Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fractals Baby

"Everything happens for a reason
-- Justin Bieber

There are three concepts which many people push into the realm of the spiritual when they are used in reference to life, the universe, or everything. Some maintain that these three concepts; reasons, purposes, and meanings, have no definition without invoking god. I have even been told that these three concepts are “the personality traits of a loving god”. Many positive benefits of spirituality have been credited to mastering these three concepts.  Some atheists have suggested that these concepts are worthless since they apparently require the manipulations of an interested god. In keeping with the central purpose of this blog, to steal whatever is worthwhile from religion and spirituality, I think it is unwise to dismiss these three concepts capriciously.

Justin Bieber uttered the quote at the start of this entry to displace cultural responsibility for rape. As a cute little 16-year-old boy Bieber may have been either the perpetrator or the victim of many rapes, and therefore he could be displacing his own pain or guilt with this statement; though I suspect not. The statement is used to avoid the responsibility for engaging in the conversation about rape that should continue until there is nothing to talk about.

Who can know god’s reasons or meaning for causing suffering without knowing the purpose of existence? If you try to wrap your brain around that you will not have to hit it with a hammer to know how rubbery it is. There are many ways to avoid personal responsibility, and vapid reliance on an unknowable plan of an invisible overlord is one of the laziest. I will not be talking about rape in this entry. My only experience with rape is that I have dearly cared for several people who were the victims of this crime; I have never personally raped or been raped. I clearly and unhesitatingly state that I have little wisdom or experience to bring to the important conversation about rape, and so I will discuss other things at this time. Anyone who has ever been or known a 16-year-old realizes that t is almost impossible for one to admit a shallow lack of wisdom and experience in anything, so I can understand the Bieb’s need to blame a god. Perhaps as the Bieb grows up and his knowledge matures he will experience the Adult Onset of Atheism. Until then we should look to find the measure of his sage wisdom in other quotes from him like:

“Mine, mine baby, baby, baby, oh like baby, baby, baby, no like baby, baby, baby, oh” Justin Bieber from his song “Baby”

The real gem worth saving in these three concepts is seen shining in what religions do so well: psychological manipulation. This essence is captured well in the following quote from the theist psychologist Mira Kirshenbaum’s book titled “Everything Happens for a Reason”:

“I want to reassure you: When you discover the true meaning of the events in your life, everything changes.
You feel stronger because your sense that everything has meaning gives you great confidence.
You feel wiser because you see how everything connects.
You're more in touch with who you are because you know that you're living the life you were meant to lead.
And you're happier because you're able to put your loss behind you and have a sense of a future filled with good things.
Until you get to this place, nothing is going to feel right.”
-- Everything Happens for a Reason: Finding the True Meaning of the Events in Our Lives By Mira Kirshenbaum

Proper use of these three concepts purportedly leads to: assurance, strength, wisdom, self-knowledge, and the big one –happiness-. These goals are quite worthwhile, but how do we extricate god from the path to using these three concepts in achieving them? Will removing god make the attainment of these five goals easier and more complete? I think so.

If the human mind were able to float free of its frame of reference many maladies of the psyche would not exist. We know that in physics all measurements are tied to the frame of reference in which they are made; psychologically all reality is tied to the perspective in which it is formed. In physics the special theory of relativity gives insight into ways in which measurements from different frames of reference relate. Psychologically we have the ability to change our perspective and affect the way we relate to everything we have ever observed.

"I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they're right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together." — Marilyn Monroe

Time teaches everyone that the impact of events is not eroded by insisting that the event has no impact. Channeling the impact of the event allows the event to be assimilated in a potentially constructive way. Seeing life-altering events as lessons and opportunities allows one to live with an event rather that live on in spite of an event.

I am discussing these things in general terms. There is a popular and annoying over-generalization that is often encountered here. The idea that one can shape the reaction to an event suggests that attitude governs the impact an event has. If we go further down this rabbit hole it appears as if attitude is a choice and so the outcome of an event is happiness if we choose it to be. This leads to conclusions that generate irritatingly ignorant statements of the form: “you experienced a (insert horrible life changing tragedy) and you will see that it is the best thing that ever happened to you”.

The truth is that I have most often heard variations of this fantasy sentiment uttered by Santa-bellied white men in grease-collared suits who append it with: “if you find jesus in your heart”. I prefer to picture the speaker as a woman whose smile and clear eyes each vie with the noonday sun for title of brightest object in the galaxy; the same sun mocks her attempt at modesty with each breath of her filmy cotton garment. I’m sure she thinks more of the Bieb’s 18th birthday than my 50th. Darn you to Heck Justin Bieber!

"The real lover is the man who can thrill you by kissing your forehead or smiling into your eyes or just staring into space." — Marilyn Monroe

The reason why the three concepts are so useful is that they imply looking outside of one’s own malleable perspective for clues in redirecting response to life events. The reason this leads to a god requirement in many people’s minds is that any imposed order on an outside world requires an imposer. The reason many atheists that I know discount the three concepts is that the forces that impose order on the universe do so in such a general way that such order is way too ephemeral for most practical psychological uses.

The thing about order is that we really don’t pay too much attention to it. If you believe that there is a god which imposes order you don’t have a clue as to what most of god’s plan is. However you look at it the best you can say is that there are similar patterns you have come to rely on. As humans we are very good at seeing patterns even when they are hardly there at all. The more philosophical see arrangements of self similar patterns existing at many levels of scale. The arrangement of self-similar patterns across multiple levels of scale is called a fractal. Most people call the arraignment of those patterns “normal”.

The searcher can find self-similar pattern everywhere. It is in self-similarity that the universe seems to store most of its complexity. Fractal patterns are beautiful whether they are seen, heard, or inhaled. Fractal patterns do not require the detailed manipulations of any god; they can be constructed using simple mathematics. You know fractals, and when you uncover a new scale in one there is a feeling of true joy.

For any particular pattern we have a field of view which fits into a larger “pattern of patterns” whose arrangement is similar to the patterns within our field of view. This description of the examination of a fractal landscape has three components: what one can see in the immediate region, what one can see looking as far as one can see, and a pattern that entire field of view fits into. I believe we can map the three concepts onto this fractal philosophical space. Reasons exist within a purpose that fits into a greater meaning. The concepts are a description of self-similarity across three levels of relative scale. 

Friday, February 18, 2011


There is a well worn bromide that goes something like this:

“Learn something new every day”

Sometimes it is generalized to:

“Never stop learning”

I have had other platitudes interpreted to me as containing the same advice. The snowclones often couple some folksy consequence to not following the advice.

“If you're not moving you're stuck”

“Once you're done ripening you start rotting”

As I get older I wonder what impact a friable memory has on the veracity of this advice. Plainly put: “does re-learning things count?”. If it does then I expect to be learning things at an ever increasing pace for the next several decades; should I live long enough.

Re-learning information is usually quite pleasant. I have not mastered the ability to forget unpleasant information. This leaves mostly pleasant information to re-discover. This last week I re-discovered that a friend I had not seen in over a decade was both a source of lively conversation and enjoyable company.

There are some things that I re-learn which are not hidden, but do not co-exist well with mundane activity. Strong -almost physiological- irrational reactions fall into this category. When I experience something irrationally thrilling the memory of the feeling fades from the mind. I like to say that I 'come down' from the experience.

Now...I am easily thrilled. There are some things that have a predictable effect on my brain. There are some thrilling phenomena which I catch my mind attempting to recreate in fantastical detail quite often. The shuffled memory bits don't really capture the essence of the thrill, but sorting them is an attractive hobby.

I am easy in more ways than the simplicity inherent in understanding the bulk processes in my brain. There are predictable and often utilized ways of providing myself with heart-stopping thrills; for instance I experience vertigo quite easily.  Get me to peer over the edge of a cliff, or off the top of a tall building, and the world loses many of its more stable physical properties. Length, height, distance, and gravity start to oscillate. Time becomes notional. My heart races and my guts develop a thick coating of foam rubber.

I have been told that vertigo is a psychological malady. I 'suffer' from some defect in the 'wiring' of my brain.

I often seek out tall edgy places to trigger the vertigo sensation. I abuse my own psychological defect for thrills.

I stayed in a couple of hotels this past week. In the last one my room was on the 19th floor. The outer wall was all glass. The view would have been impressive almost anywhere but Tyson's Corner Virginia. The entire town is decorated in post-apocalyptic roadkill deco. There must be some set of city covenants detailing the amount of bare mud and exposed re-bar everyone's lawns must have.

Still, if I pressed my face against the window, I could see straight down the two-hundredish feet to the ground. When I came back to the room during breaks in the scientific meeting I would walk over to the window and look down till I could not stand it anymore. When I woke up at night to pee I would walk to the window on my way back to bed and stare down at the lights. I was abusing the vertigo several times a day; sometimes several times an hour. Whenever I left the room I would immediately begin imagining the sensations I would experience when I returned. Slowly I would lose purchase on the thrill.  The immediacy of the feelings would fade; then the intensity would follow.  When I was headed back to the hotel after venturing out I would become giddy at the thought of staring out the window again.

I may have secretly wondered when the more psychedelic hallucinations would begin.

The sides of the hotel were featureless walls of glass. It was impossible to imagine a fingernail hold anywhere in the two-hundred-and-fiftyish feet of smooth reflective surface. So I was a little surprised when, as the sun set on my first day in the room, I heard scratching noises coming from outside the window. I successfully imagined several creatures that could be scaling the hotel; the names of each fantastical creature began with the word 'mutant'.

The mutant gecko rat monkeys were some of my favorites.

Sometimes learning new information erases old information. When I looked at the hotel from the outside I realized that the large glowing red sign attached to the outside of the hotel was probably hanging at the level of the 19th floor. I could just see an edge of it from my window wall. At dawn and dusk starlings would return to their roosts in the sign and scuffle against the window while vying for a landing place.

Starlings had never been as cool, and I've forgotten much of the identifying characteristics of the mutant gecko rat monkey. It is possible that I may re-learn them; I'm re-learning a bunch of stuff these days.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Even Without Dinosaurs

The familial relationship between the great blue heron and the giant Pterodactyls of the Triassic period might be best described as a stuttering semi-transparent weed-choked track that weaves in and out of the available fossil record, but every time I see one of these birds gliding in for a landing images of the extinct winged monster begin thrashing about in my mind. I believe I have stitched together the pterodactyl images from the many glimpses of great blue that I have been lucky enough to experience. The GBH in flight is such a singularly amazing sight that I am not sure that associating it with reincarnated flying fossils adds significantly to its impact, but I suspect it does because everything is made more awesome by relating it to dinosaurs (especially giant winged dinosaurs).

I doubt that anyone who reads this blog would pause at the the use of words like “awesome” and “amazing” being used in describing the GBH. Some of you might subconsciously begin ranking birds in terms of awesomeness. I'm sure at least one of you is thinking “aye the GBH is a mighty bird, but she is no Harpie Eagle!” It might be difficult to measure the worth of comparing birds on the basis of their awesomeness, but any time spent discussing awesomeness is not time wasted. There are people who would dismiss the idea of an awesome moment observing a bird because, despite anything going on in the mind of the observer, a bird can be nothing more than “just a bird”. I imagine such people are too busy complaining about why a particular boy wonderstar did not sweep the Gramys last week to bother with reading this blog entry.

I am writing this entry perched on a giant rock overhanging the Potomac river. The constant movements of wildlife past my perch make up for the slightly uncomfortable seating arrangement I have subjected myself to.

Impossibly patterned wood ducks bob past on the olive-drab current. I try to count the seconds they remain submerged when they dive, but get too distracted by the teasing warmth of the sun to be confident of my timekeeping, My foot begins to fall asleep so I shift into a more reclined position.

On the island across from me I hear the crashings of a large beast through the leaves. I imagine it is a white-tailed deer (I've seen several of them today). The brown deer against the brown pre-spring carpet of leaves could be invisible in plain sight. My butt is getting cold against the rock so I shift to a more kneeling position.

Despite the fact that I am less than a dozen miles from downtown Washington DC I am almost alone. If I was farther than twenty feet from the trail I'm sure I would see far fewer than the couple-of-people-an-hour I'm seeing now. I wonder why it is not packed with hikers and general walking-about-looking-at-things people. The afternoon here promises to be lazy, and I would stay to observe the accuracy of my prediction if I did not have to catch a plane.

I like looking into the eyes of the few people I pass here. They do not typically look away to avert their gaze. I imagine they are out here to look at just about anything with those eyes. I believe they will have little use for the word “just” when describing what they see today.

Some of the eyes look lonely. I've come to believe that there is too much loneliness in the world of people today. Why would someone carrying about a set of searching lonely eyes come to a place where the sights are so insistent they obviate the need for searching, and a place where there are so few people?

Last night a very old wise person said to me: “Isolation is not necessarily the best solution to loneliness”.
Two flocks of honking geese have just flown over. I am glad for this time alone. I've spent too long with my leg jammed against a rock that it has started demanding my attention by poking me with needles and pins.

I can't help thinking that if these few hours are not the best solution to everything psychological that the best solutions must be really awesome; even without dinosaurs.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ironic Confrontation

Here is a handy hint; people tend to get less annoyed than they should when I ask them: “Are you being ironic?”. Just the other day someone was pontificating to me on the virtues of Glen Beck's insight into some sublime cog in a great socialist conspiracy our elected officials are assembling. I asked: “Are you being ironic?”. The pontificator paused and thought about potential irony for a few seconds.

Trying to calmly say: “Is there more room for fecal material in your argument or are you already full to bursting?” does not work well.

I discovered the ironic statement almost by accident. Someone had decided I needed to be confronted about what they apparently saw as “my overly confrontational nature”. I have often thought that I should actually be more confrontational than I am, but this is not -apparently- a universally held belief.

I do not entirely avoid confrontation. Last Wednesday I was privileged to see Gang of Four in concert at the 9:30 club in Washington DC. It was a wonderful performance by a inspirational band, but the sound levels were awful. Some songs lost half their vocals do to poor soundboard control. During some songs I could see the band furiously playing (We had a great view) yet producing almost no sound. The singer did go from mike to mike, but a good sound engineer should have been able to respond. The experience was significantly lessened by the poor skill of the soundboard monkey. We decided to complain, and marched right up to the sound-booth after the show to complain. By “Marched right up to the sound-booth to complain” I mean that I walked up behind someone who respectfully informed the soundboard operator that his performance was sub-par, and then slunk away after receiving some lame excuse like: “that's the way the band wanted it”.

It was difficult to take the confrontational confrontation very seriously. I thought there was a certain irony in their statement, and so it was natural to ask about it. Embellishments that might make the question more barbed like: “Are you trying to be ironic or are you just stupid?” would probably detract from the overall impact of the ironic question.

I think the best way to deliver the question is with a slight twinkle in the eye and a knowing smile. I think it would work best if I give the passing nod to a potential shared joke. Other questions might be delivered in the same way.

I wonder what casual use of the question: “Is that a euphemism?” might yield in conversational effect.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Health Care Reform

I have not found any reasons to believe homeopathy does anything. Certain types -those that involve injection in particular- may actually be somewhat harmful. I find such an utter lack of any discernible basis for any action of homeopathic material that it is difficult to carve out enough interest to even examine homeopathy at all. I would completely ignore it, and suggest that others also ignore it, if not for one nagging problem. The problem is that homeopathic treatments do, in some limited cases, work.

It would be especially easy to claim that any effects of homeopathic treatments are “placebo” effects since homeopathic medications are indistinguishable from placebos. It is also impossible to describe any targeted effect of any measurable physical property of a homeopathic material that is proportional to a measurable effect since there are no constituents of the medications that are not overwhelmingly present in almost everything else. In short, it is almost impossible to scientifically study homeopathic medications because it is essentially impossible to define controls.

Let me engage in a little thought experiment. A homeopathic practitioner begins making up a batch of homeopathic solution “A”. They 1st make up the concentrated solution of compound “A”. Then they begin diluting it. They take the beaker they made the original solution in and wash it. While they are diluting the original solution to the working dilution of ten to the minus sixtieth power the rinsings from the original beaker flow down the sewer pipes of the lab's building, and they then go out into a local stream. The final diluted material is packaged up for sale; and the beaker rinsings flow from stream to river to sea. When the patient receives the homeopathic medication those rinsings, now diluted by all the water on earth, are still more concentrated than the homeopathic medication. When the homeopathic medication maker makes a new batch of “A” he will be diluting the stock with material that is more concentrated than what he wishes to end up with.

One could simply drink a glass of water and imagine that it was whatever homeopathic medication one wanted it to be and actually be more correct than someone reading the label on a vial of homeopathic medication.

If it is impossible to scientifically study homeopathic medications, and they make no sense, then what do I mean by they “work” in certain situations?

Firstly the information that suggests that they “work” is not scientific; it is phenomenological. Patients with certain conditions show a statistically significant greater level of positive medical outcomes when they receive homeopathic treatment than when they do not. The patients are not magically cured, but they do enjoy markedly better outcomes.

I hope at least a couple of my readers are poking their fingers at their computers exclaiming: “Correlation does not equal causation”. I know I am. Of course the result of my poking is the typing of the words you are reading, and so my monitor is less smudgy.

You might think that I picture myself highly elevated to have my finger poking producing a literate output. That is not why I know I am highly elevated. The reason I am so highly elevated is that I am writing this on a plane. There is free facebook connection on this flight, but after a half an hour on fb I begin leaving increasingly inappropriate comments on people's status updates. I am unable to access anything else on the internet (like this blog), so I will type this up without references, and maybe post it later.

This means that those of you who think the problems with the homeopathic treatment studies are in the details will just have to look them up yourselves. I feel your pain.

There are differences between what happens during a homeopathic treatment and a traditional medicine-based treatment. There are more differences than just what substances the patient leaves with. There is a natural inclination, however, to focus on the material the patient can hold in a bottle rather than the whole process of treatment.

Meetings with homeopathic practitioners take much longer than those with traditional doctors; often several times as long. The homeopathic practitioner often asks questions about the patient that are seemingly unrelated to the illness. The homeopathic practitioners often touch their patients. I think the difference can be summed up by saying the the homeopathic treatment is often a more touchy-feely affair.

When one begins to break down the aspects of the homeopathic treatment that are most likely to provide the benefit observed it is the touchy-feely nature of the interaction that stands out as the most likely effector set.

Study-after-study-after-study have shown that kind and caring human interaction improves medical outcomes. This effect is distinct from placebo effect, and is much more effective.

Since it is difficult to buy love (in the compassion sense) it is difficult to quantify the amount of love used as supportive care. This lack of a commodity-type measure for compassion makes it difficult to target addition of compassion to treatment regimes. And forget all about the idea of getting insurance coverage for love.

The homeopathic practitioners have not simply found a new way of being loving either. As often as not these people must know that they are selling snake-oil. Those that are best at it are those that have embraced their inner oily snake; not those who have embraced their inner “Dr. Love”.

The effective nature of homeopathic treatment is the ritualisation of compassion. There are specified methods of touch, and specific lines of questioning. Since homeopathic medicine is nothing there is nothing that is done with any apparent information gathered by the connection rituals that are used in diagnosis. It is these magic diagnostic procedures themselves that cause the benefit.

There is a struggle between alternative and traditional treatments. The losers in this conflict have always been the patients.

One of the most horrifying battlegrounds is in cancer treatments. Many cancers are now fully treatable. As the number of potentially treatable cancer diagnosis increase the impact of patients refusing treatment becomes more significant. Refusal of treatment is a major cause of poor outcomes in cases of treatable cancer (lack of an early diagnosis is THE most significant cause, so learn the early signs of cancer and DON'T ignore them). One all-to-common reason for refusal of effective treatment is reliance on alternative treatments (This is awful, and I will probably talk about it at greater length in another blog post sometime).

It is natural for practitioners of traditional medicine to push back against treatments that harm patients. The alternative treatment folks create cover stories of health-care-industry and government conspiracies. The focus of this back-and-forth becomes the commodity; we focus on the snake oil. We ignore the poorly measured enhancements to treatment that work.

The battle against treatments that do no good, and may dissuade patients from getting effective treatments, must be constantly fought and won. It is important, however, to take everything that appears to be of use in treating patients and apply it, and apply it wherever possible.

We do not necessarily need to dress western doctors in kangaroo skins and carved wooden masks to apply the positive benefit of the witch doctor. We certainly do not need to believe that the witch doctor channels the pre-life force of trans-dimensional beings in order to leverage the healing benefit of ritual. We have studied ritual for hundreds of years, and we should be able to create effective new rituals that far exceed those accidentally derived by previous generations. What a great way of employing previously unemployable archaeologists, anthropologists, and philosophers!

Personally I picture the orderlies and nurses dressed like witch doctors. Visiting relatives will be kindly asked to wear elaborate sequined headdresses. All PA announcements will have the soothing sounds of rattles and pan-flute tastefully added to them by some complex computer signal algorithm.

I have a bunch of great ideas for health-care reform.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Aquarium of Smoke

There is something about not smoking that really sucks. It has been years since I have smoked, and I can therefore say this with the authority manufactured from years of painstaking research. I would like to flippantly state that what sucks is the getting up in the morning, going through a series of daytime activities, and then going to bed...all without having a smoke. Though this observation would have more than a single irritating grain of truth it is not much of a pearl of wisdom; more like the high pitch whine of ill-adjusted nicotine receptors.

I'm writing this while sitting next to the smoker's cage at the Salt Lake City airport. It is a glass walled room where one can view smokers in their natural habitat. They look a lot like the folks sitting around me but, and this is a big but, they get to smoke. They even have the same faux-leather uncomfortable chairs I am sitting on.

The similarities are intriguing. The smokers are acting like they are not smoking; like they are doing something important and just happen to have a cigarette in their mouth or hand. I imagine if I went to have a smoke I would make some sort of great production out of it. A mariachi band would be nice; perhaps I could get one of those large-brimmed hats and attach burning cigarettes to it with short strings. I could play a game where I turned my head quickly from side-to-side and attempted to catch one of the cigarettes with my lips; extra points if I caught the filter end.

When I quit, what seems like a hundred and fifty years ago (and was -maybe- more like 8), I chewed nicotine gum for a while. I loved the gum. There was the unfortunate induction of the gag-reflex that a fresh piece would cause, but other than that the gum was the best stuff ever. I chewed it regularly for about a year, and then ran out while on a short road-trip. I tried to start up again, but I was not ready for the whole vomiting in public scene. I did not want to take up smoking again, so I quit.

The folks in the smoking cage make smoking look so inconsequential. Why are they not jumping about in various states of undress proclaiming the freedom and fulfillment they get to experience that quitters, like me, forgo. I could strip off my pants and show them a thing or two about smoking.

People used to talk about smoking after sex. Now that we know that the yellow-toothed ashtray-scented smokers are not more likely to be the target of nubile obsession the truth that people smoke instead of sex is revealed. Asking a smoker about sex is like asking a Southern Californian how cold it is; who cares?

I could go into the room and have a smoke. Unfortunately, if I bummed one off of somebody it would probably be a menthol. Sure it would be amazing to feel the rush of nicotine soaking into forgotten neural receptors. I bet I would hold the first puff into my lungs till the smoke was spent. The wave of elation would quickly be replaced by a wave of smooth muscle response. Would I vomit? Would I suffer uncontrollable diarrhea? Would I just by a pack or splurge for an entire carton?

When I started smoking cartons were $2.50. Now packs are $7.00 each!

When I started smoking cigarettes were probably good for you unless you had some rare condition. Now everyone is getting heart disease or cancer!

If I had a little caulk and a fire-hose I could fill that smoker cell with water. It looks tight. I could turn it from cage to aquarium as fast as I could fill it. Then the smokers would be treading water with their cigarettes held over their heads so that they would stay lit. I could watch them choosing every couple of strokes which they would take into their lungs; air or smoke. One could tell those smokers who were treating their habit with the respect it demands. Unfortunately that evidence might take the form of the true smokers sinking.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Land Beaver Day

Earlier today a man in a top hat and a black bowtie held aloft a large rodent of the species Marmota monax and declared that it would soon be warm. M. monax is a common species of rodent in North America. Every year on February 2nd the town of Punxsutawney PA gathers at dawn outside on a grass covered hillock called Gobbler's Knob to watch over-dressed men “handle” a large rodent they have named “Phil”. After playing with their furry friend for a bit they look up in the sky, and if it is cloudy they proclaim that there will be an early spring. Then they blame this prediction on Phil, and put him back in his pen.

My readers from other continents may not be familiar with our North American tradition of using rodents to predict climatic change. We call the February 2nd ritual “Groundhog Day” because one of the common names for M. monax is “groundhog”. Other common names are “Woodchuck” and “Land Beaver”. I think it should be called “Land Beaver Day”, but it is so hard to buck tradition.

Here in the rocky mountain area the closely related M. flaviventris is more common. The common name for it is “The Yellow Bellied Marmot”. We call it thusly because it has a distinctly yellow belly and is in the genus Marmota; pretty creative dontcha think? We also do not often dress in black tie formal wear to handle them as they do shed.

This morning it was 4 degrees outside (less than minus sixteen Celsius) which is rather cold. I like the idea that there will be an early spring. If Punxsutawney Phil had predicted six more weeks of winter (which is what he “predicts" if it is sunny on February 2nd) I would have chalked it up to the foolishness of even listening to what a rodent has to “say” about the weather. The best predictions are those I only need to listen to when they say what I want them to.

There is a popular saying in Utah: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes”.

I have waited several hours and it is a balmy seven degrees (less than minus fourteen Celsius) outside.

There is another popular saying in Utah: “Global warming is a lie”.

Many of the people who I have heard say this probably know more about lying than they do global climate change. I say this because the statement is rarely nested in facts. If they have a basement full of magic rodents they are keeping quiet about it.

One of the sources of information about global climate change that I find accessible and informative is Arctic Sea Ice News”. They have nice pictures and graphs, and it takes me about five minutes to get up-to-date on one of the most unbiased datastreams that tracks global warming. They do not have rodents and formal wear that I know of so they have room for improvement. I picture the publishers of ASIN wearing jeans and T-shirts.

Sea ice is low again this year.

In addition to poorly dressing the ASIN crew lacks the fundamental ignorability that Phil embodies. If I do not like the extent of sea ice ignoring it is counter-productive.

Unfortunately, this morning at least, any warming sounds like a great idea.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

And they're off!

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” -- Hamlet; Act III, Scene 2

Sometime during the state of the union speech an official 2012 presidential campaign starter’s pistol was fired. Its reverberating pop was quickly drowned out by the furious republican shuffle to stage a response to the president’s constitutionally-mandated speech. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) gave the official response for the Republican Party where he listed ‘logic-lite’ talking points for the upcoming political battles. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) gave an official Teabagger response which did much the same as Ryan’s speech only with way more hairspray and medication. Since Bachmann is ‘examining’ a bid for the white house other potential candidates had to speak up to prevent being eclipsed by Michele’s notoriety. One such candidate was Mitt Romney. Mitt’s response was a lot like Michelle’s only hair gel was substituted for the spray.

One thing that should be too obvious for any candidate to need mention is that they have god on their side. This superfluous fact will be alluded to with increasing fervor over the coming year. The last presidential election witnessed a staggering number of front-runner candidates for republican nomination who either proudly boasted of believing in young earth creationism (YEC), or refused to fully elaborate. I think we are in for some transcendently idiotic statements this coming year. Republican candidates will outdo themselves in courting the ill-educated alcohol-muddled “Joe-six-pack” voting bloc they think will carry them to their party’s nomination. Somewhere in the deserts of the American mindset headless illegal-immigrant zombies are stumbling towards the nation’s brains to eat its constitution. And everyone knows all zombies are atheists.

Since I think belief in YEC is a sign of mind-numbing foolishness I have a hard time not using it as a de-facto test for office. Most candidates’ speeches are littered with the words “I believe”. We are somehow supposed to take into account what they believe when choosing someone to vote for; unless what they believe is utter foolishness. Many candidates will be detailing their personal religious beliefs in such a way as to communicate similarity to the largest possible voting bloc. The American atheist will be pushed from view as candidates struggle to insist the populist nature of their religiosity.

"Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom” – Mitt Romney 2007

I have often said that, confronted with the proselytizing efforts of a bomb or gun, my conversion to the religion of the trigger-wielding missionary would be swift and doubt-free. But the big guns of any religion should not be aimed by mere mortals. Where does god weigh in? How does god weigh in? Some of the more secular-adapted religious folks maintain that one can see evidence of god’s preference only in hindsight; look at the outcome and know what god wanted. I think this coming year we will see widely advertised evidence of god’s preferences long before any outcomes are certain. One of the ways that god has spoken to his chosen people is through prophesy. One of the ways one can tell whom god has chosen is by listening for who got the best prophesy.

One popular prophesy here in Utah is called the “White Horse Prophesy” (WHP). The WHP states:
“When the Constitution of the United States hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they [American citizens] will have to call for the 'Mormon' Elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it.”
Who will get the WHP nod this year; Huntsman or Romney?

Despite the fact that this would appear to be empty bragging on the part of the Mormon Church it is taken very seriously by quite a few people. One reason for this is that the statement was not simply transcribed from a proclamation of Joseph Smith (Founder of the Mormon Church) but reiterated by Brigham Young (Founder of the Mormon settlement in Utah) and John Taylor (An official prophet of the Mormon Church). When god repeats himself the chosen people listen.

The WHP is a significant motivator for the true believers. It can serve as a justification for otherwise morally questionable activity. Prophet John Taylor’s version of the WHP delineates the lines of righteousness:
“When the people shall have torn to shreds the Constitution of the United States the Elders of Israel will be found holding it up to the nations of the earth and proclaiming liberty and equal rights to all men" -- John Taylor, JD 21:8, August 31, 1879.

What will be done to “the people” who have torn the constitution to shreds is a bit vague. There are multiple mentions over the intervening century-and-change of measures that go beyond voting. The exact ways that one can identify “the people” and what to do are mostly left up to the individual.

"The first casualty when war comes, is truth" -- Hiram W. Johnson (R-CA) 1917

Though there are certainly true believers who will be stocking up on explosives and ammunition I think most of them will be hiding in the dark places under rocks where they feel most at home. There will be a greater proportion of believers who will be willing to simply deceive and cheat the sub-moral “people” to achieve their divine goal. Through the use of prophesy aggressive behaviors are justified. In the case of the WHP the behavior is seen as defense against an evil that god has tipped them off about.

Despite the fact that Xtians control all portions of the US government, and weigh heavily in most economic activities, many Xtians feel like they are under attack. Somehow atheists and Muslims are attacking everything good. The WHP resonates with those feelings of persecution. The biggest problem with mapping those feelings of persecution to action is the disappointing lack of substantial evidence of the persecution. Lack of evidence, however, can be fixed.

In November of 2007 Mitt Romney loudly decried the use of “push polls” aimed at discrediting his candidacy on the basis of his Mormon faith:
“I think the attempts to attack me on the basis of my faith are un-American” -- Romney 2007
 On November 16th the Romney campaign registered an official complaint with the New Hampshire attorney general’s office. Their preliminary report was published on January 3rd 2008. The NHAG found that the polls were conducted by ‘Western Wats’; a company based in Orem Utah. Provo-Orem is the home to Brigham Young University, which accounts for most of what Provo-Orem is. BYU is Romney’s alma mater and also of great importance to Ron Lindorf who founded Western Wats. Many employees at Western Wats were campaign contributors to Romney’s 2007 campaign.

Accusations that Romney’s 2007 campaign had push polled itself to raise sympathy were published before the January 2008 report (which came less than a month before the Republican nomination had been decided). These were firmly denied by all parties involved. Who really did the push polling? According to the Romney campaign we may never know. Perhaps the push pollers were just disgruntled atheists?

Atheism will be on the front lines in the coming election whether atheists do anything or not.