Friday, February 16, 2018

Mad as Hell? No...

In the 1976 film "Network," the character Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) tells us to go to our windows, fling them open and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

With the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine's Day, I'm beyond mad as hell. There aren't even words for how angry I am.

Enough is enough.

If I had my way, guns would be gone. All guns. Everything from BB guns to ICBMs would disappear. Then the problem goes away.

But I don't have the capability to do that. Nobody does. That genie is out of the bottle.

We have a problem and that problem is the ease with which anyone can get a high capacity firearm in this country.

Before you post a comment about how this isn't about guns, look at the rest of the world. Australia had a mass shooting in 1996 (it's called the Port Arthur massacre). As a response, the Australian government enacted some of the strictest gun control legislation ever. More than 640,000 weapons were turned over to the authorities. There hasn't been a mass killing in Australia since 1996 and other gun related crimes dropped drastically.

The United States is the only major industrialized country that has this problem. People in other countries have mental health issues, too, but only in the US do those problems manifest themselves in this way because we have easy access to weapons that can allow us to act on our worst impulses.

"But what about the second amendment?" I hear you cry.

The second amendment to the Constitution was written in 1787 when the highest capacity weapon fired two shots per minute if you were well trained and in a hurry.

It also contains a section about "well-regulated" militia which is further spelled out in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. If you read that part, you'll realize that the second amendment was never about private gun ownership.

And the Constitution has been amended to repeal earlier amendments. We have the ability. What we lack is the will.

"But if someone wants to kill, they'll find another way to do it." Ah, there's that hoary old chestnut again.

It's possible. In fact, the greatest mass murder at a school was carried out by someone using explosives and a homemade timing device.

In 1927.1

Since then, explosives have been more highly regulated. And we don't see this kind of mass killing occur every other day.

The Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh resulted in regulations involving the purchase of fertilizer.

The simple fact is, in order to kill someone by another means usually involves a more personal and up-close commitment on the part of the killer. Stabbing, beating and even bombing means you have to get close to your intended victims.

The Las Vegas massacre killer was able to murder 58 people from a distance of 1200 feet in less than 10 minutes.

Yes, I'd like to see this sort of thing made impossible. If giving up guns means that another high school girl gets to plan for her graduation rather than her parents planning for her funeral, I say give them up. If giving up guns means that another 6 year old gets to fret over his lost tooth rather than his parents lamenting over his lost life, I say give them up.

Children screaming at a school should be with delight because they're having fun on the playground. It should never be in fear because someone with a grudge has had easy access to the weapon that will kill them.

It's time to give up the guns. You've played with them long enough.2

1The Bath School disaster carried out by Andrew Kehoe.
2When you mourn the loss of your guns, I'll send you my thoughts and prayers.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Objective Morality vs. My Personal Ethics

On Twitter, someone was going on about objective morals.

Sorry, my friend, but there are no such animals.

Morals are determined by the society in which they are formed. And what may be acceptable to one society may be abhorrent to another.

Consider the Yanomami people of the South American rainforests. They practice female infanticide. It's a form of population control. They know that females are the key to a society's population. Simply put, if you have 10 fertile females and 1 fertile male, you can wind up with 10 pregnant females. On the other hand, if you have 1 fertile female and 10 fertile males, you can have no more than 1 pregnant female (this is the same reason that neutering a male cat is far less effective than spaying a female cat).

It's vitally important that they keep their population in check because they have limited resources. Too many mouths to feed threatens the entire tribe.

A larger number of males also means a larger number of warriors because these folks wage war against neighboring tribes the way Americans have barbecues... just something to do on the weekend.

A Yanomami man will let his wife know how much he loves her by smacking her on the head with a small club. The knots on her head are an indication of love and worn as a matter of pride.

To our western sensibilities, these are horrible practices but among the Yanomami, they are a part of their society. They'd see the unchecked reproduction of our society and its effects on the environment as immoral. And a woman with a smooth skull must be unloved.

There is no objective morality.

So that brings me to the subject of ethics.

Ethics are my personal gauge of what is right and wrong. Some of it was imposed from without (societal indoctrination, parental influence, peer pressure, etc.). But at some point, I had to sit and seriously consider what I thought of as right and wrong.

I can't list them all in this space. I'm not sure I can put all of them into words. But here are a few of my ethical guidelines:
  1. Don't hurt anyone unless absolutely necessary and unavoidable.
  2. Don't cheat anyone in business or other dealings.
  3. Speak your mind honestly. 
  4. Consider the feelings and needs of others. Go back to rule 1.
  5. If it doesn't hurt yourself or others, don't worry about it.
  6. Help whenever you can. 
  7. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  8. The person who raises his voice or his fists has run out of ideas.
  9. Don't be a doormat. Take a stand when necessary and be prepared to show the strength of your convictions.
  10. When making a statement, be prepared to back it up with evidence.
Pretty simple. And I don't need the promise of reward or the threat of punishment to abide by these rules I've established for myself. I do them because I know they reflect how I want others to treat me.

It's called empathy and it doesn't spring from a book, a preacher or a god. It's just what good humans feel towards one another.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Let's Talk About It

I have been debating religious folks for more than 35 years now. In 1981, as a newly minted atheist, I stood on the statehouse steps in Boise as Jerry Falwell held a "Moral Majority" rally.

At one point, he was about three feet from me and shouted, "I'd rather dig a ditch then take a handout!"1

I glared at him and shouted back, "You do nothing but take handouts. How many hard working people send you money for nothing in return?"

His people stepped between us and made it clear.

Kid, you'd better back off.

Since that time, I've had debates in person and online. Some of them were a bit more structured while some of them were just free-for-all.

People ask me why I bother debating religion at all.

I have a few basic reasons.

There is an outside chance that I may expose my colleague2 to an idea or evidence that he or she has never encountered or considered before. I know the possibility is remote but you never know.

There is an outside change that I may be exposed to an idea or evidence that I've never encountered or considered before. If it's compelling, I might change my mind. Again, it's a remote possibility but it has been known to happen (although not anything that has changed my mind or gods or religion).

Sometimes, these debates have onlookers. If any of them are on the fence, I'm obligated to present my best arguments with reason, logic and evidence. There's a less remote possibility that I might convince them that my position is the more tenable and I might get them on my side of the fence.

But probably most important is to let my colleague know that his/her ideas won't go unchallenged. This is especially important in a world where religion and nationalism go hand in glove. Many would use religious justifications to rob people of basic liberties and, in some places, their lives. Even in our own country, we have people like Alex Jones calling for civil war because he and his kind aren't being allowed to turn the US into a theocracy overseen by middle-aged white men who have twisted their god and messiah into some bizarre wrathful monsters.

I have to be the person who stands up to these people and says, "No, that's not right!"

It's my obligation to my country.

It's my obligation to my world.

It's my obligation to myself.

No, sir. I won't back off.

1Even then, being in poverty and needing assistance was seen as some kind of character flaw.
2I don't see them as opponents. The moment I do, it's not a debate; it's a combat.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Searching for Meaning in the Shadow of the Moon

In our solar system, there are 8 planets.

Of these 8 planets, four of them are gas giants with no solid surfaces so no place to stand to make observations.

Of the four remaining planets, two of them have moons.

Of those two, only one has a moon of appreciable size.

You live on that planet.

In the early days of our planet, the moon was three times closer than it is today. So it looked three times larger. But the moon always appeared larger than the sun.

The moon is moving away from the Earth at a rate of about an inch per year. There will come a time when the moon will always look smaller than the sun.

It has now receded to a distance so it subtends an angle of about half a degree in the sky. The sun also subtends an angle of about half a degree.

You live in a rare time when the sun and the moon are almost the exact same angular size in the sky.

The moon isn't always the same distance from the Earth. Sometimes it looks slightly larger and other times it looks slightly smaller. Only when its at its closest, perigee, does it appear the same angular diameter as the sun, every 27.55454988 days

The path of its orbit isn't parallel with the path of the Earth's orbit around the sun so these two paths cross about twice per month or twice every 27.212221 days.

It aligns on the same side of the Earth as the sun on the day of the "New Moon," every 29.530588853 days.

About twice per year, all of these numbers line up so the moon casts a shadow on the Earth.

This is a solar eclipse.

Much of the time, the inner part of the shadow, the umbra, is cast into space and only the outer part of the shadow, the penumbra, falls on Earth. This is a partial solar eclipse. These are fairly common.

At other times, the umbra is cast on the Earth but, because we live on a planet that's covered more than 70% by oceans, it often falls on the ocean or in a remote, hard to reach place.

This year, the shadow of the moon will cross the entire continental United States.

The last time this happened was in 1918 and it won't happen again until 2045.

It's not a common event for any given location. Most "eclipse chasers" have to travel around the world to see a total eclipse of the sun.

For a good share of people living in the continental United States, it won't be such a journey.

Yes, there is a lot of hype going on about the so-called "Great American Eclipse."

We live in a world where there is so much nonsense that's celebrated that it's often difficult to get excited about events like this. People are talking about watching it on the Internet or ignoring it all together.

However, this isn't just a matter of the rarity of the event. It's also a celebration of humanity's ability to make predictions about this kind of thing. Astronomy is, arguably, the best predictive science known to man.

This eclipse is a celebration of that science.

In antiquity, people were able to predict eclipses with a fair degree of accuracy, often getting the date within a day or two or the path of the eclipse to within a few hundred miles.

Today, we can predict where the path will be within a matter of meters and predict the beginning, middle and end of totality for a given location within fractions of a second.

That's amazing.

That's worth celebrating.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Our Dysfunctional Family

Recently, I had a family member tell me that the US is supposed to be run like a business which is why we should let our businessman president run it.

Putting the president aside, there are a huge problems with this idea.

The US is not a business and shouldn't be run like one. This was a load of crap when the idea came into vogue nearly 40 years ago and it's still a load of crap.

Our country is more like a family. Granted, it's a noisy, argumentative, dysfunctional family but it's a family and needs to be run like one.

Like a family, we have many common origins. Some of us came into the family by birth, others joined in later and others were dragged in. But we're all together now and that's what's important.

Like a family, we have common ideals. Safety, security and hope for the future aren't just desires of a few.

Like a family, we need to adhere to a budget. We're not always going to agree on how we should spend the money. But it needs to be handled wisely and with the greatest good in mind.

Like a family, someone needs to step up to be the adult. His or her decisions won't always be popular. They won't always be right. But they need to be made for the common good of all family members, not just a few.

Like a family, we need to help one another especially when the chips are down. We help each other not because we're going to reap some benefit but because it's what families do.

Like a family, we need to come to the table and take stock of how lucky we are that we're all together and that nobody can tear us apart. We are, despite our differences, united and resolute.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Reading List

This weekend, I was a guest speaker at ReasonCon 3 in Hickory, NC. I had a great time and met some wonderful people.

I'd like to start by thanking the convention committee for inviting me to be a speaker. They gave this rookie the opportunity to play in the big leagues with some heavy hitters such as Aron Ra, Shelley Segal, Matt Dillahunty and Dr. Lawrence Krauss.

I'd also like to thank all the other speakers for being so friendly and gracious.

Most of all, I'd like to thank all the participants for making me feel like I deserved to be one of the speakers. Your reactions and your comments have made me feel really special.

Towards the end of the conference, I was asked if I'd put together a reading list on some of the topics I'd covered in my talk. I'm going to try to put them in categories and include others that have been very helpful. Wherever possible, if it's available on line, I'll try to post a link. I'm also going to include some websites. You might want to check back from time to time because I may occasionally update this list.

But there's one book that belongs in a category all its own. That's Mark Twain's "Letters from the Earth." Back when I realized I was an atheist in 1981, it was one of the two books on this list that was available. It was one of the most influential books I've ever read and helped me put my life and beliefs in perspective.

Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric

Evolutionary Theory

  • "On the Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin
  • "The Greatest Show on Earth" by Richard Dawkins
  • "Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction" by Eugenie C. Scott
  • "Your Inner Fish" by Neil Shubin
  • "Why Darwin Matters" by Michael Shermer
  • "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters" by Donald R. Prothero

Atheism and Religion

  • "Letters from the Earth" by Mark Twain
  • "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins
  • "god is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens
  • "Fighting God" by David Silverman

1Chapter 12, "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection" is what I call "the owner's manual for the human brain."

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Debate at 140 Characters

An interesting little fellow, Armando Santiago (Twitter identity @ArmingStJames), has decided to try to school me on the intricacies of the legal system and what constitutes evidence. He states that unless you actually witness someone being abused, they weren't really abused.1

This is, of course, utter crap.

He then asked if someone called me a pedophile, should he believe them?

That is, of course, utter crap. It's a loaded question. It would be like my asking if he still beat his wife.2

But if I'm accused of pedophilia, you shouldn't just dismiss the accuser even if you hate him/her or like me. It shouldn't matter if you have something to gain by either defending or prosecuting me. You should look at the evidence supporting the claim.

The same goes for any accusation.

For example, if a street vendor said that I'd stolen one of his pretzels then a tape was released in which I could be heard bragging that I could take a pretzel from any street vendor simply because I wanted one, that might lend a bit more credence to his claim. And, if you were the sort to investigate this kind of thing, you might want to dig a bit deeper.

You could look at my record (assuming I had one) regarding prior pretzel theft. You might see if someone caught me on camera. You might see if I have large crystals of kosher salt on my clothing. There would be evidence.

If other vendors came forth and said that they'd seen me stealing pretzels from their carts, these larger numbers of claimants would add credence to the first vendor's claim.

That wouldn't actually prove his claim but it would give any investigators adequate cause to to look further into the accusation.

Whenever someone makes a claim, it's only as valid as the evidence that supports it. Once the evidence is gathered, the witnesses questioned and all of it weighed carefully, then we can make a determination.

What Mr. Santiago is trying to do is say that Donald Trump's accusers weren't actually assaulted because nobody else saw it happen.

This is grasping at straws to justify support of Trump. He is outright dismissing the accusations brought forth by the claimants because they haven't produced any witnesses... yet.

Maybe Trump is completely innocent of the accusations being leveled against him. His own words are pretty damning. And large numbers of women are speaking out.3

There is enough here to warrant further and more thorough investigation, to be sure.

But just outright dismissal of the claimants' accusations is to bury one's head in the sand.

And we know where that leaves your butt.

1 Here's the link to his original tweet.
2 I don't know if he's married. I don't care. Frankly, the less I know about him, the better for the both of us.
3 And considering the onslaught of abuse they're receiving from Trump's supporters, it's no wonder they didn't speak out earlier.