Saturday, November 08, 2014

In a Democracy, it's all about Voting

It has now been a few days since the election, when many supposedly close races were decided definitively for the Republican candidate in a wave rivaling that of 2010. My disappointment was at least partially mitigated by the fact that it wasn't really a surprise, though I continued to hold out hope. I've had time to reflect on what happened and why it happened. There have been lots of hypotheses put forth to explain the election anomaly. One is that it wasn't really an anomaly after all, since mid-term elections often go for the party in opposition to the one in the White House at the time. That's true, but it doesn't fully explain why so many Republican senate candidates and gubernatorial candidates across the country won handily in what were predicted to be close elections. And why a few GOP candidates won in races where the Democrat was favored.

A backlash to Obama seems to be a popular explanation, even though with the economy improving, more than five years of steady job growth, record high stock market performance, and the fact that millions more people are now able to afford health insurance, it's hard to imagine what the backlash is all about.

Low voter turnout is also blamed, thanks at least partly due to voter suppression measures in several states. Regardless of the GOP efforts to keep poor and minority voters from the polls, it really is possible for those who are determined to vote to jump through all those hoops the Republicans set up for them. Those potential voters just need to be helped over the hurdles by grassroots support.

This year saw only 37 percent of eligible voters make that trek to the polls. This compares to a high of 70 percent in the 19th century. What would have been the result if that large a percentage turned out this year? Well, just look to Oregon, where more than 69 percent of voters actually cast a ballot. In that state, democratic challengers won handily. But if younger and minority voters don't begin claiming their American right to vote, they may always remain underrepresented in the Congress.

One way that might encourage more people to vote is to make it more convenient for them to do so. Bernie Sanders has suggested making election day a national holiday. This has always sounded like a no-brainer to me. We are the world's premier democracy, and yet fewer people turn out to exercise that right here than in 120 other democracies around the world. This is out of 169 total. Our leaders are always touting democracy as the answer to the oppression that exists in countries around the world, but we ought to be ashamed of how our citizens treat democracy when they have it.

If we don't want to go all out and make election day a holiday, there should at least be a law passed that would mandate that all employers give at least four straight hours during the day to go vote. An employee working a standard 9 to 5 shift would, therefore, not have to come in until 10:00 AM, since polls open at 6 o'clock in Indiana. That would give everyone four uninterrupted hours to arrange to vote. Or the employer could let their workforce go home early, at 2 o'clock.

Another way to encourage voters to actually vote is to make the process easier. We already have mail-in voting. But what is the holdup for allowing voting online? Everything else can be done online. You can pay your taxes online, shop online, do your banking online, and renew your license plates online. All of those require very secure data connections. Yet voting online remains elusive. And I don't understand that.

I'm sure our country will survive the GOP onslaught and a potential shift to the right that usually comes with such election results. I can live with the economic policies or the foreign relations policies that usually accompany a GOP-controlled Congress. But it will be very hard for me to take the policymaking to come that is based on opinion over science and fundamentalist religious belief over actual data. It will be tough for me to watch more states further restrict a woman's right to an abortion or even to have low-cost access to birth control. It will be agonizing to watch individual rights, like gay marriage, be undermined time and again at both the national and state levels. And it will be scary to know that the environmental fate of the world may be in the hands of policymakers who do not accept data-driven science but who, instead, rely on their own opinions and bible verses to inform policy decisions.

I keep wondering why the reality-denying crazies on the right keep getting elected. And I think it still comes down to the fact that there are just not enough informed voters who can see through their bullshit and lies. And there is not enough incentive to compel the left-leaning minorities to get out and vote. Until that changes, mid-term elections will continue to be an afterthought in American politics, fueled more by knee-jerk backlash to the administration currently in office than by any kind of pride in our democratic way of life.

Monday, November 03, 2014

A Definition of Time

Time is something that can be measured with relative ease. Humanity has been measuring time for thousands of years. But scientists and philosophers have been struggling with the definition of time since, well, time immemorial. The best definition of time should be one that does not include references to time within the definition. So words such as rate, before, after, since, passing, sequence, speed, etc. should not be used. So let me give it a go.

Time is that character of a frame of reference caused by the changes that occur within that frame of reference down to the quantum and/or subatomic level.

These changes can manifest themselves macroscopically as any physical change in an object, such as its position, or at the subatomic level, such as changes in spin or energy level of an electron. Qualities such as rate (amount of change per unit of time) would be governed by the number of Planck time units that were involved in a certain change. Planck time is the theoretical smallest unit of time possible.

Think about how we measure time. It always involves a change that occurs in a repeating pattern: the swing of a pendulum, the vibration of a spring or the frequency of radiation emitted from an atom. Cyclical changes are what we use to keep track of the flow of time. But it doesn't have to be cyclical changes to cause a sensation of time. A banana gets ripe, then rots as time passes. A vehicle passes by, thus changing its position. If there were no changes occurring at all, then time would be irrelevant and, basically, non-existent. Even thought processes are the result of changes in electrical patterns in the brain. Ions flow from place to place, resulting in sensations of time passing.

Time absolutely requires changes to take place, and if none did, even at the quantum level, there would be no time. So the definition of time must, therefore, include the fact that it depends on things changing.

But does the term "change" require time within its own definition? If it does, then I can't use it in my definition of time. If we define change as the processes whereby an object ceases to be in a particular state or position because another state or position is manifest, then we can avoid the use of any reference to time in that definition, and it is a definition that is adequate for our purposes here.

Therefore, I think my definition of time is fairly all-encompassing and accurate. However, I will admit that it potentially results in a chicken-and-egg scenario. Are changes what cause time to flow or is the flow of time the cause of changes? I welcome feedback.

New Clock May End Time as We Know It

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Why is Faith called a Virtue?

Suppose you needed some work done on your house so you get an estimate for repairs: $1,500. Now suppose a stranger comes up to your door and offers to do the repairs for only $1,200 payable in advance. Would you hand him the money and tell him to get busy, or would you at least do some research, read his online reviews, check his references first?

We all know the obvious answer. The same is true of every aspect of your life: You don't blindly trust random strangers with anything important. Yet people of faith do it all the time. Faith is a virtue, they say. You have to believe in something. But what reason can anyone give to support that contention? If you don't have faith in random strangers why would you have faith in anything at all that hasn't been tested and proven? Why have faith in God or the bible? Neither have been proven. Neither have earned anyone's trust. It's fine to have faith in people you know well or in yourself. It's fine to have faith that is based on tangible evidence. But it's foolish to have faith that ancient traditions are real.

I know, you might say that you don't have faith in strangers because they are humans and humans are fallible. But God isn't fallible. But you are starting off with an assumption that you don't know to be true. How do you know that God isn't fallible, or that he even exists at all?

You will probably say that it says so in the bible and the bible is God's word. But let me remind you that the bible was written by humans, thousands of years ago. And as we all know, humans are, indeed, fallible. They were also quite superstitious back then.

But you may say the bible is God's word and that God is the one that either dictated the bible to the humans or at least inspired them to write certain things. But again, you are assuming that God inspired them or that God dictated his message. The only way you know that this is true is because these same humans who wrote the bible also wrote in it that it was God's word.

Any way you slice it, your faith in God has to start out with faith in humans, humans who are dead now and that you didn't know personally, humans with agendas and who were very superstitious. These are the human beings that you have put your faith in - the bible writers, many of whom aren't even known.

This is the most puzzling thing for me about Christians and other religious followers. Most of them are smart enough to realize that the bible, or any other holy book, can't possibly be corroborated by any other external source. Oh, sure, there are mentions of real places and real events, but that occurs in most other ancient books of fiction, such as Homer's Iliad or Odyssey. The only difference is that these books have always been taken to be fiction whereas the stories in the bible were passed down as being true. But, again, they were proclaimed to be true by ancient superstitious men whose religious beliefs twisted their grasp on reality. In other words, they had an agenda.

So people grow up being told these stories over and over. They are told by pastors and parents that these stories are true. They don't give it much thought even as adults. That was me. I was a science major who called myself a Christian because I never gave it much thought. Of course I believed because I was supposed to, and most people I knew believed as well. I never attended church so it was never front-and-center on my mind. But then, when I did start going to church following my father's death, to be closer to family who also attended, I eventually started paying attention to the stories. I finally realized that they were all just legends. No one who reads the bible from a neutral perspective could possibly believe all those stories are true. They are based on legends and superstitions. The majority of Christians today know that the bible is not to be taken literally. But why take it at all? Every story in the bible is fiction. Some of it might be based on real events or places, but they have been highly embellished by agenda-laden authors. I can say this with confidence for many reasons, but mostly because I know that the many claims of miracles and acts of god magic remains completely unverified by neutral sources. The only way I can accept any of these stories as being true is to just simply believe it because I want to. And that means I would be dishonest with myself. I would be denying reality based on what I wanted or hoped was true.

Some people go through a period of grief, abandonment, even agony when they finally realize that their cherished beliefs are based on false claims and legendary accounts. My transition was much easier, because as a man of science, I always relied on facts and empirical evidence to guide my thinking. So when I finally realized that the bible has nothing important to say to me and that the existence of God is unlikely, I was fine with that. It made more sense than having to make up excuses for why God seems to act randomly most of the time, and why a perfect and good god allows suffering.

I would be fine with people who still believe in the bible and in God if it weren't for the fact that they make decisions based on those beliefs. They elect politicians and school board members who believe as they do, who then try to pass laws based on their perception of religious morality instead of based on what is truly best for society. The laws they pass are always restrictive and tend to trample on the rights of others. But laws based on secular values tend to allow for greater individual freedom. And that is why I will continue to be an evangelical secularist. It's all about whether we want to allow for personal liberty or whether to quash it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Go Ahead, Teach Creationism

From the Archives, Oct. 2002

As most frequent readers of this column have come to realize, I am
a staunch supporter of the teaching of evolution in school. They
also know that I have always opposed the teaching of so-called
creation science.

But I have recently gone through a change of heart and mind
regarding the evolution/creation controversy. Although I don't
actively support the teaching of creation in the science
classroom, I no longer actively oppose it, either.

What's that you say? I've given up my belief in evolution in favor
of Special Creation? No, not at all.

Evolution remains the most widely accepted and logical scientific
explanation of how we got here. And I am still firmly convinced
that creationism as a science is laughable. It's not science at
all. It's not even a very good religion.

So why the change of heart?

It was the recent decision by the Ohio State School Board that
finally made me crack. That board gave a thumbs-up for schools to
teach what is termed "intelligent design." It's really just
creationism in disguise. Although the panel did not vote to
mandate its teaching, as some conservative groups wanted, it
allowed each school district to determine whether or not to teach
it along side of evolution.

It occurred to me that this debate isn't going to go away as long
as the religious fanatics have a voice in the electoral process.
And since they will always have a voice - a rather loud one - the
debate will linger.

This controversy has led many, if not most, school systems to skim
over evolution in biology classes. Some schools skip that chapter
altogether. Others merely touch on it. Few high school students
are adequately educated in the concepts of evolutionary theory
these days.

I figure the only way that evolution will ever get a thorough
examination in the science classrooms of America is if we
acquiesce to the zealots and allow creationism to be taught with

The result is likely to be that more high school students will
graduate with the knowledge that evolution really happened and
that it can be used to make predictions in genetics, astronomy,
geology, and other sciences.

The reason I feel confident of this is that if both evolution and
creation are taught from a position of logical investigation, and
not from a position of dogma, then evolution will always win out.
There is no logic in creationism.

Teaching creationism as an alternative to evolution is something
akin to a track coach reading Aesop's "The Hare and the Tortoise"
and telling his runners that being tortoise-like is an alternative
tactic to winning track meets. It wouldn’t take long for students
to realize the futility of being a tortoise. If approached from an
evidentiary perspective, students will find it just as easy to
dismiss creationism.

Naturally, there will still be students who remain unconvinced of
evolution, despite the evidence and the logic behind it. But these
are the same students who would be unconvinced anyway. I am
confident that allowing creationism to be taught side-by-side with
evolution would be a great boon for science. It will not only
promote critical analysis of the theory of evolution, it will also
promote, in all fairness, critical analysis of creationism.

In such an analysis of the facts and evidence, most students will
quickly come to the conclusion that creationism really does
promote a myth. And anytime we can dispel a myth, it's a good

Just as astrology is discussed in most astronomy classes, if only
to provide a historical perspective, creationism can also be
discussed in biology classes along with evolution. It should
become clear to most students that creationism is to evolution
what astrology is to astronomy: merely a precursor to the accepted
reality – something that was believed before we knew better.

In an ideal world, creationism would never be allowed to
contaminate the science curriculum of any school – public or
private. But this isn’t an ideal world and sometimes a less-than-
ideal compromise is needed.

So, yes, I've changed my mind. Let loose the creationists in the
classroom. Just make them follow the same rules as science has to
follow. Then when they realize that most students will opt to
believe the evidence of science, they will be more than happy to
pull creationism from the curriculum themselves.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

I did not Choose This

I'm not an atheist by choice. To not be an atheist I would have to DECIDE to believe in a god. To make that decision, I would have to choose a god that I believe is not only possible, but probable, or at least plausible. And since, knowing what I know, that doesn't seem likely, I'm stuck being an atheist. All gods I know of are completely implausible ideas and I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone would believe they exist.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why is Evidence-Based Reality not the Norm in America?

I get annoyed, angry, even depressed every time I get on Facebook these days and am confronted with yet another news item or opinion piece that points out how gullible, naive, undereducated, or silly the American public is when it comes to evidence-based reality. From new polls showing a backward trend to the public's acceptance of the highly-supported theory of evolution to TV preachers decrying the Air Force's decision to not require inductees to say "so help me God," to the idiot ramblings of those who still insist that vaccines cause autism, that the measured climate change is not due to human activity, or that GMOs are harmful. It's maddening!

The answer to all this is very, very, simple. It's childlike in its simplicity if only people would adopt it. If people would live their lives by the mantra of EVIDENCE-BASED REALITY instead of the pervasive faith-based reality that so many people cling to, humanity would be so much better off. Think about it: There would be no terrorist organizations, no borders defined by religious zealotry, no one telling others what to do based on their own narrow view of biblical morality, no TV evangelists and no more ducking tax payments due to religious privilege. Oh, I'm sure there would still be person-on-person judgment, but it wouldn't be faith based.

Empirical data and testable evidence is the only way we have of discovering reality! That's not to minimize feelings, like love, or actions such as charity. We, as humans, have emotions that were evolved within us to help us cope with being societal. But when it comes to learning about that society and our place within it, or when it comes to discovering things about the natural world, empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and data are all that matter. Faith is an incumbrance. Faith should be bestowed on other people, or oneself, when the evidence shows its justified. And hope can be useful as a motivational factor for trying. But putting faith in gods, fairies, spirits, angels, or other supernatural beings is not only worthless, it's pathetic. It means that critical thinking skills have been abdicated in favor of wishful thinking. It's cheating oneself, and all of society, out of realizing the potential that is inherent within us.

I live my life on empirical evidence, facts, data, logic, and critical thinking skills. There is no room in my life for faith, at least faith that is not derived from evidence. I hear so many people tell me, "you gotta believe in something! But why? Why do I have to believe in something that is not derived from evidence or logic? To me that's just silly. My life is not missing anything because I have no blind faith. I am not somehow disabled because of it, and yet people say they feel sorry for me for not knowing God or Jesus. I don't know God for the same reason that I don't know the tooth fairy: neither one of them exist in the real world.

People tell me "but you can't prove there is no god." That's right; I can't. But I don't have to. By following the empirical evidence, science has come to the understanding that the existence of a god is not necessary to explain things we know about the universe. And if God is not necessary, then it takes an extra step to believe God exists. Why put something in place that is not needed? That's like adding an extra cog to a motor that does nothing more than to satisfy the designer's propensity for using cogs.

And so what if you don't understand all the beauty and clockwork precision of the universe? Those who don't understand it often attribute its wonder to God. But all it means is that you don't understand the reality of it. Maybe nobody does. But why take the default position that if we don't know how it works then it must be due to God? Why not take the more appropriate position that we don't know how it works yet so let's try to find out?

Society would be far more efficient, less violent, less judgmental, and far more progressive if we left faith-based reality out of our decision making and relied solely on evidence-based reality. Because in doing so, we will come much closer to realizing true reality and not just wishful thinking.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What if there were no Book of Genesis?

Creationists, such as Ken Ham, insist that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old and that God created it all in six literal days. As evidence for this belief, they site the Book of Genesis. But what if that book had never made it into the bible? What if the bombastic bevy of bishops who made up the Council of Nicea in 325 CE decided not to include the Old Testament in the Christian canon? After all, that was the Jewish bible and they had created their own religion. They could have decided that the scripture that is now the Old Testament is useful for historical context but not actually part of the bible. Christianity would still go on.

It happened, in limited form, several hundred years later when Martin Luther started the Reformation. The new Protestant Church left out many of the books of the Catholic Old Testament, now called the Apocrypha. So what if Genesis had been one of the books left out by Luther?

The only real difference that it would have made in Christianity of today is that no one would be taking creationism seriously. There would be no biblical support for it. It would be viewed merely as a Jewish folktale, much as it is viewed today by many mainline Christian denominations.

But the more striking question would then become this: What if all the scientists hired by Ken Ham and the Discovery Institute on Creation Studies were let loose to try to find the real story of creation? Would they still find the same evidence they now use to conclude that God created the world in six days and that the earth is young, or would they instead find and accept all the empirical evidence that now exists proving that the world is very old and that life has evolved? Remember, there is no Old Testament or Genesis to consider. They have been relegated to folk status by Martin Luther or the Council of Nicea in our imaginary scenario.

These so-called scientists, and yes they do hold degrees in science, that try to use science to "prove" creationism are not currently using real methods of science. They ignore or rationalize real evidence and accept only the evidence that supports their foregone conclusion. That's not science. But without Genesis guiding their bias, how would they proceed and what would their findings be?

It's a rhetorical question because it has already been answered. Scientists have done those experiments and gathered the empirical evidence over the past hundreds of years to prove that the earth is, indeed, billions of years old and that life on it has evolved. So without Genesis, these creation scientists would fall in line behind the real evidence.

And that's why nobody should take them seriously. They may be real scientists but they are not using real science to support their claims. They are using the bible. And the bible has no scientific validity. The bible has become, and actually always was, a roadblock to discovery and understanding. It even today causes a handful of well-educated, intelligent scientists to look the other way when any evidence runs counter to what they think they already know. How sad is that?

Sunday, August 03, 2014

An Alternate Reality that Could Happen at the Voting Booth

I'm official neither Democrat or Republican as far a political party affiliation goes. But since Democrats tend to lean liberal and Republicans tend to thrust as far to the right as they can, then I tend to favor Democrats in the voting booth, at least over the last few election cycles. I have voted Republican before, for both presidential as well as local elections, because I mostly focus on the issues and on whom I believe to be most trustworthy and competent.

But for all the foreseeable election cycles, at least at the national level, I can say with certainty that this nation as a whole would be much, much better under Democratic control. And here's why:

Imagine, if you will, what the country would most probably be like in 10 years if every president, House member, and senator that is elected over that time period were a Democrat. Think about the policy changes that could happen. First, let's assume that the president will nominate mostly liberal federal judges and Supreme Court justices. Secondly, there would probably be a democratic supermajority in the Senate and the House would revert to democratic control. So with those things in place, what kinds of policy changes are we talking about after the liberal majority has been in power for awhile?

1. Universal health care would likely be a fact. And I'm not talking about just revamping Obamacare. I'm talking about real, honest-to-goodness single payer health care, in which every single person living in America would have free basic health care. If anyone wants more than basic (such as plastic surgery or optional procedures) they would be free to pay for it, or buy their own insurance that would pay for it.

2. Immigrant children who were brought here illegally would be able to stay, under the DREAM Act, which would be one of the first things passed. And newly-arriving migrant children would be cared for and placed in homes who volunteer to take them in. Adults who arrive illegally will continue to be deported, except that if they can show that they are contributing members of society and have been for a number of years, they can stay under a work visa. Workers, regardless of national origin, always add to the economy, not detract from it.

3. Every human being living in the U.S. with a Social Security card would receive a stipend from the government equal to, say, 70 percent of the current minimum wage. That includes children, whose parents would receive that stipend as a tax credit. As an incentive to work instead of quitting your current low-paying job and sitting around the house on your ass, this stipend would be paid only to those who are either actively working or actively seeking a job. If after six months you still don't have a job, the government will give you a job as a Federal employee. Then, if you refuse to take that job, your stipend will end.

4. There would be an infrastructure program started to repair or replaces all the crumbling roads and bridges in the country.

5. Unions would still exist but they would be less needed, as new government regulations would basically require all companies to give their employees all the rights and benefits that unions are there to protect.

6. For example, the minimum wage would be attached to the rate of inflation, starting with an increase to $12 per hour, then going up or down (usually up) from there, depending on inflation. This adjustment would be made annually.

7. A constitutional amendment would be passed prohibiting any person, corporation, or group from contributing anything beyond $500 to any political candidate. It would also require the federal and state governments to use voluntary tax contributions (similar to the one that is now included on Form 1040), to fund everyone's campaigns.

8. Congress would make sure that all churches or religious groups who publicly prefer one candidate over another or one government policy or proposed policy over another or take sides in any ideological debate would lose their tax-exempt status for as long as that behavior continues.

9. Federal laws would be passed that would make a woman's choice about her reproductive health care, including abortion, contraception, or any other reproductive issue, solely her decision, in consultation with her own physician.

10. The tax code would be revamped to close loopholes and to increase the tax rate on those earning more than $500,000 per year to 50 percent. Corporations could also no longer set up a fake corporate headquarters overseas to avoid paying taxes.

11. Social Security taxes would be paid on every single dollar you earn, not just up to an arbitrary maximum salary.

12. Our atmosphere and waterways would be cleaner, because there would be new greenhouse gas emissions limits and water pollution standards.

13. Parents receiving school vouchers would no longer be able to use them to send their kids to religious-based schools. Also, Congress would revert our national motto to E pluribus unum and remove In God We Trust from all currency as well as remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

14. There would be reduced spending for the Defense Department and much increased funding for NASA and other science agencies to pay for research and development of new technologies, to solve environmental problems, and to support exploration of space.

15. Education would be recognized as a top priority. Public education would be free, through the college level, and no school would go without proper funding.

In a Democrat-led America, we would be on our way to a much freer society where poverty is seriously reduced, people can make their own choices of religion, but without the government bending over backwards to provide religious exemptions for every little thing; our water and air would be cleaner, and we would be back on top in science and technology. It wouldn't be utopia, obviously, but it would be closer than we can dream of now with our current GOP-blocked Congress and religion running amok. One can dream, can't he?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Go Ahead; Make My Hole

In my younger days, when I lived in conservative Johnson County, Indiana, I was more politically liberal. When I moved to liberal Lake County, I was politically conservative. Now I'm in Indianapolis, the second most liberal county in the state and I find that I lean heavily liberal again. But I hesitate to pigeonhole myself because I still lean conservative on some issues. So I'll leave it to the readers to pigeonhole me. Let's play "What is My Ideology!"

Here are the issues:

1. Social Issues - I am totally, 100 percent liberal on things like women's rights, abortion rights, gay rights, and any other kind of personal freedoms you can think of. I think it is none of the Government's damn business to address or limit anyone's right to do whatever the hell they want as long as they are not in any way limiting someone else's rights in the process, or causing harm to others or to society. And I guess there's a gray area as to what constitutes harm (or likely harm) to society, but I mean actual, empirical, measurable harm (such as driving drunk).

2. Union Issues - Unions have had a positive influence, historically, on working conditions and wages. However, somewhere along the line they got too powerful. When I read about things like a factory worker who is between job assignments and temporarily just chilling out, who wants to pick up a broom and sweep a little, but he is not allowed to do it because it isn't in his job description, it tells me the union there is a little too powerful. And I never did like it when the union forces a worker to join them in order to be hired at a certain business. Compulsory membership sounds like a violation of personal freedoms.

3. Race Relations - I am completely against any form of race discrimination in jobs, schools, or anywhere else. At the same time, there are cases where, in order to correct a past wrong, there has been the equivalent of legal reverse discrimination. They call it affirmative action and I'm completely against it. I was also completely against busing to achieve racial desegregation, but that stuff is pretty much over, thankfully. I have personally never committed any form of forced segregation or been the purveyor of racial discrimination in any form. Therefore, I should not be denied any job or college entrance due to the fact that I'm not of color. I, personally, have not been. But it happens and it shouldn't. That being said, my personal taste is that I don't like and I don't understand the ghetto culture. It's not just black teens and young adults that are involved in this, but it started there. I'm talking about big baggy clothes, sagging pants, hats on sideways or backward, hoodies, and especially rap "music." I realize it's a cultural thing, but I believe that there are so many people of all races who abhor this cultural trend that it actually may interfere with a young person's ability to land a good job or to avoid being the target of racial profiling. I believe that if the ghetto culture were to go away, race discrimination would go down.

4. Entitlements - Social Security and Medicare are not entitlements. We all pay for those through payroll taxes. However, things like the SNAP program, Medicaid, and WIC are entitlements that I support, but with caveats. They should be, as intended, a social safety net to prop those up who have fallen on hard times temporarily. The same is true for unemployment compensation. Any person getting a welfare check from the government should be put to work by the government, doing anything they are able and qualified to do: digging ditches, stuffing envelopes, typing, working in a nuclear power plant, etc. And there should be a limit on the amount of time they are allowed to draw their benefits. During the time that I've been a teacher, I've discovered something about the students whose families are on food stamps or other forms of welfare. Most of them exhibit an attitude of entitlement. They don't appreciate anything. The school gives them free textbooks, so they throw them around and tear them up. Why not? They didn't pay for them. They get free food in the cafeteria, so they have food fights or just throw it in the garbage. Or sometimes they go back for seconds and whine when they're refused because the school can't feed everybody twice. When I was a teacher in Lake County, I was sponsor of the Student Council. Every year we would have a food drive. We collected food and money, then handed out baskets of canned goods and meat to those on the free lunch program. In the five years that I was sponsor, I remember getting only one thank you note from one of the recipients. We didn't do it for thanks, but it would have been nice if more people appreciated what we were doing.

5. Guns - Except for hunting rifles and shotguns, I'm against them all. I would be in favor of repealing the Second Amendment and then passing laws to remove all guns from people's hands (except those mentioned above). But since that will never happen, how about making a national gun registry and make everyone who buys a gun from anyone register it. And if that gun is ever used in a crime, then whoever it is registered to should suffer some legal consequences.

6. Religion - I'm against religion in all its forms, but especially fundamentalist religion. Fundamentalism is probably the single greatest inhibitor of progress in the world. I'm also completely against government funding for anything that even smacks of religion, including vouchers for private schools run by churches. I'm against opening public meetings with prayers and against mentioning God in any government slogan. And when freedom of religion runs up against any other freedom laid out in the Constitution, I believe any of those rights should trump it. There should never be any special exceptions put into laws on account of religion.

7. Immigration - I'm in favor of allowing children up to age 18 into this country and then finding a place for them. I'm in favor of the DREAM Act. I'm in favor of some kind of amnesty for any undocumented immigrant who currently has a job and is supporting a family. But the border does need to be secure to keep drug smugglers and criminals out.

8. Drugs and Alcohol - I'm in favor of legalizing marijuana as long as it is regulated and taxed, with a portion of the tax proceeds going to drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. And since I live in Indiana, I'm in favor of changing the law to allow liquor sales on Sunday in all venues that currently sell packaged liquor or beer.

9. Taxes - Taxes should be a thing that very rich people have to pay. Those who earn less than, say $50K per year for a family of three should pay no taxes at all. Middle income people should pay, say 10 to 15 percent tax. Ultra rich people should pay 50 percent or more tax with no loopholes and limited deductions.

10. Education - There should be a national curriculum, mandated and paid for by the federal government. It should be developed by educators, and it should be very strong in all four core areas: math, language arts, science, and social studies. Public education, including K - 12 and undergraduate post-secondary education, should be free and funded by a combination of federal and state taxes. As an addendum to this issue, I also completely support more science education, because there are far too many people who still do not accept proven scientific facts, such as climate change, evolution, GMO safety, and vaccine safety.

11. States Rights - States are not people. They should have only the rights granted them by the federal government. (Yes, the Founding Fathers got this one wrong.)

12. Government Spending - The government is charged with making sure we are protected and that our infrastructure is in working order. Since we now spend way more on defense than the next few countries behind us combined, we should divert some of that money to infrastructure, scientific research, and education. The government should also be in charge of providing free healthcare to all citizens. If those who can afford it want special health care, they can pay for an upgrade. To pay for all this, just divert funds from the Pentagon and increase taxes on the wealthy.

Ok, so now where do you pigeonhole me politically and/or ideologically?

  • A. Leans conservative
  • B. Moderate / Middle of the Road
  • C. Leans liberal
  • D. Solidly liberal
  • E. Something Else (What?)

Thank you.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why Some Smart People have Faith

I've been told a number of times by different ministers that all Christians have doubts once in awhile. I've always had doubts, even back when I did not question the existence of God, as a child, I wondered about certain things, such as who created God, or why do we pray if God's will is going to prevail regardless of what we ask him for.

The resolution to these doubts, according to Christian ministers, is simply to pray to God to strengthen your faith. But God gave us free will, right? So if he can strengthen our faith, then why couldn't he just give us faith and be done with it? Again, more doubts. But, yes, I believed. I believed throughout all my childhood and most of my adult life. But I don't believe now. What changed?

One of the things that kept me believing was my recognition that there are many, many highly intelligent people, even some scientists, that also believe. I figured that if these people, who are more highly educated than I, could believe in the Christian god, then who am I to argue with them. And yet, the doubts continued.

Mostly, I just ignored them. I was never in favor of the conservative side of Christianity. It was repulsive to me. I had gone to a revival or two as a teenager and all that did was serve to drive me away from that sort of thing. I didn't attend any church from the time I was in college until my father died in 1992, well except for that one time my girlfriend (who would later be my wife) forced me to go to a Pentecostal church. It was horrible.

Throughout all the '90s and until about 2003, I attended the First Christian Church in Edinburgh. It was affiliated with Disciples of Christ. The two primary ministers that were there during the time I attended were both very intelligent and extremely well spoken. I loved learning about the bible from them. I even attended a few bible studies sessions. Both of them were seminary graduates and so they knew all about the history of the bible and they could read the bible in its original languages - Greek and Hebrew.

But all this bible study brought on even more serious questions. I spoke at length with the last full-time minister the church had, Steve Defields-Gambrel. I remember once, during lunch, I confessed that my main problem is that I didn't know anything at all about God, but that I felt I knew as much as anyone else does. He just replied, "That's it!" I was correct. Nobody knows anything at all about God; they only think they do, and they are all too willing to tell everyone they meet. They think they know about God because their information comes from one of two sources: the bible, or from other people who got it from the bible themselves. But what if the bible got it wrong? For example, there are things in the bible that are demonstrably wrong, such as insects do not have four legs and the earth is not the shape of a coin. If it can be wrong in some areas, maybe it's all wrong.

Steve preached from the bible, of course, but he believed it all to be metaphor. I once asked him what would his reaction be if somehow it was ever proven that Jesus had never been resurrected in body. He said, "That wouldn't make any difference to me." He said it didn't matter whether or not the Resurrection was real or whether it was metaphor, the meaning is still there.

Shortly thereafter I started reading everything I could find about the history of the bible and about the historical Jesus. There isn't much, outside the bible, about Jesus. Thankfully, there are tricks to learning about a historical person or event from limited information. Bart Ehrman, an evangelical preacher turned agnostic bible expert and professor of theology in North Carolina, describes these methods of determining what's true and what's false in a historical setting very well. It's how we know pretty much everything that's in a history textbook prior to the invention of video.

After reading and studying both sides I began my slow progress toward apostasy. But what still bothered me is how so many highly intelligent people could still believe in the bible. So I did some more research on that topic. As it turns out there really is an inverse correlation between a person's education level and their religious faith: The more educated one is, the less likely they are to be a believer. But there were still lots of highly-educated believers. Why?

I've heard a number of possible explanations. But I think the real reason is probably a mix of things. For one thing, human beings are natural agency detectors. That's why we see pictures in clouds or faces on toast. It used to be evolutionarily advantageous. After all, it would be far better for our ancestors to think they see the face of a lion that turns out to be shadows than to think they see shadows that turn out to be a lion. I think mainly, however, people's brains are born with a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. The part of their brains that allows them to believe in ancient superstitions is kept cognitively separate from the more rational parts of the brain that they use to make important decisions.

That might also explain why I believed until late into my 40s. Although I didn't attend church until I was almost 40, I still was at least a nominal Christian. I just simply kept the reasons why on the back burner, without thinking much about it. And, because, as I said, really smart people sometimes believe. But I was no slouch when it comes to education. I do have a master's degree in science education, so one would think that I would have come to my apostasy much earlier. But it wasn't until I started studying about my religion, the bible, and the historical Jesus that I finally cut the strings to my faith. That part of my brain which had compartmentalized it was allowed to open up. It didn't happen in one day, but when it was finally complete, it was as though I was let out of a locked box that had been trapping me. I thought I was happy as a believer, but it was too confusing, as it turns out. It didn't make sense. And now I know why.

Religion is an invention of humans. It originally helped us to develop into civilized societies, because all religions have rules. The rules are supposedly handed down from whatever supernatural being the religious adherents believe in. But in comparing these religions, they are all very common in a few aspects. Most importantly, they believe in a supernatural being that most would call God, or in multiple such beings. And their most devout adherents always have personal stories that seem to justify and strengthen their belief. Whenever they come across a fact or facts that seem to suggest an inconsistency in their faith, such as why is there so much evil or suffering in the world if God is supposed to be completely loving, cognitive dissonance reduction sets in and they make up excuses for their god to tell themselves. That's why you always hear things like, "The Lord works in mysterious ways," or "It's all part of God's divine plan" during funerals.

Cognitive dissonance reduction is a powerful force and simply knowing it exists is not enough to cure it. A compartmentalized brain is difficult to crack open, which explains why seemingly intelligent people believe in gods. And even knowing that adherents to other religions don't believe in your god any more than you believe in there's seems never to stimulate deeper thought into the possibility that maybe both gods are imaginary. But for whatever reason, I was able to break the spell of Christianity. Maybe it was because I had never had any powerful personal experiences that I could have attributed to God. Maybe it was because I had always harbored serious doubts. But I think mostly it is because I explored those doubts with an open mind by talking to my pastors and then by reading secular books about religion, God, and the bible.

I can now claim to be an atheist, even though I do not discount the possibility that a god might exist. What I know for sure, though, is that if a god does exist, he/she/it is certainly not God, as introduced in the bible. I've heard it said that the best way to become an atheist is to read the bible, all of it, with an open mind instead of reading it as a devotional endeavor. A good and omnipotent god could never allow some of those things to happen.

And now, I try to spread the word against fundamentalist Christianity all I can. I can coexist just fine with most mainline protestants who accept what science has proven and who support the separation of church and state. They usually cause me little concern other than the fact that I disagree with their beliefs. But fundamentalist Christianity, to me, is more like a cult. Fundamentalism of all faiths is one of the biggest threats to progress in the world today and it must be blocked at every conceivable turn.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Just the Facts, Ma'am

The slaying of a local police officer in the line of duty, as happened last weekend in Indianapolis, is certainly a tragedy. Local news stations obviously covered this story and its aftermath, as they should have. However, while I know I'm inviting criticism for being somehow unsympathetic or uncaring, it is my opinion, as well as the opinions of others with whom I've spoken, that this local coverage was nothing short of severe overkill.

During the week, I've witnessed on every local news program on every channel a barrage of coverage from the actual shooting to the vigils to the processions to the funeral to the burial. And everywhere along the way I have been bombarded with the comments and Facebook posts from dozens of family members, friends, co=workers, neighbors, and just everyday strangers, as reported by the news media. All of them, of course, lauded IMPD officer Renn for his bravery and meritorious service to the city. And I have no doubt that he deserves this praise, as he was a brave officer who died in the line of duty. But I do not know any of these average citizens, nor do I care what they have to say about Renn.

During the week of over-coverage of the death of this officer, there were other shootings, homicides, and deaths in the line of duty of everyday people. Most of them received either a report on the local news, if it was a homicide or shooting, or at least an obituary in the local newspaper. But none of them received the attention bestowed on Renn.

We do this all the time. When those four officials were killed in our embassy in Benghazi in 2012, only one of them was our actual ambassador. But you never hear their names mentioned. When Benghazi is referred to (normally by Republicans) if any names are mentioned it is always the ambassador. Were his subordinates not as important as human beings?

People sometimes die. It's all part of the cycle of life. And the death of a person is tragic for those who knew and loved that person. If the person is established as a high-profile individual, it is normal and natural that their deaths are given appropriate news coverage. But news organizations should look long and hard as to what counts as appropriate and what goes beyond into gratuitous coverage.

Police officers, firefighters, and paramedics are all in the public safety business. And maybe it is appropriate to provide more news coverage for them if they are killed in the line of duty. But that coverage should be confined to actual news, not maudlin fluff. As Sgt. Friday used to say every week on a popular detective show, "Just the facts, Ma'am."

Friday, July 04, 2014

God's Biggest Problem

Christians' biggest problem is explaining how an all-loving God can allow so much suffering. But they make up excuses by saying things like, "God's morality is different from ours. Maybe what seems like suffering to us is necessary to God's larger plan that we don't know anything about." But that's just a cop out, a conceit, because they can't explain it within the context of their Christian faith without resorting to such excuse writing.

In Genesis it says that God made us in His image. Evangelicals and Creationists always assume it means his bodily image. But John 4:24 says, "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth." That means Christians should always view God not as a human but as a spirit, and since we are created in his spiritual image, we have the exact same morality as God. So either God has acted immorally when he committed genocide, misogyny, rape, and slavery. Or all that is moral and we should be allowed to do it, too. If the latter, then why would anyone want to have anything to do with God, because humans have obviously evolved a higher sense of morality. If the former, it means God is fallible and susceptible to the same weaknesses as humans.

Bill of Rights 2.0

It seems like a lot of court cases these days are centered around separate Bill of Rights issues, such as the freedom of religion vs. freedom of speech or whether the right to choose your own reproductive health care is trumped by someone else's right to their religious views. Then there is always that pesky right to bear arms issue and how far it should go.

So, to fix all that, what we really need to do is replace the First and Second Amendments with another, broader amendment that prioritizes these rights. The new amendment would also encode in the Constitution the rights that most courts have already interpreted the First Amendment as granting, such as separation of church and state and the right to privacy.

So to keep it simple, allow me to prioritize the rights myself. All it needs now is a proper endorsement by Congress and then three-fourths of the states. That shouldn't be too hard, right?

The first priority goes to Freedom of Speech and Expression. Yes, expression is a type of speech as determined by the courts, but now it has it's own mention. Following closely is Freedom of the Media (since "Press" is quickly becoming archaic). One of the first things dictatorial governments try to do is limit the distribution of news coverage, so this freedom ranks high.

Freedom of privacy must be added in third place. This would include the provision that whatever an adult does in the privacy of his or her own home or on their own private property is none of the government's damn business, as long as no other person is being harmed. So smoke your weed or hire a whore; it's your own business as long as you're doing it in a private setting.

Coming in a close fourth would be the right of people to peacefully assemble. However, since mobs can sometimes get violent, the government has the right to break up demonstrations even if only a few protestors are actively participating in the violent or threatening acts.

Freedom of Religion would get a distant fifth place. Government still can't prefer one religion over another. However, people would still be able to believe whatever the hell they want and to worship when and where they want. But if this right even comes close to abridging any of the rights above, then those rights would get priority. This would also mean that someone's religious beliefs could never be used to force any type of compliance from others, such as happened recently with the Hobby Lobby SCOTUS decision.

The last enumerated right would be the right to keep and bear arms. You can own a gun, or many guns, as long as the barrel is at least 15 inches in length (so no handguns), that they are not automatic or semi-automatic, and that the owner has a government-issued permit. In obtaining said permit, the state would add the owner's name to a national firearm registry which could be computer accessed instantly by anyone who wants to know via the Internet. Additionally, Congress or the states would have authority to pass laws that would regulate gun purchases and ownership provisions within the scope of this amendment.

There! The rights issues have been sorted out. Let's do it!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Every New Religion Builds on its Predecessor's Stupidity

Have you ever noticed that all of the Abrahamic religions get creepier and more far fetched the later in time they were conceived of? It started, of course, with Judaism. Its adherents beliefs were fairly simple: There was just one god who had no real name that anyone could pronounce, but Yaweh was close enough. There were lots of do's and don'ts, most of which sound rather bizarre or silly and many centered around what you can and can't eat. But there was no heaven or hell and everybody was pretty much just going to go to an afterlife where they would be cold and thirsty for eternity. The weirdest part of the religion is that God created the earth and universe in six days and he then allowed his first human creation to be tempted by a talking snake. Mostly, however, the Jews believed this to be symbolic.

Then came the Christians. Their god was actually a Jew on Earth, but he came to bring a new contract with the people, since the original one wasn't working out so well. It's called the New Covenant. Christians believe in three separate gods, but they are all connected somehow to make just one. It's something like three different colors of Play Doh that you squish together to make one clay horse. They also believe in the talking snake and the six days of Creation that the Jews told in their holy book. But whereas Jews knew is was metaphorical, some Christians decided it must be literal. The bottom line is, if you don't believe that Eve was tempted by a talking snake, ate a forbidden fruit, and thus sent sin spewing out over the entire human race that was to come, and if you don't believe that God sent himself to Earth so he could have himself killed as a human sacrifice to himself to erase the sin that he allowed to be spewn, then you're going to the hell that he created for you.

A few hundred years later a guy named Muhammed came along and decided that the Christians got it wrong, because they chose the wrong Abrahamic descendant to base their religion on. Muhammad picked another one of the original 12 and called his new religion Islam and its followers Muslims. So he married a young girl of six and had sex with her when she was nine. Then he married several other women but told his followers they could only marry four at a time. He also said that God's name was Allah, but you can't draw a picture of him. You also can't draw a picture of Mohammed, or else a fellow Muslim can kill you. Women don't have rights and they must cover themselves from head to toe in public so that the men can't lust after them and rape them. But if you kill yourself while also killing a blasphemer you will go to heaven where you'll be greeted by 72 virgins - no mention of where they virgins came from or if they are consenting now.

But if that wasn't strange enough for a religion, in the 1800s a shyster named Joseph Smith told everyone that he had found some gold plates in a cave. He translated them with God's help into the Book of Mormon, which tells of the adventures of Jesus Christ in America! Mormons believe things like magic underwear is all you need to keep yourself protected from, well, everything sinful. They used to believe that you could marry many women, but now they don't believe that anymore because the U.S. government scolded them over taxes and morality - so U.S. Government: 1, God: 0. Speaking of God, they believe he lives on a planet orbiting a star named Kolob. They also believe that people of a different species live on the moon, but they are similar to our Quakers. And they believe that all non-Mormons will go to hell unless a Mormon prays them out. Beyond that, they just believe pretty much what their predecessors, the Christians and Jews believe.

So it appears that each religion sort of builds on the ones that came before it and adds as much silly nonsense as they can think of to the beliefs that already existed. I can't wait to see what comes next. Oh yeah, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Praise be his noodly appendages.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

No, Billy Bob, You Probably Didn't get Abducted by Aliens

I admit I was unaware that there is a dichotomy of opinion on intelligent alien life between astronomers and biologists. My degree is in biology but I also love astronomy. I have always been suspicious of the statistical claims made by the astronomers, that because of the sheer number of stars there MUST be intelligent life somewhere else. And I agree that it is likely that some kind of sentient, intelligent beings probably do exist somewhere else. But I don't think the galaxy is full of them. I think that, because of the reasons outlined here, intelligent life is fairly rare, if not unique. Without empirical evidence one way or other, it goes to speculation.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How to Fix America

How to improve America in five easy steps:

1. Build up our failing infrastructure. What does that entail? Let's develop a plan to fix all our decrepit bridges and highways for one thing. Then, let's upgrade our railroad system to add more bullet trains and high-speed rail services. Let's also upgrade the mass transit systems in all cities where an upgrade is needed, and build new ones in cities that are lacking this service.

2. Fund higher education and increase funding for local school systems. Students need not only the best teachers money can buy, they also need proper books and supplies, including well-equipped science labs and music departments. States subsidize their public colleges and universities, but the Federal government needs to step in and fill the gap with a 100 percent subsidy of its own. Going to public college should be a no-cost endeavor. Students should be graduating debt free. If you want to go to a private school, then pay their tuition, otherwise, it should all be free to the student.

3. Increase scientific research in space exploration, climate change, medicine, and technology. The U.S. needs to be the leader in scientific research. This is where our future lies. We need to not only attract students from Asia and Europe, we need to make sure they stay here when they graduate by investing in the creation of technology jobs.

4. Develop a single-payer health care system so that all basic health care needs are met free of charge to the patient. It's important that we as a nation maintain the health of all citizens. It should be a basic human right.

5. Get rid of poverty. It's just bringing us down. But how to do it? Make sure the minimum wage is at least $12 per hour. Make sure everybody who is not able to work is paid by a federal program, such as Medicaid. And make sure those who can't find work get a government job making the minimum wage instead of paying them any form of welfare.

Who's going to pay for all that, you might ask? It doesn't matter. It's irrelevant. Paying for it is a detail. If a terrorist group or enemy nation attacked us, we would go start a war without hesitation. I can say that because we always have done so. George Bush did it twice, and once was without provocation. There would be few people against going to war with an enemy who attacked us, from either party. So let's just pretend we started a war and use the money we would have spent on that to build up our infrastructure and to fund education and scientific research.

Don't worry. The investment in science and education will pay us back over and over again. And the best place to start looking for the funding is by taxing the ultra-rich. Then borrow whatever else is needed. The borrowed funds can be paid back eventually through the return on our investment in higher education and scientific research.

There is only one fly in the ointment. Just one problem with this solution to fixing America - the GOP.

The solution to the GOP problem can be solved at the voting booth.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

God Exists and He's an Ass

I have evidence that God exists, and that he is a cruel trickster. This article was the clincher. If you don't eat anything for 2 to 4 days straight it helps your body rejuvenate itself. Apparently, fasting for a long time kills off some of your white blood cells which are replaced by better ones when you start eating again.

That goes right along with what we've always been told is the best way to stay healthy. "Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and get lots of exercise." Why is it that humans can't stay healthy eating food that actually has flavor, like a good old bacon cheeseburger? Everybody knows that food dripping in fat and slathered in sugar tastes way better, but it's all bad for you. If celery is so good for us why don't we crave it? And why is it that exercise is best? Why isn't it better to just sit around and read or watch TV? Why is fasting a good way to rejuvenate the body instead of a nice buffet gorge every once in awhile?

Yep, it can't all be accidental. God must exist; and he's an asshole.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Red Lights: The Unproclaimed Menace to the Driving Public

I drive for Uber in Indianapolis and over the several months that I've been doing so I've grown even more adamant about the fact that, collectively, hundreds of hours of time are wasted daily by drivers sitting around waiting at red lights when there is no cross traffic. Red lights are a necessary menace of the roadway, but what can be done about it?

For one thing, it is not really necessary in today's technological world. Sure, we need traffic signals, but we don't need the ones we have that operate the way they currently do. Even when there are sensors in the road, traffic signals waste precious seconds of a driver's time every time it must flash yellow before it turns red to cross traffic. Yes, it might be only five seconds, but multiply that by the same amount of time every time it happens in a week. Wouldn't you rather be doing something else?

And the sensors do not always work. Even signals on one-way streets that are supposed to be timed so as to allow traffic to flow uninterrupted do not always work. I've driven on some one-way streets where the lights actually seemed to be timed backward. I was sitting at a red light last night, waiting probably 20 seconds for absolutely no cross traffic to pass by. Then, just about the time the yellow came on, about half a dozen cars approached the intersection from my left. The light turned red for them and allowed me to proceed. I was the only one waiting for the light to change. So those six drivers had to stop and wait probably 20 seconds for me to pass through the intersection, then another five seconds for the yellow light, before they could proceed.

It may sound like a minor gripe, but is it really? Am I the only one frustrated by having to wait at red lights for little or no traffic? Am I the only one who is tired of mis-timed red lights on one-way streets?

The solution is technology. Improved traffic detection systems could be installed at all intersections, virtually eliminating the need for yellow lights during low traffic conditions. If high-tech traffic sensors were in place, lights could quickly turn green for an approaching car instantly as long as there was no cross traffic. Red lights would last only as long as needed in any direction. Light changes would be based only on current traffic at the intersection, with no timed changes at all. And it could save on energy, because during times when there is no approaching traffic from any direction, the light could actually turn itself off. An approaching vehicle would cause it to turn green for that vehicle only. If any cross traffic approached, the red light would come on before that traffic got close to the intersection.

During heavy traffic there would still need to be yellow lights of course. But the signals could more easily determine in which direction traffic flow is heaviest and allow the green to last longer for them. Traffic flow conditions could be updated every second with adjustments made immediately by the light.

Is this asking too much of technology? I don't think so. Computers are proficient at handling much less complex situations than traffic signals. It would just take some set of researchers who are motivated to start researching how to get it done. And apparently it would take a greater chunk of the driving public than just me to complain enough for traffic officials to start considering it.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

God May be a Vestigial Organ

There is a principal in science that also seems to work well for life in general. It's called Occam's Razor and, in its simplest iteration, says that the best way to describe how something works is to use only what's needed, nothing more. That means if something is not needed to solve a problem, then don't invent it. Don't go looking for cures for which there are no diseases. It's an anti-Rube Goldberg principle. It's not a law of physics, such as gravity or inertia, but it can't be ignored as it generally turns out to be true.

But I can almost hear some people asking, "But what about vestigial organs?" It is true; many animals have vestigial organs - parts of their body that have no use or that play only a minor role in anatomy. Some snakes have hip bones; so do whales. Humans have muscles to move the ear, but most humans can't do that. We also have a coccyx and wisdom teeth. So what's up with that?

The thing about vestigial structures in animals is that, although they may not have any use now, they once did. Our apelike ancestors, for example, had an elongated mouth and those wisdom teeth fit in there quite nicely. Without them, there would be too much gum space. The hip bones in snakes and whales obviously means that the ancestors of those animals had legs. So vestigial structures weren't invented by nature just to jam us up. They once had important uses, but are now in the process of being evolved out of the anatomy.

But Occam's Razor works just as well on a cosmological level. Astrophysicists and cosmologists have been working on the big picture for a long time. And they have come up with a number of plausible scenarios that would get us to where we are right now using only the laws of nature and physics. The debate now is over which of these scenarios best fits our observations of reality and which one is the most mathematically consistent. But what all the theories of our existence have in common is that none of them posits that God created the cosmos in six days, or even billions of years. There is simply no need to bring in God to accomplish what nature can do on its own just by doing what it naturally will do.

So, to bring God into the equation is unnecessary. It doesn't prove their is no god, but if there is a god, it violates the principle of Occam's Razor. There is simply no need for that hypothesis. So if in fact God does exist, I guess that makes him a vestigial structure in the cosmos. Except that, unlike our vestigial organs, he was never needed.

Sometimes we have to have a vestigial organ removed. Our wisdom teeth are usually the first to go. But if, say, an appendix gets infected, it needs to be cut out as well. When God becomes more trouble than he's worth, it's time to resect him as well. God has become the wisdom tooth of the universe. He causes people to act nutty and believe foolish things. In and of itself that doesn't affect the whole of society, but when the God believers become too nutty, they often affect policy in a negative way, such as when it takes away the rights of others or prevents certain rights from becoming established. In 2014, in America, it is finally time to remove that last vestige of our society - God. He is no longer needed to explain anything at all.

Monday, March 03, 2014

What Puts the I in Me?

I've been pondering consciousness again. So, consider this: One of the most intriguing sci-fi tools used on Star Trek is the transporter. It uses the equivalence of matter and energy to send people and objects between the ship and the planet below. It converts the matter of a person's body into pure energy and then beams that energy to the the planet. It then reconstitutes the matter from the energy stream using the information contained in the signal.

But on one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a transporter malfunction produces two Commander Rikers because an energy surge in the unit on the planet caused the energy stream to produce a Riker on the ship, where he was actually going, and a copy on the planet. But neither Riker knew about the other until years later when they encountered each other on the same planet, where the duplicate Riker had been stranded.

But here's my question: Which one was the "real" Riker? If both Rikers were created from the same signal, that means they were not only identical genetically and physically, but also with regards to brain chemistry. Every neuron was equivalent in every way. They had the same thoughts and the same memories. Yet, when they met each other, they just treated each other as though they were twins. They had separate personalities, owing mainly to the fact they they had lived in separate environments for a few years.

So let's suppose a normal transport. Is the reconstituted person on the planet really the same person as the one climbing aboard the transporter pad on the ship, or is he an identical twin, like Riker? And if he's not really the same person, which of course he wouldn't be because matter is not being transported, only the energy that the matter produces, then does that mean every single transport destroys one human and produces another identical one? Isn't the destroyed one now actually dead?

Of course in practical terms, it makes no difference to the people who are not being transported. They just see what looks and acts like the same guy. He has the same memories and is on the same mission. But, in reality, the pre-transport human being is no longer around.

I'm using the Star Trek transporter as an analogy to what may eventually be likely to take place. In the future (and maybe the not-so-distant one) there will be a means of transferring the mind of any human into an android or a computer brain. The transferred mind will have the same sense of humor, the same personality, and all the recollections of the original human. It will be conscious. But will it possess the SAME consciousness as the human donor? Just because it might become possible to transfer a mind into an android or even an artificial organic brain doesn't mean it was actually a transfer. It might be just a copy. If so, the original mind is still going to be gone. It won't matter so much to the loved ones because for all practical purposes, the donor's mind is still intact. It also won't matter to the deceased mind because, well, he will be dead. But you can't really call it immortality because the original mind has been lost. If I were an identical twin at death's door, it wouldn't bring me any peace knowing that my twin could carry on in my place, even if he had had all the same experiences and memories as me. It still wouldn't BE me.

This leads to much deeper questions about what it is that actually makes up the "I" in me. What is my consciousness anyway? Is it a soul that is somehow cosmically connected to the universe? Or is it just organic neurons in my brain arranged in a manner that is unique to me? It's a question that has puzzled scientists, philosophers, and theologians for centuries.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Misinterpreting the Bible?

I was raised, nominally, as a Christian. I never really doubted the existence of God or Jesus as the Son of God. I was puzzled by those who did doubt it or claim otherwise. Even as an adult it didn't occur to me that the nonbelievers might have a point. But between Christian fundamentalism and a growing skepticism over certain logical problems that kept cropping up even in mainline Christianity, I gradually started losing my faith until, eventually, I started calling myself an atheist.

That was a tough decision for me to make. I always preferred being called agnostic. But when it was pointed out to me the actual meanings of those terms, I had to acknowledge that, indeed, I had become atheist, meaning "without a belief in a god." But that doesn't mean that my claim is that there is no god at all. I can't make that claim, because I don't know whether a god exists or not. I only know the specific God of the bible (or any other holy book) does not exist. Therefore, I am agnostic. So the best description for people like me would have to be an agnostic atheist. But that term confuses a lot of people.

My daughter decided that she was also uncomfortable with the label, atheist. So she has decided to be a progressive Christian. Now, the way I understand it, a progressive Christian is a person who tries to emulate the way Jesus lived his life. They do not believe in the bible as literal history. They believe the bible contains metaphorical meaning. They do not believe in the magic and miracles claimed in the bible. They do not believe that the world is only 6,000 years old. They believe in science. And they believe that Jesus, as philosopher, had some really good ideas on social justice. And I guess, by that definition, I'm also a progressive Christian. But since Jesus did not have to be divine to be good and to lead a just and decent life, nor to be a preacher, does that mean it's also possible to be a progressive Christian while also being an agnostic atheist, or any kind of atheist for that matter?

On a more esoteric note, since most progressive Christians believe that the bible stories are all largely allegorical and that metaphor is it's means of communication, how does that comport with the original intent of the writers, especially of the Old Testament? I'm no historian, so I don't know what the general level of literary progress was 2,800 years ago. But were the authors of the Old Testament going for allegory? Did they not realize that some people might take their stories as literal? I mean, if some people take it literally today, in the 21st century, how many of the backwater, semi-literate goat herders would take it literally in that day and age? And if progressive Christians in the 21st century can look at these ancient writings as having spiritual meaning delivered in metaphor, we must also believe that these early writers were sophisticated enough to tell their stories in a way that still has meaning 2,800 years later. Could it be that progressive Christians are reading more into these stories than were originally intended? And if so, aren't progressive Christians guilty of the same thing that evangelicals are guilty of, namely misinterpreting the bible?

Friday, January 24, 2014

What's the Point of Passing an Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment?

A bill is currently wending its way through the Indiana General Assembly that, if finally passed, would allow voters to decide if the Indiana Constitution should be amended to prevent gay couples from marrying each other. So what would be the actual, practical results if this bill passes and the voters decide to constitutionally ban gay marriage in the state, compared to what would happen if they didn't?

If it passes and the voters approve it, gay couples will not be able to legally marry in Indiana. Marriage would be defined as existing only between one man and one woman. Gay couples who are prevented from marrying will have their rights trampled upon simply because a majority of people in Indiana decided they were not worthy enough as human beings to have that privilege.

But what if the General Assembly doesn't pass the bill or the voters turn it down? Then what? Well, due to existing state law, gay couples will not be able to legally marry in Indiana. Marriage is already defined as existing only between one man and one woman. Gay couples who are prevented from marrying already have their rights trampled upon simply because the law is already on the books. So, in other words, little difference would be noticed.

But what about the enhanced protection that having the law inscribed in the constitution would provide? Well, if (actually when) the U.S. Supreme Court determines that such state measures violate the U.S. Constitution, it won't matter whether it's in the state constitution or just a law. If these laws are violations, they will be found null and void. Period.

So my question is what's the point in taking up legislative time to pass this bill since it will make zero difference in practicality and will eventually be struck down anyway? I want some conservative out there who supports the amendment to explain this to me?

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The GOP's War on Poverty

Here is how the GOP sees a "War on Poverty" working:

Poverty is caused by people not making enough money. People make money by working at jobs. So to alleviate poverty, we give more people more jobs.

But who are the job creators? They are the small and large businesses. So in order to create more jobs, the government's job is to bolster the industries that created them. They can do that by offering incentives and tax breaks to corporations and to provide the rich, who are the owners of the businesses that create jobs, with as many tax loopholes as possible so that they can funnel that money back into their businesses.

In addition, since we know that some people are lazy, in order to provide incentive for everyone to work, the government should limit the social safety net to temporary and minimal distribution of entitlements. This will force those who would tend to live off the government to go looking for meaningful work, which there should be plenty of if we bolster the rich.

But this is what actually happens:

The tax breaks and incentives given to the rich are not invested into hiring new workers. Rather, it is used to increase redundancy. That is, since the wealthy do not need any more money to live, they use the extra money to buy more of what they already have - newer and bigger houses, yachts, and nice vehicles. They also use it to fund the campaigns of the politicians that work to provide them their extra wealth. What money they do put back into their businesses goes to creating menial, low-end jobs or to fund the development of a more efficient means of production which tends to eliminate jobs. The latest mega-recession caused the job creators to seek ways of producing the same products with less labor. That taught them that they no longer need a huge labor force to produce the same output. So investment capital is often used to increase efficiency so that fewer people will be required for the same output. The result is that fewer people have jobs.

Increasing efficiency is fine, but at some point it doesn't make much sense to produce a lot of product at low cost if there is nobody out there to buy it. Poor people can only buy things that keep them alive another day; they don't worry about gadgets, gizmos, or fancy vacation packages. At some point, employers will have to use their new-found efficiency to produce real, high-paying jobs.

As for the lazy welfare bums the GOP wants to eliminate by starving them back to work, that's a fallacy. Just because someone is out of work does not mean they are lazy or that they would rather not work. To be sure, those people do exist, but they are the exception, not the rule. When the government props up the unemployed, when it pays people entitlements to keep them out of poverty, it creates consumers where before existed only destitute masses. This, in turn, props up the businesses selling the products and services and they will then have the resources to create even more jobs.

History has shown time and again the supply side economics, what George H. W. Bush once called "voodoo economics" is a fallacy. It does not work.