Thursday, June 28, 2012

2012 Utah Presidential Primary

Utah has been called a one-party state, and sometimes it does not even rise to that level. One such time was this Tuesday’s GOP presidential primary.

Because I want to actually participate actively in the US political process I have been a registered Republican since I first moved to Utah about a decade and a half ago. As a result I get all sorts of personal calls from Mitt Romney, and other important republicans. Usually they are asking for support; I think that means money.

Tuesday, when I marched through a set of doors plastered with voter-ID-law notices to vote, I found out that I had been purged from the GOP. I am apparently undeclared now. How do they decide who to purge? Did I anger somebody in the state party headquarters, and if so how can I do it again?

I was able to vote, but only by signing some form they had a large stack of on-hand. The poll workers said that “It happens a lot” and that “Some computer somewhere did it”.

The poll workers did not look amused by my remark that I was pleased to be a republican because it was obviously the party of our future robotic overlords.  they probably thought I was making a snide remark about Mitt Romney.  One does not make snide comments about Mitt Romney in polite Utah GOP company. 

I compliantly cast my electronic ballot.

Despite the fact that he had long ago dropped out of the race I voted for Newt Gingrich. The vote was safe, and the other options poor. I still hope that someone will pick up on his moon-base proposal and make it happen. Despite the fact that I don’t really think Newt would make an acceptable president the moon-base proposition is the best policy proposal I have heard from any candidate, ever.

My vote helped propelled Newt into capturing a double digit percentage of the Utah voting population. By double digit I mean 0.49%, or almost one half of one percent. This large showing solidly secured him fourth-place in the race.

Rick Santorum secured a triple-digit percentage with 1.52% of the vote. Ron Paul, who may be the only person confused about the status of the GOP nomination going into these last primaries, came in second with a resounding 4.70%. Ron Paul really gained ground from his 2008 Utah showing where he only managed to get 2.99% for his third-place showing in that race.

Mitt Romney was the big winner. As far as I can make out his 93.05% win is the largest margin of victory in a contested presidential primary ever. I could be wrong. Heck 93.05% even beats Mitt’s 2008 Utah win. In 2008 Mitt only won a measly 89.49%. Could the extra 3.56% presage a national victory for Mitt?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Libtard Season

I just watched an add by Orin Hatch describing America as being divided. According to Orin in America there are good hard-working people, and evil lazy people. In the background of the add are pictures of images like OWS protests and president Obama when he talks of the evil people. Orin is running for re-election as a Senator from Utah. Utah is not divided. These were not pictures of the people Orin is running against.

Orin is running against Dan Liljenquist who is a TeaParty candidate. Orin has apparently decided to run a “If you think that’s fascist; just listen to what I’ve got to say” style of campaign. The idea is to pile the hate speech higher and higher till the most odiferous pile wins. Vilify not the opponent, but the people who the opponent is also vilifying.

I look into my crystal ball and predict that whoever wins the Republican nomination for Utah’s senate seat will win more than 75% of the vote in November. If they win by any lesser margin I’m afraid that they will institute a hunting season on liberals to coincide with the off-season republican primaries. You might get an extra delegate vote for every “libtard” scalp you can bring into a caucus meeting.

Of course my predictions are worth as much as I paid for my crystal ball. In truth I don’t even own a real crystal ball; I just imagine a big transparent sphere that can make someone’s nose look really big when you look at them through it just right.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Surely You're Yoking Ms. Libresco?

Leah Libresco wrote a blog called “Unequally Yoked” which she put up at the Patheos Atheist channel. Now “Unequally Yoked” is up at the Patheos Catholic channel, and she explains the shift by announcing that she has converted to Catholicism. This was brought to my attention by a series of “see you can convert too” messages from well wishing believers in my circles of friends and acquaintances.

Rather than feign complete ignorance at who she is I pointed out that I had loosely followed a demonstration she had conducted on the linkage between belief and lies. She called it the ideological Turing test (ITT). I’ve been interested in Turing tests for some time, and so I looked over what she was proposing when it came up on a Google search for Turing test.

In the classic Turing test machines are pitted against people to show which is more human-like. The particulars of questions and interfaces change so investigating a Turing test becomes an exercise in discovering what people think is human as well as discovering how well machines can be that version of human.

In Leah’s ITT the questions that define what it was to be a Christian in 2011 were:
• What’s your best reason for being a Christian?
• What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to stop believing in God?
• Why do you believe Christianity has a stronger claim to truth than other religions/On what basis do you reject the truth claims of other traditions and denominations but accept your own?
• How do you read the Bible? Do you study the history of its translations? How do you decide which translations/versions/books are the true Bible? How does it guide you if you have a moral or theological dilemma?

These are simply-worded questions. Reading her conversion to Catholicism “last post as an Atheist” she delivers a less clear question: “how humans got bootstrap up to get even a partial understanding of objective moral law.”? Her answer was: “I don’t know. I’ve got nothing. I guess Morality just loves me or something.” I wonder how well her answer would score on her own ITT?

The results of the ITT showed that Atheists and Christians could pretend to be Atheists about as well as each other. The sample-size is small, and the Christians may have done more poorly at pretending to be Atheists, but I'm not sure it is significant.  About half the Christians were very poor at pretending to be Atheist. Some Atheists were poor at pretending to be Atheists  The Christians presented rational reasons that they thought were false. Some attempted creating “internally consistent” arguments which they thought were wrong.  Could they have been introducing ideas they crafted from stereotypes rather than reason?

Here is an example answer to the 2012 question: "Are there people whose opinions on morality you trust more than your own? How do you recognize them? How is trusting them different than trusting someone’s opinion on physics?"

"I have become a disciple of Sam Harris since he came out with 'The End of Faith'. I find his argument in 'The Moral Landscape', that science can tell us how to live our lives in such a way that we can maximize human well-being, compelling. If I have a quandary, I consult his works first."

Many people did not think this was the answer an atheist would give, and it was not. This was an answer given by a Christian pretending to be an Atheist.

In this answer a moral authority is dispensing morality. Arguments were found to be emotionally compelling. Everything feels good so it must be right. One could replace names and the empty nod to science and easily craft a Christian argument for morality coming from god. The arguments are presented, and then felt.

The process is largely ignored as is the second half of the question. In trusting someone’s opinions on physics one might want to see that they melded theory and experiment in a process that produced testable or predictive results. The person answering this question feels the morality is right because they have faith in Sam Harris. There are probably Atheists who think that they are atheists simply because of what they have faith in, but they beg questioning.

The “it feels good” family of answers about the source of morality appears to contain the first-cousins of Leah’s answer. It is interesting that Leah describes examining her own answer, and then using her decision to determine if she was Catholic.

Ok, ok, yes, I heard what I just said. Give me a second and let me decide if I believe it.” -- Leah Libresco

So she gives herself an ITT and fails as an Atheist. There is Irony here.

The True Turing Test is won by computers that try to mimic being human without actually developing the substance to formulate human opinions on their own. Perhaps that is the way some humans develop their own personalities, but there are many people who profess to being less shallow than that. Instead of just telling you what you want to hear it is possible for people to tell you what they think some of the time. In order to do that the teller must think. The machines that successfully pretend to be human do not think.

What of the Atheists who successfully pretend to be Christians. The respondent to the ITT questions in 2011 that was judged most Christian was an Atheist (though a tie for top might be a better description). They responded to the question: “What’s your best reason for being a Christian?”  With a long answer that included: “It didn’t just mesh with the knowledge I had; it surpassed what I knew and offered lessons that were validated by the fruit they bore.

Leah describes the ritual of her conversion thusly: “I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth. And there was one religion that seemed like the most promising way to reach back to that living Truth. I asked my friend what he suggest we do now, and we prayed the night office of the Liturgy of the Hours together (I’ve kept up with that since).

Again the parallels between Leah’s conversion and her ITT are deliciously ironic.

This leads me to what I think is the obvious question about the ITT, and that is : “What do you care what other people think?”.

In the true Turing test the question boils down to whether someone is capable of thought so what other people think is vital to the answer. However, the ability to pretend to be human can trump the ability to think, and we are left with a potentially unsatisfying outcome.

In the ITT we are not testing thought, but the ability to feign Faith or the lack of it. We know that it is a game of lies and that the winner will be able to best define something often described as the antithesis of thinking.

If one’s own decision making process begins to mimic a game of lies what are the possible outcomes? Are any of them good?

Leah describes a convoluted set of philosophical constructs. I think she is getting at the idea of an absolute morality via Plato, but I could be wrong. What she did describe well was a process where she argues with someone, and then feels good about the answers she gives. In essence she performs an ITT on herself, and comes up with the answer “Catholic” for what her faith was.

I’m not fond of her process.

I’m kinda torn on whether it would be a good idea for her to perform true Turing tests on herself.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Marco Rubio

Sometimes living in Utah is like living under a rock. I try to find out what is going on in the world by reading the local papers, but I am often left wondering what an article is talking about…or why. Such was the case with an article I was just reading on Marco Rubio’s new autobiography.

The article was titled: “Rubio’s book explains why he left Mormonism”, and I thought: “OK I’ll bite. Who is this Rubio guy, why did he leave the LDS church, and why is this story about him in the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune”. I would not really get an answer from the Trib article to any of my questions.

The answer to both “who is this Rubio guy” and “why is this story about him in the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune” should have been fairly obvious from the sentence “Rubio is on the short list to be Romney’s running mate”. Unfortunately that explanatory sentence did not occur anywhere in the article. I found it only after I booted up this computer, and googled “Marco Rubio”. I found the explanatory sentence in almost every article that popped up about him; sometimes it was the first sentence in the article.

One place that I found the explanatory sentence was in the online edition of “LDS Living” which reposted a header for the Trib article in its “Mormon Report” section with this additional bit added before it:
"MR says: Marco Rubio, a potential running mate for Romney, spent three important years as a Mormon in his youth. Though he and his family ended up leaving and becoming Catholic, he has nothing but positive things to say about the Church." -- LDS living Mormon Report

So…I’m confused. Obviously the running-mate thing is so important that even people re-posting the article feel the need to add it, but its lack was missed by a whole slew of editors. Since I have a well tempered sense of suspicion I think this is because the purpose of the article is to establish Rubio as a Mormon amongst potential donors without muddying the narrative with speculation about his being a vice-presidential candidate. Of course the oversight could simply be due to synergistic incompetence on the part of the Trib’s entire staff; don’t know.

So why did Rubio leave the LDS church?

According to the article he joined when he was 8, and was a member for three years. The article quotes Rubio’s autobiography where: "He said leaving the Mormon religion was his decision.”. Though I have to take off one shoe to count that high I figure he is saying that he left the church when he was 11, and that there were reasons both understandable and compelling enough for an 11-year-old to successfully use them to convince his family to leave the church.

“OK” I thought “I’ll bite! What are these reasons to leave the LDS church that are so simple that a pre-adolescent boy can create a compelling argument from them?”

There are deeply personal reasons why some boys leave the LDS church during the psychotic turmoil called adolescence. One common reason is that they discover that they are homosexual, and the combination of hormones and backwards morality is too much to bare; something has to go. I’m sure many have fantasized about doing something messy like gouging out their hypothalamus with a plastic fork. Some commit suicide. The smart ones leave the church. The really smart ones leave all churches and find Atheism. The lucky ones leave the church and find happiness.

Reading the article about Rubio’s autobiography it is apparent that he either not homosexual, or has yet to come out. Personally I think the fact that he married a Miami Dolphin’s cheerleader is a hint that he could be overcompensating.

Reconstructing Rubio’s religious conversions it looks like he is a Catholic turned Mormon turned Catholic turned Baptist turned Catholic. I could be missing some conversion steps as I did not do in-depth research on this. I suppose I could read his autobiography or the other biography on him that are hitting the shelves any minute now.

Leaving the LDS church requires that one send in a letter and be officially removed. I cannot tell from the article if he officially left the church or if he is simply “inactive”. So he might be, in the eyes of many Mormons, still a member of the LDS church.

The closest the article gets to describing why he left the church is this sentence: “Eventually, a friend from Rubio’s grade school who was Catholic piqued the future senator’s interest, and he began learning about the faith his mother grew up in.” This says a whole lot of nothing. I’ve been “piqued” by many theologies. I spent a couple hours last year with my interest “piqued” by some Greek mythology, but I did not sacrifice any goats (though I did eat a particularly tasty goat curry from a restaurant called “Negril” near the Silver Spring Metro station).

Mitt Romney has been steadily establishing the importance of being a member of the LDS church in his campaign. Just about every potential Mormon (except maybe Harry Reid) has been tapped by Mitt in one way or another. Establishing the LDS bona-fides of a potential running mate is consistent with this.

Rubio does have identity elements that will play well outside of Utah. He is a first-generation offspring of an immigrant family. His parents traveled by boat from Cuba to the US just six months before Castro and the 26th of July movement landed on the yacht “Granma” in Cuba.

Rubio is many things to many people. He may be the lesser half of the first all-Mormon presidential ticket. He will probably be more visible in the 2016 elections if Romney is not elected.

Friday, June 15, 2012

How's It Hanging?

As part of an ongoing attempt to redeem the image of this blog as a serious affront to theism I have decided to properly attack some scripture. I want to put paid to the accusations that this is not a “properly atheist” blog, and I decided to start out by grabbing some low hanging fruit.

What better place to find low hanging fruit of the biblical variety than Leviticus? Despite the fact that Leviticus is considered so nutty by many that ridiculing any passage from it might be thought of as an affront too easily wiped away, I still think it is a reasonable pace to start; even if I have no hope of scoring a true money shot with it.

Leviticus is important because it is one of the books of the bible in which god is really chatty. He just grabs Moses’s ear and won’t let go till he fills it up.

That reminds me. As a tangential aside I should point something out. The 1987 movie “Prick up your ears” is “ the story of the spectacular life and violent death of British playwright Joe Orton” , and not, as the name might suggest, gay fetish porn.

In choosing the passage from Leviticus for this initial adventure into hard-core bible bashing I decided against any of the abominable passages. However, I still wanted to get the nasty stuff right from god’s mouth. The variations available from Leviticus are astounding; I simply had to decide how I wanted to position my attitude.

I’m sure several of you will question my choice, but here it is:

‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy. ’ – Leviticus 21:17-23 NIV

This appears fairly straightforward. If the individual doing the offering looks deformed they can’t go behind the magic curtain. They can apparently get take out for “the most holy food of his God”, but they cannot sit at his lunch counter.

I could talk about Leviticus and the female gender, but I’m after hanging fruit here, and protected in the center of this passage I think I see some.

There is one deformity specified in the list that might slip by a casual examination. That one is the “damaged testicles”. How did god expect Moses to direct the priests to test for this? Were the people with potential offerings to drop their drawers and be subjected to some sort of prodding? Would a simple “turn your head and cough” work or would a thorough digital exam be needed to properly please the LORD?

That reminds me. As a tangential aside I should point something out. Testicular cancer is the most common cancer in males age 20-39. If caught early the cure rate for testicular cancer is nearly 100%. There are many conditions that can cause lumps on the testicles that are not tumors. Vestigial remnants of the paramesonephric ducts occur as lumps on the testicles of 90% of men.

So how much damage is too much testicle damage for the LORD? Bruising and lumps? Pain? The idea of oozing sores is covered separately in the passage I chose so there must be some specific type of testicle damage the priests are supposed to look for.

Perhaps the specific nature of the damage was lost in translation?

The King James Version of the bible avoids the use of the word testicle. Reading it one might confuse the direction to call for a check of the potential priest’s umin and thumin rather than a more intimate examination.

“stones broken” – Leviticus 21:20 KJB

Young’s literal translation repeats the “broken” description from the King James version. What is a “broken” testicle? They might squish, but they don't fracture. This is a specific direction straight from the LORD, and I think it requires a literal interpretation, and you'd think a "literal translation"would help better with that..

Since testicles are the place where sperm is produced in the male body, are broken testicles simply those that cannot produce sperm? Is this a admonition to future Jews not to get vasectomies, and how did Iron-age peoples huddled in desert huts do sperm counts?

“broken-testicled” –Leviticus 21:20 Young’s Literal Translation

The Lexham, Easy to Read, and New Life bibles provide a bit of specificity as to the nature of the testicular injury, but they don’t really provide direction concerning the amount of damage. I would think the word crushed would not be a common modifier for the noun testicle, but it occurs eslwhere in the bible. 

"If a man's testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD." -- Deuteronomy 23:1 New Living Translation

Apparently if you have crushed testicles you are not allowed to eat with everybody else, or go hang out with them afterwards.

You would think that if crushing was such a displeasing testicular injury in the eyes of the LORD that he would have done a little safety training to prevent those type of injuries. Why not a commandment 11 like: “Thou shalt wear a cup when playing full contact sports, or sports involving a rapidly moving ball”.

And what is “crushed” ? I can picture some monk trying to minimize his injuries during the required examination: “No…that’s not a crushing…that’s just…uh…a bad pinch…yeah…just a bad pinch”. I know that when I was younger I would try and squirm out of being caught even when the accuser had the evidence right in their hand.

“crushed testicles” –Leviticus 21:20 Easy to read bible

“a crushed testicle” –Leviticus 21:20 Lexham English Bible

“sex parts have been crushed” --Leviticus 21:20 New Life Version

The Wycliffe bible cut’s through the crap and defines the unpleasing testicular status as being bruised. Unfortunately they replace the specific term testicle with “privy members”. What are privy members anyway? Are they members of some club that gets to use a special bathroom? I’m not sure the Wycliffe bible is even talking about damaged anatomy.

“bruised in (the) privy members” – Leviticus 21:20 Wycliffe Bible

The New century bible may be more specific than the Wycliffe bible in maintaining that the issue is anatomical, but by replacing testicles with “sex glands” they raise a whole new set of issues. How are they to test the prostate? Churches that use the New Century bible must have very invasive ceremonies.

That reminds me. As a tangential aside I should point something out. Prostate cancer is a significant cancer in men over the age of 45. In 2005 over 230,000 new cases of prostate cancer were diagnosed in the US, and over 30,000 men died of prostate cancer. Early prostate cancer usually presents no symptoms, yet early diagnosis is an important factor in survival from this disease.

“men who have damaged sex glands” –Leviticus 21:20 New Century Version

The Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition bible eliminates talk of this issue altogether. Leviticus 21:20 ends with the word rupture, but there is no mention of where or what a rupture is. This translation also describes having “a pearl in his eye”. I’m a bit confused about what this means, and without more background on this translation any interpretation of it on my part would be premature.

“If he be crookbacked, or blear eyed, or have a pearl in his eye, or a continual scab, or a dry scurf in his body, or a rupture” –Leviticus 21:20 Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition

What should have been clear instruction is lost.  Because the passage lacks any moral, social, or philosophical structure it is impossible to determine why god was so interested in the testicles of the men in "all the generations" that would follow his direction.  Filtered through what appears to be prudish re-wording we loose our grasp on even the simple noun I have focused on.  If testicles were important to god, and god said testicles, then why is this not clear in every bible translation?

Leviticus, and other collections of awkward statements from the old testament, are often dismissed by stating that Jesus relieved "us" from living under the "covenant" or "old laws" or whatever.  One of the reasons I chose this particular passage is that it is clear about when it would expire.  That time is never, or more specifically: "For the generations to come".  If Jesus removed the requirement to fondle the testicles of potential priests in the hopes of uncovering damage he did so despite the specific expiration date Jehovah set for those requirements. 

It is important to point out that this passage comes directly from Jehovah's mouth.  The bible is full of begats, and historically questionable history, and other things; all of which were written down by scribes whose scribblings were divinely guided by the hand of Jehovah.  This passage I chose is one where the very words of Jehovah are captured. 

Contrast the authorship of these words from Leviticus with 1st Corinthians.  Paul is speaking in 1st Corinthians and Jehovah is speaking in Leviticus.   Who, I ask you, is a more authoritative voice?

The Jehovah's witness who came to my door yesterday was able to whip out 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 like he had it on speed-dial.  When I asked him about Leviticus 21 he stumbled. 

"Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men  nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." -- 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 NIV

I would think the issues of precedent, authority, and divinity would be important ones for discriminating readers of the bible.  The bible is more often a source of justification for views rather than a moral code from which to formulate views. Usually this is a good thing; especially when dealing with Leviticus.

As an atheist my interpretation of the bible is suspect from the get-go.  I am expected to believe before my interpretation can be respected.  Finding something that questions belief is proof that one's interpretation is suspect.  One can go round and round on this.  The only safe way for a thinking Christian to read the bible is to lie about reading it.

I encourage all thinking Christians to really read the bible.  Critically reading the bible is a great first step for thinking caring theists to begin the wonderful conversion to Atheism with.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cabbages of Nephilim

When is an Atheist not an Atheist? Often when they are Christian.

Before I discovered some actual Atheist groups (which, since they are based in Salt Lake City, distance prevents me from interacting with as much as I would like) I had met as many self described Atheists who were in fact hard-core Christians as I had met honestly self-describing Atheists. I had met many, many Atheists, but most refused to self-describe as such; preferring an “I don’t really think about it” approach.

Since I am a self-describing Atheist I should possibly be at odds with those who are Atheists, but refuse to self identify. However, there is an extra level of anti-theism achieved by realizing that most religious notions are not even worth the time to discount. The attitude that there are better things to think about than god completely discounts religion; especially when one goes about thinking about those better things instead of god. When pushed these individuals often self-describe as agnostics, but in reality they are the uber-Atheists.

This blog has been described as “not atheist enough” because I haven’t spent enough time introducing elements of theology and then destroying them. I should do something like introduce bible quotes, and then disassemble them into nonsense. Here is a quote:

“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” – Genesis 6:4 KJB

But when I look at it I just don’t know where to begin.

I feel compelled to point out that Giants in the King James Version are called Nephilim in the New International Version, and that Nephilim would make a good name for a heavy metal band. I should point out that the idea of multiple sons of god detracts from the oft-repeated assertion from John 3:16 that “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” . You would think any reasonable cross-walking of the divine lineage would pick this up. I could create an historical list of men of renown, and then speculate on which were the cousins by divine impregnation of Jesus.

Unfortunately the deafening roar from my mental image of “The holiest of Spring Breaks” or “Gods Gone Wild” distracts me from such careful analysis of this scriptural gem. I begin to imagine God’s daughters. Were they party animals like his sons? The Roman’s had a mega-hottie actually called “the Goddess of Love and Beauty”. Does the Christian god at least have a daughter of “Awkward Infatuation” or “Lust and a Really Good Personality”?

If I re-wrote the bible I would add all sorts of interesting stuff. I would not just edit stuff out like Thomas Jefferson did. However, I might just throw out Leviticus entirely.

If I re-wrote the bible, and then disassembled it into absurdities, I would be doing something silly. Silly can be fun at times.

The Hard-Core Christians I have had introduce themselves as Atheists to me have not thought about Atheism much. Certainly not as much as I have thought about Christianity.  For some of the same reasons that “agnostics” who don’t think about religion at all are actually uber-Atheists the Christians who self-describe as Atheists consider themselves to be uber-Christians.

This pseudo Atheism is a popular ploy, but I have yet to see it employed effectively. I think it is actually meant for use with other Christians as a source of amusement. Not having real Atheists around they pretend to be one to display how foolish we are; a caricature show. This is analogous to the blackface minstrel shows which were popular in the USA till sometime in the 1960s.

I recall this one time that an acquaintance of a friend who was wearing a cross on a chain around his neck and a fish ring the size of rapper bling introduced himself to me as “an Atheist”. My friend rolled her eyes. He was smiling jovially enough, and would probably have lapsed into a set of jokes had I not cut him off.

“Welcome friend” I said “Isn’t it wonderful to appreciate this beautiful day, the love that good friends bring one another, and the special feeling you get when you know everything is right with the world without the oppressive notion of some ill-conceived invisible overlord. I know that it is so much easier to do the right thing by simply knowing what is right and wrong without pretending that some iron-age book describes anything worthwhile about morality. Isn’t it exhilarating to just feel the majestic complexity of the universe? I close my eyes and it feels like energy running up and down all the nerves of my peripheral nervous system; I love it!”

I had been slightly raising the tempo of my sermon as I progressed so no spaces were left for him to get a word in. My friend’s eyes had stopped roiling, and her hands had settled on her hips. Her lips threatened to form both a smile and a frown at the same time. I reached out to pleasantly touch my friend’s acquaintance’s shoulder, but he recoiled like it might hurt.

“Friend” I continued “We are at a pivotal moment in history. Great good is possible, and it is so wonderful that you are willing to stand as an Athiest, and by obvious extension stand for the greater good of the future of humanity. I know it is a difficult time to “come out” as an Atheist with so many folks –mainly Christians- who think it is righteous to belittle you. You may have felt abandoned by family and friends, or at least you know someone who has, but you are not alone. “

I spread my arms as if to hug him, and he stepped backwards. My friend’s lips collapsed into a momentary smile.

“Actually…I’m a Christian” muttered my friend's acquaintance.

“Born again?” I asked

“Yes” he replied while scanning for somewhere else to go.

“You can still abandon the idea of a judgmental invisible being” I said “you can still discard your awkward god and become an Atheist. We are the future”.

“No thank you” he replied quickly. Then he walked away.

My friend was no longer smiling, but she was amused.

“Will you give me a hug” I asked; spreading my arms wide to embrace her.

“No” she replied coyly “…at least not here where people might see me”

“Oh” I asked while trying to raise just my right eyebrow. “Why not?”

“Because you are an Atheist-Communist.”

I put my hand on her shoulder, which she didn't seem to mind, and asked her about the possibility of heading out alone with me to have a cup of coffee and "talk of many things: Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax of cabbages and kings and why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings."

"Okay" she replied, smiling openly now "I think I would like that"

"But first we will have to track down AOD and AYD." I replied "They have taken far too long returning from the bathroom, and I fear they have gotten distracted"

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

B movie, but great special effects

I do not write movie reviews, but I would think those for really awful movies would be the most fun to write. With that thought in mind I felt my spirits lift a bit when, while leaving a matinee showing of the movie Prometheus, I decided to write a review of it. On the short ride home my ideas for the review morphed into something almost entirely un-review-like so I believe it is entirely reasonable to be able to include this post in my entirely movie-review-free writing history. However there may be what some people call spoilers in this post. I think calling some information about a movie that one has not seen a “spoiler” presupposes something about the intrinsic status of the movie that Prometheus did not achieve, but I’m warning you anyway.

As a young man, even before I went full atheist, I decided that there were three likely events that would liquefy the foundations of most of Earth’s religions. These three events were:
  1. The cloning of a human being.
  2. The singularity of AI and human intelligence.
  3. First contact with an intelligent alien species.

It was fairly obvious when I made the list that cloning would be the first event fully realized. With ideas like immaculate conception and divine sourcing of souls the concept of cloning would provide fertile ground for questioning the mundane sourcing of humanity. In particular, if people could make humans without sex the preoccupation with sex that many religions has would suffer the decoupling of procreation from pleasure; a philosophical event much anticipated by devout hedonists around the globe.

Successful cloning was performed less than two decades after I made the event list. In 1996 researchers at the Roslin Institute in Scotland cloned a fuzzy white Finn-Dorset sheep; they named her “Dolly”. The source of Dolly’s DNA was a mammary gland and Ian Wilmut who led the team which cloned Dolly thought Dolly Parton’s mammary glands were impressive; hence Dolly’s name. The proper term for this type of cloning is: “somatic cell nuclear transfer”. Dolly had three mothers; one provided the egg, the second provided the DNA, and the third provided the womb in which she gestated. Dolly was genetically identical to Mom number two.  In 2003 Dolly died of a respiratory infection that had no linkage to her cloning. Her remains were expertly taxidermied, and are on display at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.

Since Dolly a whole slew of different animals have been cloned.

The cloning of a human has occurred at least partially. In 2008 Samuel Wood and Andrew French of Stemagen created five mature human embryos using DNA from a few of Wood’s skin cells. Wood destroyed his progeny, but there is little doubt that mature human children could be produced from cloned embryos.

Where are the throngs of emancipated hedonists burning effigies of the Virgin Mary in the street? The churches are relatively silent on the issue of cloning. They have come out in force to deride the cloning of humans as unethical, but they balk on the big questions. Would the cloned human have a soul, and if it did where would it have come from? The theologists I have pinged seem only interested in the cloning of a human insofar as they insist that it is not a theological issue. They think they have dodged this issue, and an examination of the second event might tell us why.

The singularity of human and AI is the point where the two are essentially indistinguishable. I did not realize it when I made the list, but the singularity had already been essentially realized.

Human intelligence is such an ephemeral concept that identifying a singularity with it would appear to be an impossible task. In 1950 Alan Turing (one of the world’s most revered thinkers) published the paper titled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”; four years later, at age 41, he was dead (suicide). In his famous CMI paper Alan came up with a way of identifying the singularity.

Alan’s test was simple. Let people decide what they think is more human like. The idea here is be that one could at least test human-like intelligence and that would be at least equivalent to testing for human-level intelligence. There is the potential for greater than human intelligence, but that would be a different question. The idea of the Turing Test was to provide a means to assess the human-likeness of an intelligence.

The test is a simple blind study. A group of people interact with humans or AI’s and then guess at whether the entity they are interacting with is human or AI. If an AI scored as high as humans it would be accurately described as human-like and a type of singularity would have been achieved.

The implications of one possibility have not been exhaustively explored, and that possibility is that one could create an AI which did better on the Turing test than humans. It is almost inconceivable that an AI would be more human-like than actual humans. This possibility leaves the domain of Artificial Intelligence research and creates a field better named Artificial Psychology.

In 1966 Joseph Weizenbaum published a paper introducing the program he named “ELIZA” after a character in Pygmalion. He had begun coding ELIZA in 1964, and his aim was to create a program that fooled people into believing that it was human. ELIZA became the first of a class of human fooling programs known as chatterbots.

I had the opportunity to interact with an early ELIZA back when she was still confined to a monochrome screen with the ghostly images of Wordstar’s main menu permanently etched into its phosphor. One would type in a question and ELIZA would respond with a question. Apparently Weizenbaum was mimicking the approach a Rogerian psychologist takes with their patient. The responses I got were interesting at first, but frayed at the edges. I though it a clever ploy, but believed that AI would reach singularity via another path. I was wrong.

Chatterbots regularly beat humans in humanness. Even with a highly educated group of human competitors chatterbots are almost impossible for a highly educated panel of judges to identify. In other words chatterbots are more human than most humans when the humans are trying to be normally human.

Chatterbots are now employed as call center workers for some major international banks as well as the car companies Renault and Citroen. They populate social media and chat rooms. Some of them have been employed to convince people to reveal personal data about themselves, and they are quite good at it. Perhaps someone you know only through electronic communication could be a chatterbot. Maybe I am?

Many AI researchers look down on chatterbots as tricksters, but that only raises the question of what most people are. How much of human interaction is simply people attempting to convince us that they are people? How much intelligence is required for Human Intelligence?

Perhaps human interaction is largely comprised of convincing people that you are like them, and although I’ve approached that question via AI in this post that same conclusion can be reached through other lines of reasoning. If it is the process of belief and faith is more a communal delusion than a personal choice. The impact of any particular event on belief is moderated more by its ability to be glossed over (like the cloning event) than by the intrinsic implications of the event itself.

This would explain why iron-age religions have survived thousands of years of information that should have sublimated their foundations. I’m not just talking about great scientific theories like evolution. What about simple things like the lightbulb? “Let there be light and I flipped a switch” does not carry the booming voice of Charleston Hesston creating the world from void.

I do not want to knock the idea of selective reconciliation of natural and scriptural phenomena as a similar process has allowed us to discard most of Leviticus, and that has been a good thing. Are all possible theology challenging events to be disarmed by banal assimilation? Could there exist an event so shocking that it would force re-calibration of earthly theology?

That question brings us to both event 3, and a surprisingly bad movie.

The main character in Prometheus is a woman both unable to face her own sterility and able to blindly program a surgical machine to perform a amazingly unanethestized caesarian section on herself. Then within minutes of the surgery –still sporting a brightly stapled abdominal incision- she confronts her creator, and destroy him at the tentacles of her now gigantic birthling. Although I strongly believe that suspension of disbelief is aided by detailed computer animation I find it difficult to understand the uber-waif’s inability to discard her Christianity in the face of the superlative generating evidence supplied her.

She is convinced that she has discovered a race of giants who are both her creators and cousins. They have planned on destroying her planet with poly-morphing mucus-resplendent weaponized aliens. Yet she still clings to her" Jesus died on the cross to atone for our sins" ideal. It is so cute, and she almost does it justice with her doe eyes, but what was she thinking?

She had apparently set the whole mission in motion by discovering messages in cave paintings that pre-dated her atonement mutilation by thousands of years. Her belief requires that the whole sin-atonement thing went down, but that Jesus neglected to mention that there was a fleet of ships aimed at Earth with the sole purpose of raining Armageddon-like slimy death upon it.

There was a shining opportunity for the protagonist to reclaim the movie, and her own dignity at the same time. In  one of the last scenes she is clipping into a miraculously appearing climbing rope to rappel out of the crashed alien ship. She is having a few words with the disembodied head of “Dave” who as an AI has been poorly treated throughout the movie by his creators. He is surprisingly polite for a disembodied head, and perhaps the most empathetic character in the movie. She has lowered his body over the side, and is about to zip his head into a duffle bag. She could have paused for a second, and in a contemplative voice suggested: “creators can be such douche-bags”.

If aliens are contacting the Human race it may be as likely that they have approached some chatterbot as it is that they have approached a flesh-and-blood human. Maybe they will be sent some DNA through a strategic glitch in some clinical-sample processing program, and they will be able to clone up some flesh-and-blood humans of their own. Perhaps they will send them back to earth, and the appearance of chatterbot-raised alien-human clones will finally create a theology attenuating event.

I suspect not though.

But it might make for a cool movie.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Pride Limp

The Utah Pride Parade was this weekend, and I did not march in it. Despite the whole heterosexual thing I was planning on marching in the parade. I was going to keep my orientation closeted.

The idea of marching was not to poke fun, even though it is a fabulous and fun event, but to swell the ranks of a set of atheist groups that have supported gay rights in parades since there were enough gay rights for such marches to legally take place.

Atheists of the humanist variety often have a hard time making a big deal out of supporting gay rights issues on their intrinsic merit alone. On the face of it the idea of equal employment or equal housing or whatever is a collection of blindingly obvious issues. There is no substance in debating them, and spending time listening to people who oppose these rights is tedious and irritating.

A discussion of “gay marriage” with an atheist is likely to yield comments like: “Marriage…are you sure about that. If you want to get married then go ahead and stick your head in that oven. People are not much more likely to get a marriage to work just because they are some flavor of LGBT.” The attention is on whether marriage would be a good idea for you; not if you would be a good idea for marriage. People should think hard about getting married because marriage isn’t the right thing for everyone; it isn’t even the right thing for most people who get married.

As to the question of gay marriage being legal…well I’ve yet to hear an argument against it that is not tedious and irritating.

It is the extrinsic factors that motivate atheists to support gay rights. The main extrinsic factor being that enough of those rights do not exist in our country’s law. When a misguided idea like banning marriage for same-sex couples goes from ill-conceived rambling into law it is transformed from irritating to wrong. It is easy to find motivation to support the elimination of wrongs.

For sheer volume of justifications for perpetuating the particular wrongs visited upon the rights of LGBT people nothing comes close to religious arguments. It is a natural fit for an atheist group to march in opposition to the wrongs championed by the very groups they are primarily defined as not being.

The atheist groups marching in the Pride Parade must be incredibly tempting for the other participants. Not only are we a tremendously sexy group (even though some of us may be closeted heterosexuals) carrying suggestive signs saying things like: “NO GOD, KNOW LOVE”, but the basic message is one of unwavering support for a human’s most obvious rights.

I wanted to be in that number; when the so-not-saints go marching in.

Unfortunately a set of stairs collapsed strategically under me, and I was sent awkwardly flailing into the fractured remnants of the plate of food I was carrying. I would spend the weekend barely walking, let alone marching.

I missed the headline-grabbing Mormons Building Bridges group who marched at the head of the parade this year. These were heterosexual (and out, not closeted like me) Mormons marching to support the LGBT community in Utah. This was actually a big deal as just last year the LDS church was revoking the temple recommends of people who were seen as too closely associating with gay rights groups. By the largest counts I’ve seen there were almost 300 of these bridge-building Mormons marching through the heat in their Sunday best.

This cohort represented over one one-hundredth of one percent of the Mormons in Utah alone. There is a liberalizing force at work in today’s Mormon Church, and I’m sure that more than half of it has nothing to do with the hope that we will soon have our first Mormon president.

The message of the Mormons’ Building Bridges group was clear. They wanted everyone to know that they and the LDS Church fully support the LGBT community in every way; as long as they did not do anything that was…y’ or the like.

They were also letting the LGBT community know that they were welcome in the LDS Church. They could attend most of the services, and they might even be allowed to get a temple recommend for a while. Sure they would not be able to get married now, but the prophet might eventually be told by god that things are different; it worked for the African Americans. In addition, if any members of the LGBT community wanted to become heterosexual the church would support their attempts, and even let them get married and raise a proper family.

You’ve come a long way baby.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Nail biting

As a result of AYD’s inappropriate dress incident I have been thinking about hammers. Several people have suggested that the Tooele school district employees are “dumb as a bag of hammers”. Others, with a keener sense of empathy, have suggested that the district is unable to effectively understand the situation because “if you use a hammer all the time all your problems start to look like nails”. Since the true nature of the situation lies somewhere in between what these two bromides describe I hoped to mix them in the apothecary of metaphor, and come up with something that accurately described the situation. I tried, but I just did not feel like anything really “nailed it”.

At some point in the developing whirlwind of attention AYD decided that she was cast as the hammer rather than the nail, and realized that her fleeting fame was not all that bad. The last day of her junior high was populated with a multitude of teen girls dressed in slightly inappropriate clothing. Rumor had it that several parents even helped their daughters pick out clothing which would ever-so-slightly violate the school’s dress code.

Defiance is an alien concept in a rural Mormon community, but when it is packaged in a safe, kid friendly, and uncontroversial activity it is quite popular. The stories AYD told of her last day were punctuated by giggles. The dress-code had been colorized from authoritarian grey to the Technicolor of low-brow adolescent humor; it would now be shelved with booger and fart jokes rather than Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky. Sometimes when you cannot change the world you can still re-decorate it.

I have been thrilled by the response the situation has gotten. It has resonated with people, and that is something I’ve only imagined happening with anything I say. In addition to the tens of thousands of reads, thousands of online comments, television interviews, and a front-page story in our local paper I have been stopped repeatedly by actual corporeal people who want to tell me how they had the same thing happen to them. More important than all this is the news I got from my Mom that some folks from her poetry group actually read the essay, and said it was “pretty good”.

The other, equally accurate but less flattering, comment Mom’s poetry group members made was that: “The whole thing is not really news”. This is true. When AYD was being sent to the office there were kids being blown up in Syria. One of those things is really news, and the other is not. There are so many things that are really newsworthy that every channel could be filled with a constant cacophony of woe and strife drowning out any semblance of peace and normalcy with insistent justified priority.

Great changes need to be made in the world for it to be more like the world we all know it should be. Unfortunately history is full of great changes actually causing greater screw-ups than the problems they were trying to solve. The great big problems that should be so easy to grasp due to their enormity are often impossible to nail down due to hidden complexities.

There are no complexities in the story about AYD’s inappropriate skirt. There is the picture, and it is not a picture of an inappropriately dressed young lady. AYD was taken to the office because of an interpretation of the dress code policy, and so the policy is broken. Now fix it.

I suspect that Tooele is not the only school system in the country where administrators have to deal with some pretty crazy stuff. I remember reading about an incident where principal Barry (who has a congenitally deformed arm) got into a fist fight with an irate parent. I imagined the cops storming in and tasering the parents in front of an auditorium filled with horrified junior high students, but the article I read did not include that detail.

There are real drugs, and real abuse, and real crazy (in a bad way) stuff going on at that junior high school and the school’s administration has to deal with it. Since there are many truly crazy people who make more noise than any twenty sane people all the channels of communication for the junior high administration are filled with a constant cacophony of paranoia and hallucination drowning out any semblance of the rational and harmonious with insistent justified priority.

When I spoke to the administration it felt like they were speaking some impromptu code designed to avoid certain words or phrases. I remember seeing a movie where someone would utter a secret word over the phone, and this would cause the hearer to behave rather badly. I imagined they were trying to avoid the word which would cause a hoard of glassy-eyed parents to march into their school wearing gaudy paper hats, and start chewing on the furniture.

One, much more likely, suggestion I got was that they were trying to avoid being sued. I was not aware that there was a large history of litigation involving junior high schools doing minor stupid things. If there is I’m sure there will be no shortage of situations to populate those cases well into the foreseeable future. Randomly treating parents like they are potential litigants will not significantly reduce the number of potential lawsuits, which I suspect is much much smaller for all US junior high schools together than the number of foolish things done at Tooele junior high alone. 

So the administration has dug in their heals, and is apparently unwilling to change. AYD moves on to high school, and with it new challenges.

I may re-write the dress-code for the junior high school if I can muster the inspiration for a few hundred words of futility. I usually can find a few hundred words to spare. I’m sure they will ignore it, but “Ignorance is bliss”; especially when you don’t know of anything else that could be.