Adult Onset Atheist

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sunlight on the Granite Orb

Last Saturday I shared an elevator with a fellow wearing a red-white-and-blue tie with all the stars and stripes needed to make it the sort of fashion statement out of place on any day other than the 4th of July. He also wore a flag pin on the lapel of his synthetic-fiber navy blue suit. There were also stars and stripes on the large convention badge hanging from his neck; the badge identified him as an attendee of the annual “Utah Eagle Forum” convention.

“We believe the founders of our nation had no intention of separating religion and state institutions.” -- Direct quote from the guiding principles of the Utah Eagle Forum (2017).

I was wearing a silk tweed sport coat over a dark grey T-shirt and tan slacks. I was on my way to watch Wagner performed by the Utah Symphony, and I was not wearing a lapel pin. I had cut one of my fingers rather dramatically, and while rushing to put my tan suede shoes on in the Radisson parking garage the laceration began bleeding afresh.  In the elevator I was staunching the flow of blood with a gas station receipt I had hastily retrieved from under the driver's seat of my Corolla and now had tightly wrapped around my finger. I hid my blood-soaked hand from view as I made smalltalk with the stranger. 

The Eagle forum is a national conservative group whose figurehead and founder (in 1972) was the anti-UN, anti-Feminist, anti-LGBTQ, pro-Trump, catholic, now late (She died of cancer on Labor Day in 2016), Phyllis Schlafley. The Utah branch of the Eagle forum has a woman named Gayle Ruzicka (born 1943) as its figurehead. Gayle aligns with most of Phyllis’s views, but notably did not support Donald Trump till after the GOP national convention last July.

Both Phyllis and Gayle disapprove of the HPV vaccine marketed under the name Gardasil. The reasoning, and it makes my head feel like it is sticky with mental pus for just trying to understand this, is that the threat of cervical cancer for all sexually active women should not be diminished if it helps prevent a few women from having sexual fun. I do not know if the cancer that took Phyllis's life was cervical cancer.  

“The only thing we know that will guard against sexually transmitted disease is abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage. We cannot keep vaccinating our children against bad behavior. We need to teach them and trust them.” – Gayle Ruzicka to the Ogden Standard Examiner in opposition to HB 358

“It's very healthy for a young girl to be deterred from promiscuity by fear of contracting a painful, incurable disease, or cervical cancer, or sterility, or the likelihood of giving birth to a dead, blind or brain-damaged baby (even ten years later when she may be happily married).” -- Phyllis Schlafly

I asked the Utah Eagle Forum fellow how he felt about the inauguration happening in less than a week, and he thought for a second before saying: “He was not my first choice”. If I had not been distracted by my leaking wound I would have asked questions about the Russian leaks that are splashed all over the news this past week.

The evening of symphony I was heading to was headlined by an arrangement of music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. The mythology Wagner built his opera on was a tale of the tortured love of a Celtic princess renowned for her magical healing powers and a great warrior who served a lustful king and killed dragons. The mythology developed many twists and themes throughout the nine hundred years it has been told, but with Wagner it developed a soundtrack, and in particular a single chord: the Tristan chord.

The Tristan chord served as punctuation for the layers of free-floating melodies that begin and then fail to progress, or develop, and would probably fail to end if not for the Tristan chord. When Wagner tried to bring the Opera to stage in 1860 it was called unperformable, and, despite 77 rehearsals, he had to shelve it for five years before the time was finally right to have it debut. In my unrefined taste the result is simply beautiful, but more learned musicologists have laminated it with superlatives. Love, and sex, and romance, and strange melodies punctuated by a single jarring chord; this is the opera from which the night’s music was being teased.

“It sounds vulgar, but it really is a coitus interruptus” – Stephen Fry on the Tristan Chord

Tristan first visited Isolde to have a wound healed, and the love between the two protagonists of unequal station (a magical princess and poetic knight) grinds through tragic circumstances until the two lovers die of broken hearts in a cottage overlooking the sea; having just barely missed a final opportunity to be reunited.

I personally was hoping to get my bleeding finger to stop bleeding with a bit of pressure, and then meet someone special for coffee later. Plenty of romance without any need, or place for, a deathbed aria.

The Utah Eagle Forum is really interested in sex and magic. They talk about it a lot. Homosexual sex, LDS church teachings, premarital sex, religious morality, and, I suppose, all sorts of other types of sex that I have not really thought about much myself, and I am not all that inhibited in thinking about sex. I also think about religion and magic, as evidenced by this very blog, but the Utah eagle Forum and I have reached very different conclusions as a result of our common interests.

The Utah Eagle Forum is much more influential than their small size would justify. Pictures from the 2017 convention, and from previous conventions for that matter, show rooms with maybe a hundred people in them apparently slouching into what could be the second, or third, hour of PowerPoint presentations. The speakers are impressive, and the Utah Eagle Forum can apparently bring Mike Lee (senator UT), Jason Chaffetz (congressman UT 3rd district), Rob Bishop (congressman UT 1st district), Mia Love (Congresswoman UT 4th district) and many others in to speak at the Radisson on a perfectly good Saturday. I have seen several gatherings of over a thousand Utah voters which were lucky to get a local mayor to address them. The Utah Eagle Forum is full of people more important than regular folks.

The man with the flag tie and lapel pin was cordially greeted by another man with a similar flag tie and identical lapel pin when the elevator reached the lobby floor. My steps had a bounce as I left them to their blanched banquet and keynote speaker. Maybe I should have at least tried to insinuate myself into their meetings to find out what surprises they had in store for the upcoming legislative session, but I did not. In my defense they have already blocked me on FaceBook, and I am convinced they have some sort of security plan in place to prevent normal people from finding out what their secret plans are.

After trading my bloodied receipt for a paper towel and finding my seat for the symphony I was treated to a surprise I had unwittingly crafted for myself by not reading the entire program for the night’s performance. I was mixing what little I remembered of the Tristan and Isolde myth with what little I could stomach remembering of the Utah Eagle Forum’s activities when the lights dimmed and the first few notes danced off the stage. I recognized those notes as part of a familiar score I could not identify, but should.  It was not Wagner.

And the notes were chased by other notes until I was surrounded by a very familiar piece that I just knew. It was not till I pulled out my reading glasses at intermission that I allowed the program to remind me of its name: “Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595”. Not nearly as catch a name as “Tristan and Isolde!”.

The story of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 is almost as melodramatic as the myth of Tristan and Isolde since it carries the weight of being a tale of actual events shrouded in mystery, and punctuated by death. Debuted on 4 March 1791 in Jahn’s Hall in Vienna; this performance was the last time Mozart would perform on stage before he died on 5 December of that same year. It would be the last concerto he would write with the intention of performing it himself. Some people suggest that he wrote it as many as three years earlier, and kept some strange knowledge of his impending death with the hidden piece until he could hide it no longer.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595 is a work of sublime genius, and deserves a better name, like “Sunlight on the Granite Orb” or something. It should never be played before a piece like an arrangement of melodies from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, which is merely beautiful and enchanting. As Mozart’s creation unfolded I was reminded that this was something humanity was capable of. I contrasted the Utah Eagle Forum’s concept of humanity with the love forged between real people which gives color to their humanity, and the comparison was a stark as that between an interminable PowerPoint presented by an uninspiring speaker and this pattern of notes that exalted some feelings I was searching for words to describe in order to better know.

I have this feeling that, over the next few years, I will need to remind myself of what humanity is capable of. “Sunlight on the Granite Orb ” is a wonderful place to start.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Transcript: Sessions and Whitehouse

On Tuesday (10 January 2017) Jefferson Beauregard "Jeff" Sessions III, President Elect DJT’s nominee for Attorney General and junior Republican senator from Alabama, was subjected to a love-fest of questions from his fellow senators. The process went on for hours, and most of it was mind numbingly dull. During the second round of questions presented by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island (Democrat) the following exchange that should be of interest to my readers was recorded. The following transcript is mostly from the direct transcription performed by the closed captioning algorithm, but I have fixed it to be more accurate in a couple places; it may still have a few inaccuracies inherited from the closed captioning that I did not catch. I also noted the timing of a couple telling smiles provided by Senator Sessions.

---- On being secular in America ---- 

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) :  Does a secular attorney have anything to fear from an attorney general Sessions in the Department of Justice?

Senator Jeff Sessions III (R-AL) :   Well, no. and I use that word in the 90,000-foot level of -- a little concern I have that we as a nation I believe are reaching a level in which truth is not sufficiently respected, that the very ideal, the idea of truth is not believed to be real, and that all of life is just a matter of your perspective and my perspective which I think is contrary to the American heritage -- let's just say kind of a criticism. We are not a theocracy. Nobody should be required to believe anything. I share Thomas Jefferson’s words on the memorial over here, “I swear eternal hostility over any domination of the mind of man.” And I think we should respect people's views and not demand any kind of religious test for holding office.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) :  And a secular person has just as good a claim to understanding the truth as a person who is religious. Correct?

Senator Jeff Sessions III (R-AL) : Well ... I’m not sure. {Smiles} in what method? Is it a less a objectively committed to a …

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) :  (interrupting) the methods that an attorney would bring to bear.

Senator Jeff Sessions III (R-AL) :  Well… let me just say this. We’re going to treat anybody with different views fairly and objectively, and the idea of truth and trying to achieve the right solution to me is an important goal of the American juris prudential system, actually the legislative system. What is right, what is true and let's act on it and do the right thing.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) :   On the subject of what is truth, you may –

Senator Jeff Sessions III (R-AL) :  (Smiling and interrupting) An age-old question.

---- On climate change ----

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) :   You may be in a position as attorney general to either enforce laws or bring actions that relate to the problem of carbon emissions and the changes that are taking place both physically and chemically in our atmosphere and oceans as a result of the flood of carbon emissions that we've had. it is the political position of the republican party in the senate, as i have seen it, that this is not a problem, that we don't need to do anything about it, that the facts aren't real, and that we should all do nothing whatsoever. that's the senate. you as attorney general of the united states may be asked to make decisions for our nation that require a factual predicate that you determine as the basis for making your decision. in making a decision about the facts of climate change, to whom will you turn? will you, for instance, trust the military? all of whose branches agree that climate change is a serious problem of real import for them? will you trust our national laboratories, all of whom say the same? will you trust our national science agencies -- by the way, nasa is driving a rover around on the surface of mars right now. so there are scientists i think who are pretty good. i don't think there is a single scientific society, i don't think there is a single accredited university, i don't think there is a single nation that denies this basic set of facts. and so if that situation is presented to you and you have to make a decision based on the facts, what can give us any assurance that you will make those facts based on real facts and real science?

Senator Jeff Sessions III (R-AL) :  that's a good and fair question, and honesty and integrity in that process is required, and if the facts justify a position on one side or the other on a case, I would try to utilize those facts in an honest and appropriate way. I’m not -- I don't deny that we have global warming. In fact, the theory always struck me as plausible, and it is the question of how much is happening and what the reaction would be to it. So that's what I would hope we could see occur.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) :   Indeed, I’ll bet you dollars against those lovely Krispy Kreme doughnuts that we have out back that if you went down to the university of Alabama and if you talked to the people who fish out of Mobile, they'd already see the changes in the ocean, they'd be able to measure the pH changes and knows that acidification is happening and there would be no dispute about that -- except in the politics of Washington, D.C.

Senator Jeff Sessions III (R-AL) :  I recognize the great interest and time you've committed to the issue and I value your opinion.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) :   I do come from an ocean state and we do measure the rise in the sea level and we measure the change of temperature of the bay, and we measure the change in pH, and it is serious to us.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

tweeblaarkanniedoods in paradise

A week ago, at just before 4 am Mountain time, the sun was directly over the Tropic of Capricorn somewhere offshore of the current Kuiseb River delta. The delta moves around with the shifting sands of the Namib through which it flows, when it is flowing, into the East Atlantic. The Kuiseb river is the usually accepted southern boundary to the range of the Welwitschiaceae; a cryptobotanic family of plants that contains but one species called tweeblaarkanniedood in Afrikaans. They are ugly (came in 4th, with 12% of the votes, in a 2009 Daily Telegraph poll to determine “The World’s Ugliest Plant”) shriveled poorly differentiated plants that some think may include individuals that are more than 2,000 years old.

Being able to sense the directly-over-headedness of the sun requires relatively simple tools. You can use a plumb-bob to make a fairly vertical pit, and then see how far down the circle of light from the sun illuminates the pit before hitting the side. You can use this to tell time, and the more modern sundial is sort of an inverted version of the vertical pit-style sun directly-over-headedness meter.

Using a vertical pole-style (which can also be constructed using a plumb-bob, but not as easily as a pit) and a vertical pit-style sun directly-over-headedness meter a Greek fellow in Egypt determined the diameter of the earth at about the same time some of the oldest tweeblaarkanniedoods were just germinating. The measurement was to about 0.4% over of the currently accepted value, which is mind-blowingly amazing. What is even more amazing is that those newly germinated tweeblaarkanniedoods would be over 1,500 years old before the idea that the Earth was spherical (roughly), and therefore even had a diameter, would really catch on.

The fact that the data that showed that the earth was round, and even showed what size it was, were available to anyone with access to a shovel and a bit of string (a plumb bob is just a piece of string with a weight –like a rock- at one end) did not mean that just anyone could accept the conclusion. There were many competing theories about the size and shape and placement of the earth, and they used the tactics of facilitated cognitive dissonance that work so well with the human brain to out-perform actual reality in the arena of believability.

The triumph of cognitive dissonance over reality has a long and twisted history in human culture. It also rarely turns out well, and, somewhat unfairly, it often turns out very bad for those who cling to reality in the face of very popular or very powerfully supported cognitive dissonance. Index Librorum Prohibitorum listed, until it was formally abolished on the 14th of June 1966, many ideas –like Galileo’s heliocentric solar system- whose authors were censured for believing in the apparently heretical portions of reality. Yes the list changed over the years, and Galileo was not in the last edition, but it was always a list of writings that communicated ideas that were deemed dangerous to the Catholic church for people to know.

The human context in which ideas are avoided is usually one filled to bursting with ideas of questionable worth; at least history would see the ideas put to the question. Few still believe in the veracity of “The Protocols of Zion” or subscribe to the concept of the “blood libel” conspiracy, yet they, and their counterparts, steered the course of history as much as, if not much more than, mundane truths proven by documented observation.

In a few short weeks the USA will inaugurate a new presidency. Donald John Trump ran a campaign that appeared to be more successful because of his support for stupid, verging on crazy, conspiracy theories; chief among them the bizarre “Birther” ideas and vague “Truther” notions. Even people who do not believe the nonsense conspiracies will state that the Donald would “tell it like it was” even though some of his more popular notions of how it was were inconsistent with a reasonable concept of reality based on simple observable information.

There are so many ideas which could run afoul of the rapidly approaching Trump administration. I am not even sure where to start. Stem cell research? Cancer research? Infections disease research or epidemiology? The banner denial issue does, however, appear to be climate change.

I have introduced indicators of climate change many times in this blog. Mostly I talk about sea ice as I think that is a clear and unbiased indicator statistic. It is mostly a lag indicator. It is true that decreasing sea ice in the arctic can increase the amount of heat adsorbed by the earth, and increase the rate of warming. However, the amount of sea ice statistic mostly tells us how warm the planet has become. It takes heat to melt ice so less ice usually means more heat. We do not expect the amount of sea ice to tell us much about how much the temperature of the global climate will rise in the future.

There are lead indicators. Because of the newness of many aspects of climate research it is impossible to pull up some archival data to determine how much the temperature of the earth will increase in response to increases in a particular set of lead indicators. Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide levels, for instance, are expected to cause an increase in global temperatures, so the concentration of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere is a lead indicator of global climate temperature increase; Carbon Dioxide goes up, and then temperatures increase.

Graph from

One potential lead indicator, that has a lot of scientists worrying a lot, is the increase of atmospheric Methane. Rising temperatures have begun to cause the release of what could be immense amounts of methane in the frozen, or more precisely previously frozen, north. In Siberia escaping Methane has blown giant plugs of permafrost out of the ground, and left strange craters that look a lot like what I imagine the result of some huge alien space laser blast to look like. The reason Methane release is such a scary lead indicator has less to do with alien invasion, and a lot to do with the fact that it is many times as effective a greenhouse gas as Carbon Dioxide, and we have no real control over the rate it is being released. Some estimates have the climate impact of the rate of increase of Methane concentration in the atmosphere equaling the impact of the current increase in Carbon Dioxide; if Methane release rates continue to increase it could become the major driver of future temperature increases.

Yamal hole in 30 kilometres from Bovanenkovo

This runaway increase in global climate temperature is what climate scientists call a “positive feedback loop”. It had previously appeared to me that Climate Change Deniers (CCD) were evolving along with the preponderance of the evidence. The primordial CCD simply denied that the climate was changing. Later versions simply refused to entertain the notion that human generated greenhouse gasses could have any effect on the planet. I expected a new species who begrudgingly acknowledged that humans were causing a problem, but insisted that the problem was manageable because there was no such thing as a positive feedback loop.

It appears as if the new administration will (attempt to at least) reset the clock and seed a new crop of primordial class CCD. Will we see brave scientists standing against this wave of cognitive dissonance, or will we see smart scientists, who have understood the uncomfortable positions in history, and just step aside as the new truth is unveiled for all to genuflect at and believe?