignments?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Liberty Terri

I generally don't lend my services to the GOP, but what have the Democrats done for me lately?

An Open Letter to Karl Rove:

Mr. Rove,

You or one of your colleagues recently drafted a memo to Republicans in the Senate laying out the potential political gains in exploiting Terri Schiavo, our nation's favorite persistently vegetative stateswoman. Well, sir, I have a proposal for you to take this to the next level.

I come to you not out of support of your cause, but out of a great respect for your evil genius. You're accomplishing with Terri what the left couldn't with Christopher Reeve, and he was a movie star. Your party certainly recognizes the power a movie star wields over the voting public. Still, the Democrats slow-played the crippled Superman card, and barely managed to squeeze a tiny amount of public opinion out of his lifeless corpse. Stem-cell research? Who even knows what that means anymore? Not me, sir.

My idea for taking this exploitation from petty to epic is as follows: We should offer Terri up as a replacement for the Liberty Bell. The bell itself has been effectively ignored for the last 20 years. I think the last time I heard it mentioned was the third grade. Clearly, it's become obsolete, but it has some charm that we can replicate with the much more modern and GOP-friendly "Liberty Terri," as we'll christen her during the unveiling of her plexiglas viewing chamber in Philadelphia, where she can live the rest of her unnatural life, turning food sludge into waste we can portion out and sell as souvenirs.

You see, the Liberty Bell is cracked, and that's part of its mystique. Americans, as a general rule, are terrified of perfection. Flaws make us swoon. Terri, with a brain that lacks any identifiable consciousness, thought, or awareness, will fill in quite nicely for a bell that can't ring.

Liberty Terri can completely replace the bell in American iconography. She may be a little harder for grade-schoolers to draw in class, but the fact that she's human means some lucky kid can play her in the patriotic school plays put on across this great nation. Every 4th of July sale at car dealerships across the country will use a little clip art Terri face in their ads, subliminally reenforcing the idea that Democrats hate America. Unlike the flag, which has been co-opted by every bastard there is, you bastards will have sole ownership of this one for at least a few decades.

Now, what to do with the bell? Well, you have a bit of a PR problem over in Iraq. Imagine this sound bite playing on Fox News a few hundred times a day for a month: "Iraq isn't liberated? Tell that to the Liberty Bell and the fine men protecting it from suicide bombers in Baghdad."

I urge you to act on this quickly.


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

An Introduction

So this is my first post directly to this blog -- the backdated entries were filtered out of my Live Journal and copied here. I thought it would be nice to break the writing I think is meaningful away from the casual stuff.

So here's a handful of my favorite posts to give you an idea of what I'm all about.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Learning the Police State

People don't like being oppressed, as a general rule. In order for people to accept overbearing authority, you really need to convince them it's a good idea. Thankfully, we send our kids to government-run schools for about a dozen years of their lives.

A recent study shows that a third of high school students think the First Amendment is excessive in its protection of free speech rights. Seventy-five percent think flag burning is illegal. If three-quarters of the next generation's leaders already think it's illegal, it almost ensures that will one day be the case.

This isn't a case of government propaganda being disseminated in schools -- if it were, the consequences would be manageable. This is fundamental problem with the way authority is used in an educational setting. We have a system which academically rewards information-regurgitating drones, socially rewards conformists, and punishes free-thinkers. Hysteria about the shootings at Columbine, the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the war on drugs has injected especially draconian rules into a system already wilting in the shadow of the iron fist.

School was for me a lesson that the world is not right, that everything -- even our most important institutions -- could be flawed. I learned that a system which imposes control on a group invariably drifts towards the convenience of power, unless protested. I was shocked to learn that the majority of those controlled in such a situation will unflinchingly embrace the control if a reward is dangled in front of them. In school, this reward was the promise of a career that only comes with a college degree, which requires enthusiastic participation in even the most ridiculous aspects of the system.

A former coworker of mine told me that his son got on his teacher's bad side by pointing out that it was now commonly known that photons of light do exert force on an object, contrary to what was being taught in class. I once asked a junior high teacher of mine about a problem in the text book that I thought might have the wrong answer, since applying the lesson learned in class that day would have given a different one. Her answer to me was, "whatever is in the answer key is the right answer," without the slightest discussion about the principles involved. It turns out that the answer in the key was the one I knew was right, but had it not been, it would have been right enough for her.

I can think of dozens of other instances of consensus-over-truth in my school experience. It's not the bad information that makes this such a disaster, it's the way in which any information -- good or bad -- is secondary to the ritual of school and the indoctrination of authoritarianism.

After the Columbine shooting, kids were singled out for things that could without hyperbole be called thought crimes. Many students have received varying degrees of punishment for brining toy guns to school, some of them inch-long guns an action figure might carry. How an injected-molded plastic sliver roughly resembling a gun could injure anyone or disrupt class is mind-boggling, but it doesn't matter. The rules say you can't bring a gun or a replica of one to school, and the rules are not to be questioned.

This week, a first grader received two days of in-school detention for filling a plastic bag she found with dirt and clovers and giving it to a friend as a gift. Her teacher thought it looked like a bag of marijuana, so the iron fist came down on her, a six-year-old girl. The girl had to be told what marijuana was, and why she was bad for simulating it. Disgusting. My little girl will sometimes take a piece of paper and wrap up household objects to give to me as gifts. This is exactly the same behavior. The girl is a victim of an overzealous system. Her view of authority and justice has been permanently distorted.

Kids don't think flag burning is illegal because teachers are telling them that, they think it's illegal because they're learning that one should never cause a disruption, that the status quo is sacred, and that above everything else, authority should never be questioned.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


It's Ayn Rand's birthday. Libertarianism, free-market capitalism, and atheism -- what's not to like about Objectivism? Well, I think I've got that figured out now: dogmatic egoism. Ayn Rand's Objectivism demands that it be swallowed whole and defines its principles as moral and everything else as immoral. I'm amazed to see such unapologetic dogmatism within an atheist philosophy.

At the core of Objectivism is the idea that everyone should strive to better themselves while rejecting altruism. This makes Objectivism very appealing to selfish people looking to rationalize away their guilt, or to even feel morally superior because of their egoism. I'll admit I've found similar comfort in capitalism and libertarianism, so I can definitely relate to the appeal. However, to reject altruism is to ignore or deny the benefits to society that altruism has provided in the past.

Take the Civil Rights movement as an example. While a society made up exclusively of Objectivists would have never created the mess of inequality, segregation and oppression in our country's past, egoism would not have solved the problem either. Booker T. Washington (and some other black leaders) recommended that black citizens should strive first to better themselves and not risk their own well being and social status by protesting segregation. This thinking is right in line with Objectivist egoism. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others believed it was better to risk or outright sacrifice their own quality of life for the benefit of future generations. This is altruism, and Objectivism dogmatically rejects it.

I guess I'm far too much of a utilitarian to accept a worldview that could consider altruism immoral.

As a side note, I would suspect that a disproportionately high number of Objectivists have no children. To look into the eyes of a child and not immediately reject pure egoism is a callousness that I can't comprehend.

Today's State of the Union address was depressing. I spent half of it being annoyed by promises to "protect the sanctity of marriage" and other things that Christian dogma demands. I've been putting up with that for four years, so I expected it. What's really bumming me out is that the partisan split over Social Security is drowning out any and all rational discussions about the merits of privatization. Rational discourse once again loses to party dogma. Democrats must oppose what Republicans support and the political process is nothing but a sporting event.

It's also Dee Dee's birthday, my Dad's birthday, and Groundhog Day. Unfortunately, I can't relate dogma to any of these events.