Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hot Alban Hefin

Today is the summer solstice for most of the world. In California the solstice actually occurred just before midnight, when, somewhere in the Middle East, the sun passed directly overhead. It was hot for the solstice in much of California as it had been hot all day, and the residual sun’s heat had not yet dissipated into the California desert night as the direct rays of the sun heated the deserts of Iran.

Just a few degrees north of the Tropic of Cancer in the Middle East is a weather station named Mitribah. Mitribah is in a desolate part of a desolate landscape, and it gets hot there in the summer. On July 21st 2016 the Mitrabah weather station may have recorded the highest temperature on earth ever reliably recorded. That temperature was a sweltering 54oC (129.2oF). Weather stations in Death Valley California may have recorded the same temperature, and have unreliably recorded a much higher temperature (56.7oC on 10 July 1913 at Furnace Creek Ranch), but the hot parts of Death Valley are quite a few meters lower than sea-level, and Mitrabah has an elevation of 119 meters.

It is hot in Mitribah today; temperatures were in the range of 40oC. It is even hotter in Death Valley; temperatures may hit 53oC there.

Today is the official solstice day here in Utah, even though it occurred just a little after midnight local time. It will be hot here; hot like Mitribah was today, not as hot as Death Valley. If I am lucky I will get out for a short lunchtime bike ride. Riding a bicycle in the super heat is an exercise in tempering one’s effort to minimize heat buildup while creating enough personal wind to generate evaporative cooling from high tech fabric and sweat. It only feels really hot when I stop.

If I was in Death Valley and catastrophically stopped while cycling I could suffer severe burns when I came into contact with the tarmac. In addition to “road burn” caused by abrasive removal of dermis I could actually suffer severe thermal burning from the hot asphalt. Black road surfaces can reach temperatures in excess of 70oC. Air temperatures around 70oC are sometimes used in saunas, but contact with a hot half melted tar surface transmits that heat to the skin very efficiently. When raised to temperatures in excess of 44oC most of the proteins in human cells begin to break down; this is colloquially known as “literally cooking”.

Most consumer electronic devices overheat long before they are exposed to ambient temperatures of 70oC. So even if you were lucky enough to crash in a part of the American desert where there was cell phone service your cell phone would have given up its own ghost after a few seconds of lying on the pavement next to your sizzling bacon-scented body.

Anyone who has been outside with other people when the air temperature in the shade exceeds 45oC knows that people start acting stupid. The brain generates a lot of heat and when the body cannot dissipate that heat properly people begin to misplace aspects of their cognition. Hallucinations are possible, but the whole experience is so unpleasant that I have never heard of anyone going in search of heatstroke for a recreational high.

It makes sense to blame the high temperatures on global warming. In fact it sounds like the two are causally linked by definition. However, these are excursion temperatures and the link is not direct enough to lead naturally to answers like “how hot can it get?” or “How many hot days can we expect?”. The expected answers of “Hotter” and “More” are glued together with a bunch of “I don’t really know”s that just don’t feel satisfying to me.

If the record high temperatures increase just shy of 10oC the environment will not just be irritating and dangerous; it will become unable to support human life. We will not pop like popcorn when we go outside, but we will need to hide from the great nuclear furnace in the sky by huddling in our cool caves in order to survive the day.

So…. I would love to wish you a happy summer solstice (Some people call it Litha or Alban Hefin), and hope you get outside for a bit, but not too long.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Grab that Rod of Iron!

I recently followed a suggestion to view a set of pages relating to Women in the LDS (Mormon) church. Once there I was treated to a concept salad of directives and confusing history. I tarried a bit at the suggestion that the Hellenistic influences on the Middle East caused some sort of moral decay; there is something smelly in that bit of revisionist history. However, as with most Mormon writings, there was a skew metaphysical code permeating each narrative that made unsdertanding the point(s) unescesarily difficult. I thought I would parse out at least one today. Today I will make an attempt at deciphering what is meant –in the LDS theological code- by the “Rod of Iron” (note the capitalization).

The only place a rod of iron is described in what most people recognize as the bible is in the disturbing Psalm 2. There the rod of iron device is rather unambiguously described as a cudgel.

“You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” –Psalm 2:9(NIV)

Presumably the Iron Age authors of the Bible would have seen a rod of iron as being the ultimate cudgel for bashing in skulls; a wooden or bronze cudgel would not provide as authoritarian a skull cracking as that newfangled iron stuff. Before wading into LDS writing today I thought this most obvious of iron rod imagery would have been, aside from euphemisms, the beginning and ending of the subject.

  Joseph Smith (founder of the LDS church) did add a bit about them into revelations (12).

“And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up unto God and his throne.” Revelations 12:4 (JST)

The “JST” in the attribution to the above quote denotes the “Joseph Smith Translation” as the source. This is not a standard translation as there appears to have never been source material from which the material was “translated”. The whole idea of magical translations from material only provided in magical form is an interesting story, but I won’t be going into that here. What I would like to point out is that there is distinct similarity between the use of “rod of iron” in Psalm 2 and the bit Joseph Smith added to revelations. The rod of iron is a crude weapon wielded by a ruler. This makes sense as iron would have been somewhat precious at the time the bible was written, and so an iron cudgel might have been a weapon befitting a king.

The way the LDS literature I had stumbled across was repeatedly using the term “Rod of Iron” suggested it was not the biblical cudgel. The “Rod of Iron” kept showing up in variations of the directive to “hold fast to the Rod of Iron”. “Holding fast” is not what I immediately picture doing with a heavy metal baton unless I was being directed to be the person swinging it about and bashing heads with it. When I replaced the term like “hold fast to the Rod of Iron” with “bash some heads” the writing did not make more sense, and I suspected that the LDS “Rod of Iron” was very different from the Iron Age iron cudgel. I "held fast" to the slim hope that the "Rod of Iron" was being used as the euphemism it should occupy in its natural state, but it was not that either.

I would discover that the most accurate description of the Mormon “Rod of Iron” would be “Magic Handrail”. This does not sound like a very Iron Age idea, and since it apparently came from the first book of Nephi in the Book of Mormon it is not an Iron Age idea. Let me describe to you how I discovered the magic Handrail "translation".

The following is the 8th chapter of the first book of Nephi from the Book of Mormon. Reading the Book of Mormon can cause drowsiness. Mark Twain even called it “Chloroform in Print”. Do not attempt to read the Book of Mormon while driving or operating heavy machinery.

1 Nephi 8:2 And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.

[The wilderness is mentioned so many times, and in so many ways, that it might be worth looking at]
1 Nephi 8:3 And behold, because of the thing which I have seen, I have reason to rejoice in the Lord because of Nephi and also of Sam; for I have reason to suppose that they, and also many of their seed, will be saved.

[And here one has to ask “Saved From What or How?”. Eventually all the offspring of Nephi and Sam will be exterminated, but that occurs later in the book. Did I mention that there might be spoilers in this discussion?]
1 Nephi 8:4 But behold, Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you; for behold, methought I saw in my dream, a dark and dreary wilderness.
[More wilderness, but at least it was not “Dark and Stormy”]
1 Nephi 8:5 And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
[So the dream opens. A dark dystopian landscape becomes visible. A lone figure of a man in a white robe walks up and silently stands before Mr. Lehi. I should also point out that “And it came to pass” is one of the most common phrases in the Book of Mormon.]
1 Nephi 8:6 And it came to pass that he spake unto me, and bade me follow him.
[So the fellow in the robe is not mute, and there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:7 And it came to pass that as I followed him I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste.
[I thought we had already established that it was a dark and dreary location, and there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:8 And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies.
[Apparently the dark and dreary place is large and spacious enough to walk for hours in it. The “according to the multitude of his tender mercies” is also code, but I won’t be going into that here.]
1 Nephi 8:9 And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field.
[Is it a dark and dreary field, or are we just done with the darkness now? And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:10 And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.
[I understand that Lehi is describing a tree full of nice fruit, and the fruit was probably welcome after all the hours walking through the dark and dreary wilderness, but the wording has me picturing a bunch of apricots with little faces singing “eat me please” in chorus. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:11 And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen.
[So they are NOT apricots, or if they are they are mutant white apricots that look like an overexposed picture. Lots of whiteness, and this is weird and trippy, and there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:12 And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.
[Best fruit ever]
1 Nephi 8:13 And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit.
[So he had been walking for hours in this dark and dreary wilderness with some guy in a white robe, but the family is probably around here someplace. And –oh look!- there is a river right here beside the white fruit tree.]
1 Nephi 8:14 And I looked to behold from whence it came; and I saw the head thereof a little way off; and at the head thereof I beheld your mother Sariah, and Sam, and Nephi; and they stood as if they knew not whither they should go.
[So the river is coming out of the ground just a few meters up stream, and –Look!- there is half the family all confused as to where they are and how they got there.
1 Nephi 8:15 And it came to pass that I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit.
[Did he already mention that he thought the white fruit was good? And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:16 And it came to pass that they did come unto me and partake of the fruit also.
[He yelled to them and they came over and had some white fruit. You are probably wondering where the Rod of Iron is. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:17 And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also; wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them.
[So the rest of the family should come over and have some really great white fruit. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:18 And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit.
[So, what’s up with Laman and Lemuel? Oh, perhaps this is a parable. Maybe they should call it “The parable of two guys who wouldn’t come have white fruit even though they were asked to”? And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:19 And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
[So here is the Rod of Iron, finally.]
1 Nephi 8:20 And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world.
[Here the narrative takes on a new feel. Ever had anyone tell you that two things were “exactly the same only different”? Presumably half the family already walked this path the few meters from the head of the river. Also… where did this fountain come from? Is the fountain also the head of the river? And if the large and spacious field had been a world was it now some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland?]
1 Nephi 8:21 And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.
[And not the place is crowded. Where did all the people come from? Where did the dude in the white robe go? Lehi just saw the tree and walked up to it without even noticing there was a path, so why are people so interested in this Rod of Iron path?]
1 Nephi 8:22 And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree.
[Forgive me if I digress, but the narrative has jumped the tracks a bit here. It reads like someone was recounting a story, and then went out to get lunch or a few beers, and then came back to writing the story but forgot where they were. Now we have crowds of people pushing along a straight and narrow path beside a fountain and a river. The path needs a handrail, and leads up to a tree that was previously in a big field. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:23 And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
[So, now it is dark again, but Lehi can see people getting lost because those people can’t see because of this “great mist of darkness”. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:24 And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.
[Here the handrail image is better developed. I really am not a fan of the fact that it is too dark for anyone to see anything see, but that Lehi can see everything so clearly. And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
1 Nephi 8:25 And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed.
[Doesn’t it feel like it should be getting rather crowded around the tree by this point in the story?]
1 Nephi 8:26 And I also cast my eyes round about, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth.
[And now a building floating in the air]
1 Nephi 8:27 And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
[The people in the building can see through the darkness too. Apparently one can also see into the building, and it is close enough to make out the expressions on people’s faces. How exactly does one not notice a giant floating glass building full of well-dressed people making fun of you. I’ve heard of people dreaming about going for a job interview, and realizing they forgot to put their pants on once the interview started; some kind of anxiety dream unless the dream interview starts going better for lack of pants. Coming to realize that you are being followed by a giant floating building full of well-dressed people mocking you is a more unique type of anxiety dream; would it be worse if the mocking people wore no pants?]
1 Nephi 8:28 And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.
[Forbidden paths sounds interesting]
1 Nephi 8:29 And now I, Nephi, do not speak all the words of my father.
[why, because they were even more trippy than these?]
1 Nephi 8:30 But, to be short in writing, behold, he saw other multitudes pressing forward; and they came and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press their way forward, continually holding fast to the rod of iron, until they came forth and fell down and partook of the fruit of the tree.
[So…lets focus on the handrail. Hold onto the handrail in order to make it to the tree. This summary of the dream adds the detail that people fell down once they made it to the tree.]
1 Nephi 8:31 And he also saw other multitudes feeling their way towards that great and spacious building.
[Let us also mention multitudes trying to get into the big building. They are apparently feeling their way to the building, because it is dark maybe, but once in the building they can see like Lehi?]
1 Nephi 8:32 And it came to pass that many were drowned in the depths of the fountain; and many were lost from his view, wandering in strange roads.
[“Strange roads” sounds cool. There is that fountain again, and now it is filled with dead bodies.]
1 Nephi 8:33 And great was the multitude that did enter into that strange building. And after they did enter into that building they did point the finger of scorn at me and those that were partaking of the fruit also; but we heeded them not.
[Yes, the people who make it into the strange building do get special sight. I am glad he cleared that up.]
1 Nephi 8:34 These are the words of my father: For as many as heeded them, had fallen away.And Laman and Lemuel partook not of the fruit, said my father.
[I am not sure how he knew that the two boys didn’t get some fruit while he wasn’t looking. It sounds very confusing.]
1 Nephi 8:36 And it came to pass after my father had spoken all the words of his dream or vision, which were many, he said unto us, because of these things which he saw in a vision, he exceedingly feared for Laman and Lemuel; yea, he feared lest they should be cast off from the presence of the Lord.
[You think this stuff is trippy? You should have heard the really crazy stuff Nephi didn’t write down!]
1 Nephi 8:37 And he did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent, that they would hearken to his words, that perhaps the Lord would be merciful to them, and not cast them off; yea, my father did preach unto them.
[As a parent myself I can assure you that it is very difficult to get your kids to listen well when you start your lecturing them with a trippy story about impossible and poorly described hallucinations. However, picture this from the point of view of the kids. Lehi has just related a story about fountains full of dead bodies, magic white fruit and some guy in a matching white dress, a huge floating party in a glass building, all sorts of strange perceptions and darkness’s, and a magic handrail that should be fixated on. Then he wants to know why the boys didn’t eat white fruit in the dream. I’m sure he looked at them with wild bloodshot eyes, and with spittle foam flacking his words demanded that the white fruit was “The best fruit ever”. I don’t know what I would do when he demanded to know why I did not eat the fruit in his dream. I hope I would have said that I was eating the fruit while he was distracted by that well-dressed party goer who had forgotten their pants.]
1 Nephi 8:38 And after he had preached unto them, and also prophesied unto them of many things, he bade them to keep the commandments of the Lord; and he did cease speaking unto them.
[It is good that he eventually stopped talking to them. I’m sure everyone suggested that he take a nice long nap and sleep off the whatever it was.]

If you don’t think that bit was well developed enough to make for a good and lasting metaphor, then you are not alone. In order to clear things up Joseph spells out what the metaphor is in the 11th chapter of the first book of Nephi:

1 Nephi 11:25 And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.
[This is confusing as I thought people were drowning in the fountain!?! And there’s that “And it came to pass” again.]
Later still in the first book of Nephi (chapter 15) the two boys who were confused by Lehi’s story (and who wouldn’t be?) ask Nephi what that story was all about. Nephi searches in his bag of tricks, and says the whole thing was metaphorical. As to the Rod of Iron:

1 Nephi 15:23 And they said unto me: What meaneth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree?
1 Nephi 15:24 And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness, to lead them away to destruction.
[Fiery darts – Great mists of darkness…. Whatever]

And that, my dear readers, is rather typical of trying to decode Mormon theology. If only there was a consistent narrative that one could grasp onto, like a magic handrail perhaps, in order to guide one to the desired meaning of a particular story in the Book of Mormon. I know there are many who will argue that the living prophet and revelation through faith can guide one, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that this entire post is all about decoding a strange coded metaphor whose repeated use clouded my ability to read the supposedly guiding writings. These poorly-worded Book of Mormon stories are actually used recursively to decrease the ability to understand what is being said. I am tempted to believe that this cacophony of dissonant understanding is actually a tool meant to distract believers from accidentally realizing that there is very little to understand in most of LDS theology.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

No Pride in Atheisting

The Salt Lake Pride festival and parade is this weekend, and I will not be going. My sign from last year is ready, and the ankle that kept me from marching a couple years back is in great shape, but I will not be going. The reason I will not be going is that the Atheists of Utah has not been granted a place in the festivities. There are other groups I have a history of participating at pride with, like those associated with recovery from drug addiction; these groups have all been granted places so I could choose between invitations to participate this year.  I could, of course, just go as a spectator as most of what I have ever done there is wander about talking and hanging out, but I will not go.

To be perfectly clear, I am not exactly sure what transpired to prevent AoU from attending. All I know is that –according to the official AoU statement- “despite our best efforts, communications with UPC [Utah Pride Center] staff broke down”. I wasn’t able to get any clarity after asking for it, but I was offered the chance to drive 80 miles to an AoU event and be directly, presumably off the record, informed of what had happened. I realize that I do not have the right or status in the organization to expect anything more.

The AoU statements do go on to explain how the UPC described the festival venue at near capacity and quoted the UPC exuberance at the AoU withdrawal by including the quote: "[The AoU withdrawal] has given two LGBTQ specific organizations, who didn't apply in time, to now have the opportunity to take part in this year's festival!". The implication that the place is too full for Atheists, but that the lack of Atheists will make it a better festival for the right folks might sound a little passive-aggressive, and I suspect that appearance is a direct result of a lot of passive-aggressive activities going on in the places where there is more direct knowledge of what happened .
“We want to show that the LGBT community is in solidarity with people who are concerned about clean air, people who are concerned about health care for everyone, elder care, immigrant and refugee rights, anti-racism, fair pay, reproductive rights, and all of the things that make us human,” 2017 festival director Liz Pitts.
The exclusion can't really be explained by suggesting that AoU is not "LGBTQ-enough" because a sizeable fraction of the participating organizations are companies with LGBTQ-friendly policies, or community organizations that wish to offer services to at-risk LGBTQ people. One of the central purposes of the Pride week activities is bringing together community support and recognition for LGBTQ issues and needs; it is not just a party for LGBT social clubs. AoU has been participating at pride for years, and like every year applied early and raised more than enough money to support the effort. All the monies raised for participation -not just those raised for donation to UPC- have been donated this year despite the lack of participation.
“We will never really achieve full equality or equity if we aren’t lifting all boats at the same time. That’s the importance of this march,” Salt Lake City mayor Biskupski at her speech opening Pride Week 2017
The pride festival begin today with an interfaith service.  Nobody expected AoU to be invited to participate in that.
 "We have been reaching out to community organizations of all types" 2017 festival director Liz Pitts
I suspect that a measurable amount of the “at capacity” space will be occupied by the the new “hugging booths” that Mormons Building Bridges have introduced. MBB is an apologist organization that seeks to normalize the homophobia that is a structural component of LDS cultural theology. They insist on calling anything LGBQ (note the lack of a "T" here) by the acronym “SSA”, which stands for “Same Sex Attraction”. If allowed they can describe individuals who "suffer" from SSA who have married members of the opposite sex, raised families in the LDS church, and been monogamously in love with only their opposite-sex spouse. If this sounds like a rather mundanely neurotic form of heterosexuality the reason is that it is a neurotic form of heterosexuality. Like all things neurotic and sexual SSA even had its own reality TV series (called "My Husband's Not Gay") for a short while.

Passive-aggressive behavior is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unique to Utah, but here, in the shade of the Zion Curtain, it has matured into an Olympic-level event. Organizations like UPC or Equality Utah are often (usually?) hotbeds of interpersonal conflict and petty political turmoil. It’s not as bad as social groups are, but meetup groups are not expected to operate with a social conscious much elevated above that of a junior high school clique. Activist organizations help address social injustice, put people in contact with critical services (like drug rehabilitation, suicide prevention, and mental health services), and, hopefully, have management teams that are as competent as the seriousness of their mission(s) demands.

Former UPC director Valarie Larabee was quoted as explaining that “there are two groups of Utah gays who come from the Mormon tradition: those who broke away from it wholeheartedly and those who are trying to somehow remain reconciled with their Mormon heritage even though it denigrates the essential elements of their lives and works energetically to deny them equality.” Larabee was explaining this to author Tony Adams as he investigated the reason that Joe Jervis (of had been quietly disinvited as a grand marshal for the 2013 Salt Lake pride parade. Joe, it appears, was too Atheist-like and this irritated the gay-Mormon defenders of the LDS faith in the UPC organization.

Larabee said in the may 21st 2013 Tony Adams interview that she offered to fly Joe in and put him up at her own expense. In November of that year one resigning (Allen Miller) and several former members (anonymous) of the UPC wrote two letters calling for Larabee to be removed, and a few days later, after nine years as UPC director, Larabee resigned. The next director, Steven Ha, would resign in December of 2014 due to health issues. The director who took over from Ha, Marian Edmonds-Allen, resigned in October of 2015; she recommended that the executive director position be eliminated. For the past year and a half Carol Gnade has been UPC executive director.

The LDS church is not as vocal in their anti-LGBTQ views as, say, Margret Court (famous tennis player who won more major titles than anyone ever) who recently called for a boycott of Quantas (because of their stance on same-sex marriage) while stating gay activists are like Hitler. Most Mormons would never say something like that aloud, or at least they would vigorously try and explain away any meaning to their words should they be overheard saying something like that.

The fact is that Atheism provides a positive and effective alternative to the moral quagmire of cafeteria-style Christian or Mormon faith. Tens of thousands of LGBTQ former believers have found relief from feelings of inadequacy, counterfeit personality, suicidal ideation, and subhuman identification by just trashing the delusion they called faith. Because of this people who are living and enjoying life without the use of religion are insulting to religions simply by existing; becoming an atheist (or at least an agnostic) is too tempting an alternative to self-loathing to be allowed to be presented in the light of day.

I should be very clear. Without AoU at the pride festival the Atheist LGBTQ lifestyle will be repeatedly described by faith-based organizations in the vacuum they prefer to Atheists, and they will present it as a non-viable alternative. Even the drug rehabilitation groups I often participate with will tend, without some Atheists participating, to present belief in a theist personal God as requisite for giving up drugs and living like a human being. Without real atheists on hand to accurately present a much-needed alternative for the LGBTQ people being actively hurt by religion the alternative of Atheism will be presented as a ridiculous and unworkable strawman; people will find more hurt where they might have found a real alternative.

Over the past several months I have seen a crop of apologist gay-LDS memes and quotes. These are stating things like “To our gay-LDS friends: you are not counterfeit”. To many this is code for stating that people will be protected from the obvious questions about why any LGBTQ person could provide monetary support to an organization that actively drives other LGBTQ people into despair. In the case of the Utah pride festival this sentiment might mean that people will be protected from any presentation of alternatives to the disgusting way parts of the LDS church treats some humans because they are LGBTQ.

And –NO- I am not going to show up anyway after painting over my “Adult Onset Atheist” sign with something like “Atheist Now – Ask Me How”. Many of the folks at Pride already know what an unwanted second-class citizen looks like; they don’t need me to remind them.

I may, however, drive the 80 mile round trip out to the regular Thursday “Godless Coffee in Zion” and try and get a more complete story about what the “breakdown in communication” really was. Maybe it will entice me to write a retraction, but I don’t think anything I’ve written here depends on knowing the secret inner story as to what happened. It may entice me to write a more complete post that does include details about the interaction. Who knows?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

No time like the Salt Lake Gran Fondo

I participated in the Salt Lake Gran Fondo the other day. This was a supported bike ride of a hundred miles and change that circumnavigated the Oquirrh (/ˈoʊkər/ pronounced “Oak-err”) mountains. The course featured 3 miles of police escort along I-80 to start, and a timing chip to accurately record one’s time; unfortunately a bunch of participants’ times were lost to an overheating laptop.

After slowly dodging rumble strips, orange traffic barrels, and random freeway detritus we traveled south on the west side of the Oquirrhs to five mile pass, and then North along the East (Salt Lake City Valley) side of the same mountains back to the start/end at the Saltair palace on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. The weather was perfect, and I only got a little sunburnt.
I got a sticker like this in the swag bag.  Don't know what I want to stick it to yet.

I’ve long been confused by Utah names like “Oquirrh” or “Tooele”. These are ostensibly names from the Shoshoni branch of the central Numic group of Native American languages. However, this language group does not have a written component so, at some point, somebody thought it would be a great idea to write it out in a way that had only a passing relationship to the way it was pronounced.
OQUIRRH \ö’ kərr\. From Gosiute (Numic) /uukkati/ [uukkaRᏐ] ‘wood sitting’, containing /uu-/ ‘wood’ and /katł/ ‘sit’ – Native American Placenames of the United States (2004) W. Blight attributed to a personal communication from J. McLaughlin.

Part of the idea behind the creative spelling is, undoubtedly, to emphasize specific linguistic elements, and the Central Numic languages are purportedly identified by certain elements of pronunciation that might easily be lost. Among these are “voiceless” (sound produced without vibrating the larynx) fricatives and vowels. This means that the names are not so much Goshiute as they are an academic code that looks like it could itself be language, but instead it just describes the actual languages that people use; as with any academic code there are enough disagreements about how to use it to spawn shelving units full of dissertations.

The meaning is a bit ambiguous too. Oquirrh used to mean “glowing mountains”, and then it was re-interpreted to mean “wooded mountains”, and now it is widely reported as meaning “wood sitting”. I have no idea what “wood sitting” means. It sounds kindof like it could mean something, but try to focus on what that meaning is exactly it becomes obvious that it does not. A Google search suggests that it is a bad way of saying “chair”.

About half way around to the return leg my hydration strategy caught up with me and I stopped at a support station to relieve myself. In hindsight I have begun to doubt that the support station was actually for the Gran Fondo; it just happened to be where the courses of two events overlapped. I ended up waiting for 15 minutes while a very large pleasant volunteer stood at the door to the porta-potty trying to coax out her autistic son who was hiding in there; she would wheeze and sweat in the sun for a couple minutes, and then crack open the door to try and lovingly persuade the child into coming out. When the child finally did emerge he marched over to the food tent with his head held high and proud; I envied him a little.

The people before me in line were fast and efficient once the porta-potty was freed up. When I emerged the volunteers were packing up their tent, and one asked me if I was “the last one”. I became embarrassingly aware of the time I had lost at this stop, and decided to pick up the pace.

The East side of the mountains featured busier streets, and many more intersections. There was also, as I would find out later, another bicycling event taking place on those same busier streets. At one point I followed a cadre of Gran Fondo riders who were themselves following the wrong sets of multicolored arrows up a long hill away from the course. I didn’t remember there being a large hill on the course map so close to the end, but I was tired, and the riders I was following were on really nice bikes, so I followed them up to a dead end near one of the entrances to Rio Tinto’s big Bingham Canyon open pit mine operation. The nice-bike crowd had stopped and begun chatting with their smart phones to find a way back to the proper course.

The confusion spent the energy I was saving for a strong finish.

Back on course I caught up with a woman I had passed on the return leg before the nice-bike spur. It is amazing how unrecognizable someone can be when dressed in skin-tight spandex; it is the sunglasses and helmet that obscure the head and face. I recognized her from earlier on the basis of the number she wore; it was just one greater than mine. We exchange banal pleasantries, and, when I couldn’t find my number on the finishing list I looked for hers as she finished at about the same time. Her time was recorded, and when I saw her name, which was somewhat distinctive, I realized she was someone I had gone out on a couple dates with a while ago. She was pleasant enough then. I suppose that if it is going to be a small world it is nice that there are some pleasant people in it.

The finish feast was a jumbled stack of Little Caesar’s pizza, but I was just pleased to have finished an event, once again, in the top 90% of the field.

The same event organizers are putting on the “Utah County Gran Fondo” near Utah Lake in a few weeks; the jersey for that event features a picture of a mangled carp like those the shores of Utah lake is famous for. There was a century ride that used to circumnavigate Utah lake that I rode several times several years ago; in fact I was wearing an ULCER (Utah Lake Century Epic Ride) jersey for the Salt Lake Gran Fondo.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Burrito Colon

Recent statements by the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development have hinted again at the theocratic coup waiting for the dumpster fire of the 45th presidency to burn itself out. I’ve rarely been one to suggest that anyone look away from a good train wreck, but these days there are so many wrecks vying for one’s attention, and all I might suggest is that we spend a few minutes looking at some of the other spectacular collisions gearing up to spread their social shrapnel across the future of civilization; the accelerating theocracy will interact synergistically with the train-wreck in chief so spending a couple minutes looking at a facet of it is almost like keeping your eyes glued to the center ring of the train-wreck dumpster-fire circus.

I should really unstack the metaphors in order to uncover the focus of today’s post: Ben Carson. To be more specific I was struck by Carson’s comments yesterday that poverty could be avoided by personal vim and a positive state of mind. These comments are consistent with what Carson has said in the past, and are also consistent with a popular materialistic Christian narcissistic theology that would thrive on control of the means of production in modern society.

"I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind," said Carson. "You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street and I guarantee you in a little while they'll be right back up there.” – Ben Carso in a 23 May 2017 interview on SiriusXMPolitics

I also want to talk about some frozen burritos I picked up at Costco. I think they will make a good metaphor.

“I serve God, and my purpose is to please Him, and if God be for you, who can be against you?” – Ben Carson

There is something important to be said for the utility of a positive state of mind. Many books have been written on the subject, there are pamphlets and motivational talks enough to bury even the most intrepid climber, and most of this “positive state of mind” material is less than worthless. Carson was not really talking about a “positive state of mind”. He was talking about poverty. He is the sitting Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and so his discussions of poverty have the weight of policy, but how do you identify policy in a homogenized sound goo of feel-good theology mixed with half data on actual issues?

“I made a commitment to Christ. I’m a born-again, evangelical Catholic.” – VP Michael Richard Pence

About those burritos. I bought them to help AYD pack for work as she is spending the home from college summer living with me and a microwavable lunch takes the edge off a long commute. I picked out a number of individually-wrapped food items that had pleasant pictures of highly edible food items on their boxes; I was hoping there would be a reasonable mapping of the contents to the pictures, and for the most part, due largely to my lenient standards for what constitutes food, I was not disappointed. The burritos were an exception.

What does a “positive mindset” view of poverty mean to policy? It suggests that assistance, like the assistance Ben Carson –ironically- received while growing up, is not needed to provide opportunity, and will not help improve the lots of those in poverty. This flavor of blame-casting is very popular in many Abrahamic religions, but it is nowhere more popular than in the redstate heartland of America.

The basic idea is simple: “if people are responsible for their problems and poverty, and quantifiable assistance doesn’t really help, then let’s spend the church’s money on something better than helping people; it is what God would do.” By doubling down on the “positive mindset” aspect it is possible to convincingly insist that proselytization and building megachurches are the best forms of assistance. These realizations, which must save billions of churches’ untaxed dollars, has not resulted in any perceivable decrease in the amount of money the churches ask for.

Carson also talks a lot about “values”, and how these values come from Jesus and deliver people out of poverty. The next logical policy step, if you are charged with spending tax dollars to develop policy to efficiently address poverty, is to spend those tax dollars trying to bring people to Jesus. Ben only offers his own personal experiences, about which he has written several books, and some impassioned hand waving as evidence for his assertion. The simple fact that there are A LOT of poor folks who have believed whole-heatedly in Jesus, and yet remain poor, suggests that Ben’s assertions are not consistent with reality.

Ben is often at odds with more reality-centric ideas. One of my favorites is his often repeated claim that he thinks the Pyramids in Egypt were actually made for the purposes of storing various types of grain. Although his ideas are often interesting simply for their skewed relationship with the universe as we know it this current crop is harvested in the context of policy suggested by a man with the power to create policy.

Rather than just chewing nonstop through some wacky ideas of Ben Carson, let’s talk a little about those burritos. The box showed a burrito cleanly sliced open to reveal its filling which consisted of little bits of brown meat surrounded by some artistically arranged yellow cheeses, and some unidentifiable greenish stuff that I thought represented vegetable matter; these were “steak and cheese burritos" so the picture was consistent with what the contents were supposed to be. The actual contents did not look like the picture on the box. Microwaving does not work well for many types of foods, and tortillas often do not survive microwaving unscathed. The flour tortillas that wrapped the burritos became white all over; crispy in some places and just a translucent gelatinous film in others. Attempting a clean slice resulted in the knife simply poking a hole in a section of gelatinous film, and then the knife got caught up on a crispy bit and smooshed the whole thing flat; squeezing the filling out onto the plate. The filling was a homogenous brown paste; I suspect they pre-masticated all the wonderful texture displayed in the box’s photo so they could squirt the contents into the tortilla as it sped past on a conveyor belt. The resulting consistency was more like what I imagine a colon section from an alien autopsy would look like rather than food. As a section of an alien colon I might be thrilled that the presence of oozing brown paste might allow mankind to determine what the aliens’ diet was, and if they really ate humans; in the “here is lunch” context the burrito was less exciting.

I am obviously juxtaposing inconsistencies here. Ben Carson’s ideas and reality vs the box picture and the burrito. It is the directionality of these inconsistencies that makes them uncomfortable. If I had purchased a box of burritos with a picture of a section of fecal-filled alien colon with the ends folded shut, only to find the burritos in the box were stuffed with discernable steak and cheese I would have been pleasantly surprised; although I’m not sure what would entice me to buy a box of alien colon bits. If Ben Carson had a data-driven secular strategy to address poverty in the US, and the poverty problems were currently exacerbated by some reality free concepts of hand-waving justified theological blame casting, then I might have more confidence that future policy had the potential of heading in a productive direction. The fact that currently it appears as if US poverty problems are also currently exacerbated by some reality free concepts of hand-waving justified theological blame casting that resonate with Ben’s ideas might be where my juxtaposition fails, but it does not provide any warm fuzzy feelings.

There are two things we know, from many studies, help bring communities out of deep poverty. The first is access to an affordable secular education, and the other is access to effective family planning which includes safe abortions. There are “chicken vs egg” arguments to be made, but a lack of those two things is correlated with higher levels of community religiosity. Rather than spend federal dollars on bringing people to Jesus it might be cost effective to entice people out of churches, give them a good secular education, and subsidize all family planning efforts to include abortion.

Ben’s statements are only part of a right wing conspiracy to make the USA a Christian nation with a Christian agenda. This is not a secret conspiracy either. There are no secret signals embedded in pizza ads or backwards masking of satanic directions on albums. This conspiracy is advertised and promoted.

The team currently in positions to assemble the pieces are, from the outside looking in, a collection of people with disparate theologies. Ben’s singularly Seventh Day Adventist beliefs appear to be inconsistent with the heterodoxy of Pence, the Calvinist beliefs of DeVos, or whatever the heck Trump believes. However, on the idea of creating an isolated religious economy within a Christian nation that only, and just barely, tolerates secularism they are surprisingly resonant with each other. I do not think this conspiracy is highly organized. It appears more like a bunch of folks getting whatever they can get in the hopes they can do something with it all once they get it.

“I’ve got great beliefs, all the best theology, my piety is huuuge. Believe me” -fake quote that sounds like something Trump could say.

This conspiracy will not destroy America. It might screw up a generation or two; especially for those already in poverty, but it doesn’t rapidly charbroil millions of people in the way a nuclear war with North Korea would. I’m not even sure that the trump administration can muster the political will to craft many of these conspiracy puzzle pieces, and those they do manage to create might easily be dismantled by the next administration. However, there is the very real potential for very real damage to occur, and I'm one of those people who, on the morning of 8 November 2016, was prepared to celebrate a Clinton win that evening; you can't trust my minimizing of potentially disastrous outcomes.   

Monday, May 8, 2017

Giro D'Big Mountain

This past Sunday found me all too aware of being at least 10 pounds over the weight I would like to be
so many days after the start the cycling season ever. I was climbing up “Big Mountain” pass after just having shot down the southern/eastern side of “Little Mountain” pass. I was willing myself to relax as I subconsciously tensed up in preparation for yet more uphill road. The gates down at Little Dell reservoir were still closed, and half the cyclists west of the Mississippi were taking advantage of this wonderful day to wheeze up this hill.

The Mormon pioneers had come down this way in the summer of 1847. The official LDS church history website describes big mountain pass (1,279 miles from Nauvoo) as: “really just a hill among the surrounding Wasatch mountain peaks, was nevertheless, at 8,400 feet, the highest elevation of the entire Mormon Trail.” Big Mountain pass would be the highest point of my cycling trip on Sunday as I would turn around at the Morgan county line, and head back down towards the State Capitol and my starting place.

I was still about a mile or so shy of slowing to an unsteady four miles an hour when I heard a spirited conversation coming up behind me. Loud and relaxed enough to hear over my wheezing it sounded as if one of the conversants may have had an English accent. They whipped past me as if I was standing still (I almost was) and disappeared up around a bend in the road.

One of the cyclists was at least the second person I had seen in full Team Sky kit, and like the other was riding a black Pinarello that might have been one of the hugely expensive ($13k) 2017 F10 Dogmas like those that another squad from Team Sky is racing in the 100th edition of the Giro D’Italia right now.

While I was climbing on Sunday, Fernando Gaviria (a Columbian sprinter on the Quick-Step Floors team) would battle severe crosswinds to take the flat coastal stage 3 (and get the pink jersey) that ended in the capitol of Sardinia. Tuesday sees the first big climb of the Giro as the race will finish on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. There are informed hunches pronouncing that Gerent Thomas of Team Sky may pull on the pink leader's jersey after that stage.

If I was dusted by actual members of Team Sky they were probably the squad getting ready for the Amgen Tour of California that starts in Sacramento on 14 May this year.

 I pulled over to stretch to keep from losing the battle with the tension in my legs, and my riding companion shot past me. I was momentarily distracted by the almost erotic power her spandex coated thighs were delivering to the pedals, and I decided that the rhythmic swaying of her rear on the seat of her carbon fiber bike would pull me up the mountain in her wake. Unfortunately she was just a little too far up ahead after I climbed back on my bike and began to chase. I huddled into my pain cave and never got to within 50 meters of her before we hit the top of the pass.

Big Mountain Pass looking west

On the way down every ounce of excess personal mass turned into speed. I went way too fast, and the bike shuddered from braking as I approached each corner in the road.

"The descent down the big mountain (as it is called) is very steep, a regular jumping off place, worse than Ash Hollow.” -- William Clayton’s Journal description of the Mormon pioneers traveling down from Big Mountain pass in 1847.

A year ago on Saturday I was battling rain-tinged headwinds on a metric century called “The Front-Runner Century”, and complaining to myself that I was a little too heavy for where I wanted to be
so many days after the start of cycling season ever. I also had a very different view of what I wanted my life to be like.

One year, and things are exactly the same only completely different.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Zen and the Art of Chariot Maintenance

Because the radio was long dead I was making do with tinny plinkings from the iPhone’s internal speaker. These sounds were losing a competition with the rush of speed wind through the open window as the dead carcass of the air-conditioner was also over a decade in the rearview mirror. Pandora wanted to help a much younger Brian Ferry tell me how he was a “Slave to Love” and I worried it would lose data signal before the end of the song. My new cellphone carrier worked out this road much farther than my last one, but the invisible communication borderline was right around here someplace. I might resort to listening to an audiobook version of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” I had locally stored on this phone. Listening to something helps to take my mind off the spiral negativity of boredom that can sometimes color a drive that lasts for more than an hour or so; especially if it is a drive I have done a few hundred times.

The trouble with just popping Zen into the player was that I was still fidgeting some realizations that had surfaced the last time I had been listening to it.  I had also read Zen a few times when I was young.  It was so popular, and so many people I knew had read it, that the title had shortened to just "Zen" and most people would know exactly what one was talking about.   I had gotten to a part in this latest listening about remembering the process of forgetting something, but in an exquisite detail made horrific by the application of technology. I wondered why I had forgotten this part from back when I was re-reading it, and "Zen" was becoming "Zen". The whole metaphorically fractal design of knowing the organization and patterning of knowledge was the texture I remembered from the book, but some of the critical elements of the narrative were lost for some reason.

I was especially taken by Pirsig’s recursive application of systems engineering principles to the process of knowing anything of value. The complete title of the book is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”, but the “An inquiry into Values” part is usually written in a smaller font on the cover or lost entirely to the tittle page inside. “Values”, when placed on the same page with a word like Zen, sounds like a purely moral construct, but Pirsig manages to dancethrough every possible meaning of the term within a single unified context.

I had not forgotten a casual element of the story. I had forgotten the identity(s) of Phaedrus. As Phaedrus was slowly introduced through the first six chapters I could remember a much younger me discovering the Phaedrus dialogs of Plato that featured descriptions of madness and love and knowledge, and which are perhaps best known for the Chariot Allegory (Phaedrus 246a-249e). The Chariot Allegory is arguably a close second to the Allegory of the Cave in the pantheon of Platonic allegories.

In order to avoid disrupting the flow of this blog post by forcing you to look up the Chariot Allegory I will paraphrase it here; if you still want to look it up you can laugh at how foolishly simple I make it sound here.

The idea of the Chariot Allegory is that understanding can be gleaned from picturing the human mind as a soul (the chariot) pulled by two winged horses. One of the horses is noble and godly, and the other is ignoble and base. The charioteer is reason and the when the animals pull in harmony the chariot can take flight into the immortal godly realms of existence. However, driving the two horses is terribly difficult because of their different natures, and so they often act as if they have no wings at all.

It is easy to misinterpret this as being a version of the dialog some animated characters have when they face a moral dilemma; a conversation with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the opposite shoulder. That is a type of over simplification which misses many of the riper intellectual fruits of this allegory, and is linked to the reflexive desire to label a "value" as some sort of moral construct.

Values can be numerical or the stuff from which adjectives are crafted. Values can be the information our senses choose to use to craft everything we call knowledge of the world. In a parallel way the ignoble base horse is not just morally bad as it also represents appetites for substances like food and water and air which are critical for survival. Let that horse do all the pulling and the chariot gets into a bad place, but let that horse be pulled by the noble godly horse and things get pretty bad too.

I remember the younger me being awed by the simple parallel between the Phaedrus of Plato’s chariot and the Phaedrus of Zen; the parallel being that both a chariot and a motorcycle are vehicles with just two wheels. There is also the self-referential parallel. Pirsig recounts the story as a journey; a journey where the prose itself is pulled in one direction by the mundane requirements of a cross-country road trip, and in a slightly different direction by the philosophical musings of the ghostly memories of Phaedrus. When the two competing elements are driven in harmony the story whizzes across beautiful landscapes.

As Phaedrus was revealed I remembered more of my understanding. I re-discovered the allusions, and they felt new.

For a short time I tried to graft some misinterpretation of the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood duet called “One Velvet Morning” onto my re-immerging knowing, but the fit was disharmonious; like I was being distracted into a strange unproductive direction.

Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight
I'm gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you 'bout Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet mornin' when I'm straight

Flowers are the things we know, secrets are the things we grow
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name

The song I was listening to transitioned into another so I didn’t need to fumble with the phone to load up the audio book. It was the meandering lead-in to the three cord march of Lou reed’s “Sweet Jane”. It would turn out to be only partially buffered though, and it would cut off just as the Lou informed me that the “roses seem to whisper to her”.

The day had warmed to the point where I could open the windows all the way and still not be cool enough. So I opened the windows and sped up till I couldn’t have heard the iPhone even if it was still making noise.

The Dodge always seems to be such a large truck after I’ve spent too long driving the Corolla. The reason it can go fast at all is because of the V8 pulling me along. It is not a big V8, but it is still a big powerful engine as engines go; it puts out 230 horsepower. I was being pulled along by 230 horses.

Two-hundred-and-thirty horses, and I was flying.

Robert Maynard Pirsig - 06 September 1928 - 24 April 2017

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mercury Retrograde April 9 - May 3

This is yet another essay on Mercury going retrograde today.

I thought of Mercury going retrograde as I drove down a street in the "Avenues" district of Salt Lake City.  The sun was setting a brilliant orange back-lighting the capitol and reflecting across the Great Salt Lake itself.  Behind me a moon rose that was all but (an app on my iPhone would tell me it was 1 day and 3 hours away from) full.

For a the briefest of moments I was more aware than is possible of this careening spinning crazy ride through the gravity wells of curved spacetime that all the inhabitants of earth share in, and it was amazing, and then that moment was followed by another.  I liked that one and followed it with a few more and then I was driving alongside I-80 and the surface of the Great Salt Lake was a mirror reflecting an gigantic ball of nuclear fire a million times larger than the planet I was driving across the surface of (Sun's volume is 1.4X10E18 km^3, and the Earth's volume is 1X10E12 km^3) and I liked it till the sun disappeared behind a range of snow covered mountains and the sky became dark enough to see the stars.  And stars are really cool.

Perhaps it was the great weekend that had left me with the feeling that I was soaring through a universe that wanted to act like I was noticing it in new and thrilling ways? 

Supposedly cell phones are going to glitch (more than normal) and other technology and communications are going to go awry. Some well meaning people recommend just curling up and cocooning as the “crazy” caused by Mercury’s retrograde passes.

I can only imagine that the wonderful full moon contributes to the mystical happenings. 

Gala Darling” describes some of the effects of Mercury going retrograde as “It’s like everyone you know has suddenly gone mad! You might find yourself getting into bizarre arguments about nothing at all, being unable to finish sentences or barely even able to form a coherent thought.” Imagine the effect on people who regularly lack the desire or ability to form coherent thoughts?!?

So, what makes this madness happen?

Mercury orbits the sun every 88 days, and it is common knowledge that the Earth orbits the sun every 365.25 days. This means that every Earth year mercury laps the Earth around the sun slightly more than four times.

Mercury orbits the sun the fastest of all the planets.  As one travels out from the sun the planetary orbits become longer and longer. Venus orbits the sun every 225 days, and so it laps the earth every other year; sometimes twice in a year.

The planets farther from the sun than earth are lapped by the earth. Saturn orbits the earth only once every 29 years so the earth laps it almost every year.

To the casual observer the planets appear like slightly brighter specks of light against a scattering of bright specs of light in the night sky. They do not appear to be billions of times closer. We can deduce that they are closer because the angle we see them at changes as we move around the sun, and we move around the sun at an incredibly high rate of speed (30 km/s) so even though the planets are far away they can appear to be in different places almost every night. Because the orbits are roundish the planets will appear back at almost their starting place after some multiple of the ratio of the two orbit durations. Ancient astronomers used to squint up at the night sky and make surprisingly accurate predictions of the orbit times for all the planets they could see by measuring things like how long it took them to pass back through some particular constellation.

The geometry that defines the retrograde motion is not difficult, but it is cumbersome to the point of being tedious. I will spare you this time. Even more complex is the model Ptolemy used to describe the motions of the planets given a geocentric model of the solar system. The model includes orbits looping about orbits and the complete trace is much like something one could create with a Spirograph set. I always loved Spirograph so it is unfortunate that the model apparently fails after a while. That is one of the problems with overly complex models; they hide failures in late iterations.
By James Ferguson (1710-1776), based on similar diagrams by Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712) and Dr Roger Long (1680-1770); engraved for the Encyclopaedia by Andrew Bell. - Encyclopaedia Britannica (1st Edition, 1771; facsimile reprint 1971), Volume 1, Fig. 2 of Plate XL facing page 449., Public Domain,

I saw at least one YouTube video created with the intensity of a WTC7 conspiracy theorist about how retrograde motion in Mercury proves that the Sun orbits the Earth. I am sure the government is hiding this from us because we re all some sort of “sheeple”, but I did not watch it that long.

Because the planets are all traveling in the same direction about the sun they mostly appear to travel in the same direction across the night sky. Venus and Mercury, being on the sun side of the earth most of the time, do not really travel across the night sky, but the little they can be observed to move they go in one direction mostly. Because all the planets either lap or are lapped by the Earth this apparent motion across the sky also changes direction for short (relative to the orbit of the earth) period of time. That change in direction is called apparent retrograde motion, or in astrology terms “being in retrograde”.

Wikepedia has a great picture that shows the apparent retrograde motion to an observer on earth of an outer planet.
By Rursus - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I tried to do something similar for Mercury, but, the changes in angle are so big it is hard to contain them in a graphic. Here is one picture I made which has the Earth going about a quarter of the way around the sun and Mercury going all the way around the sun. I’ve numbered where the parallax puts the apparent location of Mercury against the backdrop of apparently unmoving stars.

If you look you can see how the order of the numbered observations changes between observations 2 and 3, then goes in back in the same direction for the sequence of observations 3,4, and 5. The retrograde motion would occur between observations 2 and 3. One of the other things this picture make kind of obvious is that most of the observations occur during daytime on Earth when Mercury is not visible to the naked eye.

In this picture I’ve tried to capture observations occurring at a great enough angle as to have Mercury at least visible in the late evening or just around dawn. Unfortunately when I do this the graphic does not capture any retrograde motion. The point being that it is really hard to notice retrograde motion in mercury, even though it happens at a greater frequency than it does for any of the other planets.  In fact this problem with Mercury being obscured by daylight is one of the reasons why it is suggested that the great astronomer Kepler did not ever observe Mercury during his life; let alone observe its retrograde motion.

So those that put stock in the magical meaning of Mercury being “in retrograde” are almost forced to use the calculations and data derived by processes all to rational and specific to make room for the ephemeral magic mumbo jumbo they use them to define.

Mercury will also be retrograde August 13th through September 5th so it will be retrograde during the solar eclipse; I wonder what kind of special magic that will cause?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Brezhnev and Trump's Medals

The other day AYD and I were discussing which former Soviet despot the current president of the US is most like. I thought he might be most like Uncle Joe Stalin because of his anti-science, anti-art and degenerative moral edicts. In fact I was sure, for a short span of minutes, that the Uncle Joe comparison was a slam dunk for best; then AYD outlined her case for Leonid Brezhnev.

Western media at the time of Brezhnev’s reign (1964-1982), and then history, found him to be extremely boring, but the Soviet media hung on his every word and action. Leonid also published numerous books –several autobiographical- that outlined his grand communist ideals, and even told stories of incredible bravery in battle. These were effectively locked behind a wall for me; a wall built partially of a language barrier (I’ve never learned Russian) and partially because I considered Leonid too boring to spend much attention on. Time has made Brezhnev's time in office more interesting; in part because of the reasons he was so easy to dismiss closer to his life. Brezhnev still was boring.

“Our press has so much praise for my latest book, I am becoming curious. I think maybe one day I’ll read some of it myself” - Purported comment by Brezhnev to an aide.

The most exciting things about Brezhnev was his hair and his chest heavy with medals. Trump has interesting hair as evidenced by the amount of time people spend talking about it.  Brezhnev's exciting hair was displayed as a bushy pair of eyebrows that at times would grow into a mega-monobrow. The collection of military medals he wore to public gatherings was so huge as to even inspire at least one rock and roll band to name itself “Brezhnev’s Medals”.

It was the medals that clinched the comparison to Donald Trump. As one of the most powerful humans in the universe Brezhnev could give anyone a medal for whatever he wanted, and he wanted to give himself medals for all sorts of things. He would give himself medals just for having a birthday. It is easy to imagine Donald Trump giving himself a medal for the biggest inauguration crowd ever. By the way, my readers should note that Donald’s birthday is coming up on June 14th, which will just sneak up on you if you don’t watch out.

“Q: What is the difference between the Constitutions of the USA and USSR? Both of them guarantee freedom of speech.
A: Yes, but the Constitution of the USA also guarantees freedom after the speech.” -- Soviet “Armenian Radio” joke

Brezhnev rolled back the cultural reforms that the fiery Khrushchev had tried to put into place. These proposed reforms are widely believed to be the reason Khrushchev was unceremoniously removed from office in 1964. Khrushchev attempted to light the fuse of repressed revolutionary sentiment, and the shadow of that spark is most certainly his secret 1956 speech “О культе личности и его последствиях “ ("On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences" ). Shortly after the speech some notable dissidents, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were released from years of harsh imprisonment and exonerated.

"Lenin proved that even female cooks could manage a country.
Stalin proved that just one person could manage a country.
Khrushchev proved that a fool could manage a country.
Brezhnev proved that a country doesn’t need to be managed at all."
-- Soviet era joke

It is rather ironic that Khrushchev would be replaced by a narcissist due, in part, because of the blowback from a speech about the dangers of personality cults. 

"Lubyanka (KGB headquarters) is tallest building in the Moscow. You can see Siberia from it's basement." – Soviet joke circa 1970

Brezhnev did not so much dispose of the reforms as simply allow operatives in his government to dismantle them and hide the parts. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was not re-imprisoned, but he couldn’t publish in the Soviet Union, and he was not allowed to attend the 1970 Nobel Prize ceremonies to pick up his literature medal; they sought to ignore stuff and have it wither away in the blinding lack of attention.

Reporter: "Comrade Brezhnev, is it true that you collect political jokes?"
Brezhnev: "Yes"
Reporter: "And how many have you collected so far?"
Brezhnev: "Three and a half labor camps."
– Soviet Joke circa 1970

Brezhnev’s reign as Soviet Supreme Leader saw incredible deprivations and a weed-like growth of corrupt bureaucracy. To a westerner it appeared as if they were always at war or parading earth-busting missiles through red square to celebrate the coming end of the world.

"He was sentenced to three years, served five, and then he got lucky and was released ahead of time." – Soviet Gulag joke

Great works were attempted. Shortly after Brezhnev entered office (October 1965) they began developing the Soviet manned moonshot program (N1-L3). This program was fast-tracked, and a great deal of effort was spent trying to best the American Apollo (Saturn V) program. Sergei Korolev was the genius behind the N1superlifter design that would become the basis for the N1-L3 moonshot rocket. Like many Stalin-era intellectuals he was imprisoned for years, released and exonerated during Khrushchev, and then suffered during Brezhnev; in the case of Korolev the Brezhnev-era suffering took the form of gulag-induced kidney disease that caused the heart attack that took his life on 14 January 1966. The rockets were eventually built, and on four occasions (21 February 1969, 3 July 1969, 26 June 1971, and 23 November 1972) tested. All the tests were unqualified failures. The second attempt, which occurred a little over two weeks before the Americans would land a man on the moon (20 July 1969), was the most spectacular failure in human space travel; the explosion at Baikonur Cosmodrome would release four Tera joules of energy (1 kiloton), and be one of the largest non-nuclear accidental explosions ever experienced by humans. The Brezhnev media machine would simply deny that the N1-L3 program was ever a reality, and information that described it would not be released until 7 years after Brezhnev’s death.

"With Lenin, it was like being in a tunnel: You‘re surrounded by darkness, but there’s light ahead.
With Stalin, it was like being on a bus: One person is driving, half the people on the bus are sitting and the other half are quaking with fear.
With Khrushchev, it was like at a circus: One person is talking, and everyone else is laughing.
With Brezhnev, it was like at the movies: Everyone’s just waiting for the film to end."
-- Soviet era joke

Brezhnev was not nearly as harsh as Stalin. Trump’s insistence that the inauguration crowds were the biggest ever sounds like it could have been either Brezhnev or Stalin, but in order to be the complete Stalin he would have had to bus in people from labor camps to pose in photographic proof that they were the largest crowds ever. Trump's insistence that millions of people voted illegally could be either Stalin or Brezhnev, but in order to be the complete Stalin he would have to nullify the results and publish corrected figures. Trump’s insistence that the hotel he stays at was wiretapped could be either Stalin or Brezhnev, but if it was Stalin there would be forced confessions of the people actually installing the wiretaps, and anyone who might suggest there was no wiretapping program might disappear.

Q: What has four legs and forty teeth?
A: An alligator.
Q: And forty legs and four teeth?
A: Brezhnev's Politburo.
-- Soviet era joke

The US has had Presidents that appear, at least in light of history, to be unsuited to the job. Reagan was accused of “sleepwalking through history” while he was in office, and would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before he died. George “W” Bush was widely described as a pawn of Dick “Doctor Evil” Cheney. However, neither of these POTUS suffered from Trump’s brand of pathological Tweet-splattered Narcissism. George W Bush’s twitter feed is “protected”, and Twitter was started (21 March 2006) after Reagan had died (5 June 2004). Meanwhile the current POTUS tweets every day, and each new tweet is just as likely to be an insult aimed at HRC or Obama, or some kind of crazy alt-right emboldened conspiracy theory.

The common western view of Brezhnev’s effect on the Soviet Union is somewhat positive: “Things got so bad that the USSR collapsed”. While this sentiment may contain a grain or two of divine objective truth it ignores the plight of those people in the USSR for whom things “got so bad”. I have begun hearing that trump’s plans will eventually lead though severe dysfunction to a better America. Do we really need to allow tens of thousands of uninsured people to die prematurely in order to create universal healthcare in the US? Do we really need to devalue our currency through rampant inflation in order to reign in the national debt? If modern history has taught any lessons the fact that things can get very bad if you let them is one of the most important.

The comparison with Brezhnev would be severely compromised if Trump declares war or engages in some massive first strike activity. Unless, that is, he gives himself a whole slew of medals just for starting the war while being President Donald Trump.

And remember that Donald’s birthday is on the 14th of June.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Happy Bede-day

The year was 703, and Saint Bede the Venerable had just published his tome on time (“De temporum ratione” or “The Reckoning of Time”). The main purpose of the book was determining a way of calculating when Easter would be, but Bede slipped in a very exact date (18 March 3952 BC) for the incarnation (The day the earth was created on).

Bede became the butt of several raucous drinking songs; a fact that made him rather anxious. He, in one of the two surviving letters he wrote (Epiflola Apologetica ad Plegavinan Monachum), would accuse Bishop Wilfrid of accusing him of heresy by allowing one of these songs to be sung at his table.

“Haec tristi mox admistione confudit addendo videlicet quod me audires a lascivientibus rusticis inter hsereticos per pocula decantari” -- Epiflola Apologetica ad Plegavinan Monachum

This accusation of heresy is widely reported as being because everyone who was anyone knew that the incarnation occurred in the year 5500 or thereabouts. The Byzantine calendar dated the incarnation to be 1 September 5509.

This puts the creation of the everything about 168 years after Mount Mazama exploded with a force 42 times that of the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens. That eruption created Crater Lake.

Today many people would make fun of people who insisted that their exact and unverifiable date for the creation of the universe should be taken seriously. I am unaware of any celebrations of the creation of the world on either September 1st or the 18th of March. Part of that is due to the fact that the Bishop Ussher would swoop in and claim that the world was created on 23 October 4004 BC, but we don’t celebrate creation day in October either. Part of that could be due to the change in calendars that occurred shortly after Ussher’s setting the incarnation date; that would have pushed the date to November 6th, but we don’t celebrate on that day either.
Byzantine mosaic of the Creation of Adam on 1 September 5509 from
Byzantine mosaic in Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, by way of Wikipedia

My theory is that we don’t celebrate on any of these days because everyone who might throw an interesting party does not believe this crap. I have a feeling that Bede was not invited to many good parties, and probably did not throw very good ones. That in turn might have better explained the drinking songs that made fun of him.