23 December 2012


A great comic from The Oatmeal, which I don't think I need to add anything to. See the rest of it below the fold or the whole thing here.

16 December 2012

A nice little tour of the space station

Phil Plait posted the video below at his blog Bad Astronomy today, and I quite enjoyed it. It's not overly technical but also not too vague or over-glossing. It manages to strike a nice balance that provides an interesting overview of life on the station. I found the whole thing quite charming.

Plait mentions expecting to only watch a couple minutes of it, and similarly I almost didn't watch it at all. I spent countless hours as a child poring over illustrations of spacecraft and space stations, and so my first thought was that it would be nothing new, so why bother with it? But as soon as I started watching I was glad for it. It turns out it's actually been quite a while since I considered the simple wonder of being in space. Lately my thoughts toward space exploration have been centered on putting people back on the Moon, with Mars following soon after, and anything short of that seeming like a waste. But this video brought back a reverence for any sort of space travel that I'd forgotten. My dreams of being an astronaut are far behind me, but watching this video brought back some childhood fascination—trying to imagine weightlessness while hanging upside-down from the jungle gym and all that. I still wish we were making better progress toward the Moon and Mars, but seeing the size and details of the station and watching the presenter flit about in microgravity put an old sort of smile back on my face.

While watching the Geminid meteor shower the other night I related a similar account of renewed appreciation to my viewing buddy. I told her how for a while I came to disregard the night sky due to its inherent humanocentrism. The constellations are hugely arbitrary, and from any other vantage point outside our planet's orbit would be unrecognizable, owing to their distribution through three-dimensional space. And by my thinking, why focus on a happenstance arrangement of local dots when there are such grander concepts pervading space? There are billions and billions of entire galaxies out there, and while our stars do little but twinkle, elsewhere there's cosmic drama as stars are being born and dying violent deaths. But in the past couple years I've come back around to appreciate the naked eye's view from Earth. I still can't be bothered to commit all the constellations to memory, but I'm once again awe-struck when I look up on a clear night. First by the pure beauty of it, and also by the ponderings of the immense scales of distance and time involved that captivated me as a child. And instead of resenting the arbitrary nature of our point-of-view, I've come to embrace it a bit. You can probably blame Sagan for my newfound regard for our unique position in the universe, and if you haven't seen it already (or even if you have) I wholeheartedly recommend the video of Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" remarks found on the "Wisdom" tab on this blog. :)

15 December 2012

Cephalopods because why not

Look on and despair. (Image source)
I'll ramble on about my love for cephalopods at the slightest provocation. They are, after all, the most-excellent of the invertebrates. Now I know there are some pretty fervent fans of beetles out there, and I'll admit their diversity of forms and downright beauty are impressive. And I personally know someone who studies the nudibranchs who would probably be aghast at my proclamation, and I can certainly see where he's coming from. But while both those groups are undeniably amazing in form, cephalopods are still the supreme creatures without backbones.

Why? Well, what it basically comes down to is that I don't worry about beetles or sea slugs taking over the world. For cephalopods I have no such peace of mind.

First of all, we'll never see them coming. Many of them have an incredible capacity to blend in to the environment. Some might call them "the chameleons of the sea," but frankly that's insulting because compared to cephalopods, chameleons are amateurs. Unlike what you might see in cartoons (or faked YouTube videos), chameleons cannot perfectly mimic whatever color or pattern is near them. While some species can indeed change color and while it is useful for camouflage (mainly in the ranges of green and brown), they certainly can't replicate complex patterns and the primary use of the ability is to convey emotional state. (Many of the videos you'll find online involve holding one up to a mirror so that it's fooled into thinking there's a rival in its presence, triggering the response.)

The good (or terrifying) news is that there actually are creatures who almost live up to that fictional prowess of chameleons, and which actually surpass it in some ways. Cephalopods such as cuttlefish and octopuses can indeed change their coloring to mimic their surroundings, and do a decent job of replicating complicated and artificial patterns:

As you can see, they go above-and-beyond chameleons both in the accuracy and subtlety of their colors and in the fact that they can actually change the shape and texture of their skin to blend in more completely. Here's a short clip of an octopus blending in amazingly well before being spooked.

Some go even further, and imitate the shapes and behaviors of other living things:

02 December 2012

As though I needed any more reasons to like Sweden

Sweden's got a supportive social structure, a very happy population with a high percentage of non-religion (and even the Church of Sweden is progressive enough that it performs same-sex marriages), and, of course, it gave the world Swedish swing rap.

So when I came across this page is was just icing on the cake—and I once again find myself wishing the world would follow Sweden's example. Top Toy, their branch of Toys 'R Us, put out a holiday catalog that doesn't divide its toys as strongly along gender lines. Boys are shown playing with dolls, girls are shown playing with guns. It's heartening to see people willing to let children be who they want to, rather than who adults think they should be. Now if only the toy companies themselves could follow suit and produce toys with more gender-neutral designs and color schemes (there are some good examples of it below, such as most of the kitchen sets and the Nerf guns, but I can't help but think that a boy would be more likely to play with that dollhouse if it weren't so hideously pink).

Our brain is biased toward dichotomies but in the real world very few things fit neatly into two discrete categories, especially human beings. Unfortunately a lot of our cultural norms are built upon such dichotomies, so I always enjoy seeing one dismantled like it is here. The site I linked to above seems to have compiled the images from articles here and here, and I've included the rest below the fold. Enjoy. :) (Click any image for a slightly larger version.)

30 November 2012

It's been far too quiet around here

This song always seems to flow right up inside me and makes me drop what I'm doing for a moment of carefree contentedness. Good stuff. :D

Clearing some cobwebs

I really have no idea if there's anyone that reads this blog regularly, but if you're such a person, this post is for you.

What was originally a small gap due to my stubborn refusal to post anything else until I'd finished my Why I'm an atheist series turned into 9-month-or-so void after I started working 60 hours a week again in the spring. So, sorry about that, if you were some poor soul awaiting updates from me. :P But I finally made a new post the other day, and hopefully I'll keep it going.

What originally delayed me was the post that now appears as "Moment of Science: Evolution & Natural Selection," which started as a part of the aforementioned series. Trying to write a concise and fluid summary of evolutionary concepts took me some time, but I'm pretty happy with the result. And admitting that it didn't really fit into the series proper and retitling it has broken my silly fixation with doing the atheism posts contiguously—so while I'd still like to finish them up fairly soon, I may start posting some other things in the meantime (including this).

At the moment it looks like there will probably be five of the atheism posts in total, though it could wind up being six. (I originally saw it being only two posts, but I kept wanting to elaborate on points and it's metastasized out of control.) I'm currently going back over number 3 while working on number 4. The third one is a bit unfocused, I think, and depending on what I do with the fourth, I may go back and revise the third a bit. Once all of them are finished, I plan to go back and add images so that they're perhaps a little more palatable than they are in their current form of relentless walls of text. :P

You may be familiar with the Crash Course videos on YouTube, and since the first two series just ended, I though I might do a write-up of my impressions of them, for which I might recruit the help of my good friend who is a history-person, so that could be fun.

If you do happen to be someone who has taken a liking to this blog and checks up on it from time to time, please feel free to let me know you exist, either in the comments or by email. I'm aware of a few folks that I know from the real world who've said they've enjoyed posts, but as far as I know, no strangers read this blog regularly. If you fit that category I'd love to know it, and it would certainly encourage me to post more often. :)

21 November 2012

Moment of Science: Evolution & Natural Selection

Part 4 of my Why I'm an atheist series involves refuting the claims of the so-called Intelligent Design movement. While writing it I realized that it would be necessary to make sure we're all on the same page regarding the ideas of evolution and natural selection. Summarizing these concepts was taking up a larger and larger portion of the post, so I decided to split the effort off into its own post here. Originally the title of this post included it in the atheism series (as betrayed by its url), but I've since decided that it would probably be less confusing as a standalone post, given that it does not deal directly with my irreligiousness.

Let's get something straight right off the bat: the terms “evolution” and “natural selection” are NOT synonyms. The first is an observed phenomenon, and the second is an explanation for it. Simply put, biological evolution describes changes among generations of livings things; natural selection is a mechanism for how those changes come about.

More specifically, evolution is the idea that the countless species we see around us today arrived at their current states through a gradual progression of forms. This stands opposed to assertions such as the Biblical creation, which state that all modern species were created instantaneously in their current forms. With today's evidence, the fact that life on Earth has evolved through successive forms over billions of years is essentially undeniable if one approaches it with intellectual honesty. The claims of the Old Testament (or those of any other religious text that describes all life having arisen more-or-less at once) just do not line up with the world we perceive around us.

25 February 2012

Why I'm an atheist, Part 3: Science & Certainty

In Part 2 I discussed the notion that the moral codes on which we actively collaborate are better suited to our way of life than those handed down from ancient times which are supposedly divinely inspired.

But why am I so certain that there is no deity giving us these moral mandates in the first place, you might ask. Well here's one more thing that I'm not saying when I say I'm an atheist: I'm not claiming to know with absolute certainty that there is no god or other supernatural entity in the universe. Maybe that sounds more like what you'd call agnosticism, but the fact of the matter is that the ideas of “atheism” and “agnosticism” are not mutually exclusive, and in fact most people who identify as atheists are also agnostics. The latter term is an acknowledgment that our knowledge of such matters will never be perfect. And at least in my case, it's an embracing of the logical methods of science as the best way to make statements about the nature of the universe. Science doesn't claim to know anything with absolute certainty, but its methods are the way to ensure that we're as close to the truth as is humanly possible. Science breaks a situation down to its constituent parts and makes sure we give each one due consideration before drawing any conclusions. 

24 February 2012

Why I'm an atheist, Part 2: Morality & Law

In the previous post I shared an overview of my personal experiences with religion and atheism. In this post and those following, I'll get into some of the particulars of my views on religion.

So I'm an atheist—what exactly does that mean? Well the average religious person may not call themself a “theist,” but that's the applicable term; it describes someone who believes in a god or gods and/or practices a religion. So when you add the “a-” it literally means something like “without a god” or “without religion.” And that does describe me: I don't believe in the existence of any deities or other supernatural entities or forces, nor do I practice anything that might be described as a religion.

But here are some things I'm not saying when I say I'm an atheist (starting with the most ridiculous). Atheism is not devil-worship. Devils and demons are considered just as non-existent to atheists as are gods and angels. Atheists also don't hate god (or at least the intellectually honest ones don't), because you can't hate something that you don't think exists. If someone says they're an atheist but they say they hate god, they're probably just an angry theist and not an atheist, unless they're speaking purely figuratively. Atheists are not inherently amoral. Sure, we've got our share of assholes just like any other demographic, but their being bad people comes from within them, not the fact that they're atheists. If someone comes right out and claims that atheism gives them a reason or the right to be an asshole, then they're almost certainly a moron in addition to being a jerk.

23 February 2012

Why I'm an atheist, Part 1: A History

Over on his popular blog Pharyngula PZ Myers has asked for submissions on the topic of "Why I am an atheist." He's gotten enough of a response that he posts one every day, picked at random. The following is what I submitted. It's basically a summary of my experiences with religion and atheism in my life. In Part 2 I'll discuss the particulars of my outlook.

Why I'm an atheist 

If I had to put one reason above all the others, it'd probably be dinosaurs.

I absolutely loved dinosaurs as a preschooler and kindergartener (and still do, though perhaps not so obsessively). Any worldview presented to me that didn't include dinosaurs and their epic reign over the Earth was doomed to fail. But my interest in those ancient beasts was also the seed of a passion for and understanding of science in general. From a young age, the fact that dinosaurs lived tens and hundreds of millions of years ago was an almost mundane matter of fact. And even if I didn't really understand the methods, I could at least see that scientists presented arguments for assertions such as the age of rock strata that seemed to be based in the real world.

Perhaps because it had to compete with things as obviously awesome as dinosaurs, religion never appealed to me in any way. When I was young we went to a Methodist church somewhat regularly. But all the words just sort of bounced off me. I'd love to claim that it was because I was some sort of precocious, incredulous youth, but what I really think it came down to was that I just didn't give a shit. Attending church was a chore. The stories weren't interesting. There were times when I'd notice that the other kids in Sunday School seemed to have committed some of the stories to memory, and even seemed to think they were pretty important. And I'd wonder if perhaps I should feel that way too, but in the end they'd still just be a bunch of stories about shepherds and their sheep, and any motivation instantly evaporated.

16 January 2012

Another great cover and original

I've been listening to both versions of this song incessantly in the past few days. I think both deserve appreciation, so I've been considering the order in which I should embed them so as to foster such a reaction. I've decided to post them in the order in which I discovered them, starting with the cover version.

It's the first video released as part of Ingrid Michaelson's side-project Army of 3:

I love Ingrid, and I'll probably post some more stuff from her in the future. And dear god, that little look she gives just after the 2 minute mark sorta turns me into a giggly pile of stupid.

And here's the original by Gotye (nekkid people but no naughty bits, but still probably NSFW):

Both have a great sound to them. I really like that the original is a duet—it makes things a lot less black-and-white, and thus more interesting.

The poison of "one true love"

A little while back I came across this image through StumbleUpon:

Now I'm the sort of person who could maybe be labelled as a romantic (perhaps even of the hopeless sort), but I can't stand cheesy crap so I'm immediately frustrated by this sort of thing. But this example in particular grated on me because I thought it spoke to and perpetuated a damaging belief that so many people seem to have about love. (It also grated on me because of its asinine punctuation. Period or ellipsis? YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE.) Being in the mood for a debate, I brought my grievances to Facebook. I linked to the above image and declared that anyone who preoccupied themself with the sort of fairytale BS it was peddling would be setting themself up for a lot of unhappiness. What followed was a pretty great conversation, but I don't think I made my points as well as I could have, so I'll try to make things clearer here.

01 January 2012

New Year's

In the past, New Year's Eve has been among my least favorite holidays. Maybe it's the fact that it has to follow Christmas's act, maybe it's the fact that the much-lauded "ball drop" will never live up to my childhood interpretation of an actual drop of the giant glass ball from a significant height, presumably to shatter into a million pieces on the ground. The whole ordeal has always just seemed anti-climactic: you're back together with all the long-lost loved ones you haven't seen since the week before, and the excitement either seems forced or just alcohol-induced. And as a pedantic little twerp, I've also always taken issue with the arbitrary concept of the date on which the "new" year begins, and the human-centric practice of measuring time by our own little planet's revolutions.

But I've recently been looking at the holiday in a new light, fueled by my ponderings of what sort of winter holiday I might celebrate with my hypothetical family someday. Celebrating Christmas can be enjoyable, but not only am I an atheist but I also have no desire to lie to my kids about Santa, either. So I need something else to fill the space (a family-oriented, gift-giving winter holiday seems to go much deeper into human tradition than just Christian tradition, and in the US, school is conveniently off for the week). There are plenty of options based around the solstice, but I'm no more pagan than I am Christian or Jewish, so that wouldn't feel any more appropriate for me.

But what I've begun to think about is perhaps a multi-night New Year celebration, with gift-giving. Despite my previous lack of enthusiasm for New Year's, it is satisfactorily secular, and if it were to stand on its own instead of following Christmas--while absorbing some of that holiday's significance--I think it could fill the space nicely. A large part of Christmas (at least from my point of view) is already about celebrating another year spent with loved ones. My lingering pedantry was still making me wonder how enthusiastic I'd be able to get about the New Year concept in general, though, until I saw this awesome comic on the subject from the blog Storyboards..

Click here to read the whole thing

That extension of the celebration to all of humanity and life in general totally won me over. While the "start" date of the year is of course still entirely arbitrary, the celebration of a new revolution seems a lot more meaningful in that light. Not only can it be an appreciation for the passage of time in the company of loved ones, it can also be a recognition of the great cosmic fortune enjoyed by life on Earth, including our own species. You could even see the celebration of a(n approximately) 365-day year as recognition of our position in our star's habitable zone. And like the comic says, instead of making the same, traditionally self-absorbed New Year's resolutions, we could instead make resolutions on behalf of humanity and life in general.

As for how exactly to signify and celebrate this new conglomeration of holidays, I'm still deciding. I don't want to get too caught up in things and start inventing all sorts of new traditions, since we can see how that's worked out for Christmas. Every year that celebration seems more and more centered on the fluff than the philosophy. I don't want my mongrel holiday to devolve into a preoccupation of a certain type of decoration or a seemingly innocuous story that comes to overshadow the original intent; I want it to stay grounded in reality and a simple appreciation of love, friendship, our fellow human beings, and all life.

I think general winter-themed decorations would work: snowmen, snowflakes, and the like. And while I can't stand the gaudy and overdone outdoor light and decoration displays that bring some people enjoyment, I do think simple white lights used smartly can be incredibly gorgeous, and could totally get behind that. As for a Christmas tree- or Menorah-analogous centerpiece, I'm still not sure. It's nice to have a simple symbol to summarize the sentiment of a holiday, but I hesitate to include for the reasons I listed above; I don't want the focus to shift to the symbol itself. But I have plenty of time yet to figure out that, and all the other details. And so far I'm pretty excited about the whole concept.

What do you think?