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What is this Religious Claim doing in my Kid’s High School?

image

At high school orientation for my son this evening, I saw this professionally-produced poster hanging in a hallway, posing the question, “What is Religion?”. Apparently the answer is that religion is misunderstood by the poster maker, because the maker’s answer begins by describing religion as “something that human beings have always felt a need for.” The poster maker, and the teacher who shared the poster, should think a bit more about the roughly 1 in 7 Americans who live without religion, apparently not needing it at all.  They should consider the many countries of Europe in which a majority of the population has no religious belief and yet prospers. 

Religion is something that some people do.  It is not something that human beings always need.

The Strange Animal With The Earliest Muscles

You’re a great big strong animal with muscles all over your body. Your ancestors weren’t always that way, however. They used to move using flagella, or sometimes, they just oozed.

ancient stauromedusaeA new study published today by a group of scientists from Oxford and Cambridge in the UK and St. John’s in Newfoundland describes the earliest known animal to have any muscles at all. It lived 560 million years ago.

The image you see to the right is a reconstruction of what its body looked like when it was alive. It’s pretty strange-looking, right? Who has ever seen a creature like this living today?

extant stauromedusaeActually, many people have. Take a look at the image to the left, a photograph taken of a living animal called a stauromedusae.

Stauromedusae are small cnidarians, members of the same phylum as corals, anemone and jellyfish. Unlike jellyfish, they live most of their lives attached by a stalk to particular surfaces. Unlike coral, they don’t create hard skeletons. They have the same basic body type as these other animals, however: A central chamber surrounded by feeding tentacles. They often live in tidal zones, feeding on tiny bits of organic stuff that is tossed around on the waves.

We don’t have to travel to alien planets in far flung solar systems to find bizarre forms of life. Strange is all around us.

Emaze: The Animated Gif of the 2010s

If you are old enough to remember Bob Dole, you’re old enough to remember the 1990s, when the latest thing to have for any website was an animated GIF:

DoleKemp96.org Animated Gif

Until their recent resurgence as a form of ironic retro behavior in an era of high bandwidth, animated GIF graphics were a laughingstock, derided for their uselessly large filesize in a low bandwidth environment. At a time when most people used dial-up connections to the Internet, you’d have to wait seemingly forever, just to watch an exploding smiley or a sparkling rainbow. Even now, in an age when people stream high-definition video, some people just plain hate animated GIFs for their painfully distracting quality. Alice at Wonderland sums up this reaction fairly well:

“It’s not just that I find them annoying – though I do – it’s that they actually physically bother me. I get eye strain and headaches from the things. You know how they advise epileptics not to look at flashing lights because they can cause seizures? This doesn’t surprise me one bit, because I feel like I might have one every time I look at the things. And I can talk about seizures because I really did have one, though it was many years ago and I luckily have not had one since. As far as I know. But ugh, those freaking flashing gifs are awful, and they distract from whatever the person is writing. They distract A LOT. And I’m easily distracted enough as it is.

“And what is the point? As you know if you’ve read my blog, I love using images in my posts. I’ve never found a need to animate one, though. I mean – why do you have to show someone actively facepalming (head falling to hand, head jumping back up, head falling to hand, head jumping back up, rinse, repeat, puke) when you could just show a picture of the facepalm? Huh? I don’t get it. I think you can be just as funny without the things. Actually I like you MORE without them.”

With this in mind, along comes emaze, the latest lower-caps alternative to Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. “PowerPoints?,” you reply with nose wrinkled and eyebrows raised? “PowerPoints are so boring!” What could be more boring than bland blue gradient backgrounds with bold text in the foreground?

Well, a lot, actually, depending on what an author actually puts in the slide. PowerPoint slides can be really, really interesting if they share really, really interesting information, just as boring old black text on a white background can make for a really, really good book if the author has imagination.

If you have something interesting to say, nobody will care about fancy graphic design elements. If you don’t have much to say, then you’d better rely on design to distract. And that’s where emaze comes in. Emaze has two main selling points. First, it can be shared universally across the internet — but so can PowerPoint with its updated formatting and exporting options. Second, it has flashy, spinny, 3D animations. Just. Like. Animated. GIFs.

In honor of the headachy emptiness of it all, let me share an excerpt of a presentation showcased by emaze as an exemplar of its possibilities… as an animated GIF:

Tal Moravkin's headache-inducing presentation on emaze

Loving the progress yet?

Many Law Enforcement Agencies Given Easy, Searchable Access To YOUR Private Communications

For me, one word is key to understanding the following paragraph, a new investigative report from Ryan Gallagher at The Intercept about a spying tool called ICReach:

“The National Security Agency is secretly providing data to nearly two dozen U.S. government agencies with a “Google-like” search engine built to share more than 850 billion records about phone calls, emails, cellphone locations, and internet chats, according to classified documents obtained by The Intercept.”

It’s the fifth word, the word is.

The NSA is giving 23 different U.S. government agencies open and easy access to private data about Americans’ personal electronic communications that has been seized without any search warrant, or even any notice to the people who are being spied upon. This isn’t something that the NSA was doing, before Barack Obama became President, or before Obama promised to reform NSA surveillance of Americans. It’s something going on right now, and there are no plans in place by anyone in Congress or the White House, Democrat or Republican, to put a stop to it.

nsa search engine

After The Intercept broke this story, the NSA admitted that this search engine exists, but justified its use, without search warrants, because the “targets” of the spying are foreign, rather than people in the United States. In a narrow sense, that’s true. What the NSA didn’t own up to, however, is that The Intercept discovered that the personal communications of millions upon millions of Americans living within US borders, who are not suspected of any wrongdoing, are also pulled into the NSA surveillance search engine. While they were never targets of any criminal investigation, and are not in any sense foreign, the private communications of these Americans is nonetheless made easily searchable to people from 23 federal government agencies.

Democrats, when you receive phone calls and emails requesting financial donations in the few weeks left before this year’s congressional elections, take a minute to pause and reflect: Is this kind of warrantless searching through Americans’ private communications by the government the kind of change you were hoping for the last time you voted? If you care about the integrity of your Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure, talk back to the candidates running in your district. Ask the people from each campaign what specific plans they have for putting an end to unconstitutional government electronic spying against Americans.

If a candidate doesn’t have a specific plan, that candidate doesn’t deserve your vote.

Help. Doctor Who’s Balloon Of Human Skin Has Me Retching. I Need Alternatives.

My teenage son and I have become enthusiastic fans of Doctor Who. We enjoy the imaginative settings and characters, the show’s sense of curiosity, and the unusual perspective allowed by a story with time travel at its center.

doctor who costumesFor a long time, I’ve appreciated the way that Doctor Who helps young people become comfortable with their differences. While adolescent society in general pushes teenagers to conform, Doctor Who opens up a universe of diversity, to show that differences make life fun. In reality, we push to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. In Doctor Who, we see a married lesbian couple in which one of the women is a lizard.

The point isn’t to make us all into lesbians who become aroused at the sight of scaly skin. The point is to open up all kinds of possibilities for people in ways that have nothing at all to do with gender identity. It’s this celebration of weirdness that excites non-conformists who watch Doctor Who, and brings them to do deliciously goofy things like dress up in costume. When they wear the clothes of their favorite version of The Doctor, they embrace this vision of inspired cosmic eccentricity.

So, this week, my son and I eagerly went to see the Aqmerican premier of season eight of the revitalized Doctor Who. We even went to see it in a movie theater, to give the viewing a sense of occasion.

My son loved it. I left with a sense of dread.

doctor who half face deep breathI remember when I was a teenager, and adults put out frightening messages about television and movies that were dangerous for people my age. There was a campaign against Satanic influences in heavy metal music. I thought it was all ridiculous, and most of it was. Heavy metal wasn’t dangerous. It was just very bad music.

I didn’t listen to heavy metal, but it wasn’t the superficial demonic gimmicks of goofy bands like Black Sabbath that turned me off. Those were just silly provocations. What turned me off was that the music wasn’t very interesting. It was simple, repetitive, predictable, without subtlety. It was loud for the sake of being loud, which isn’t worth paying attention to after the first 30 seconds of loudness has passed.

As a parent, I’ve tried to remember my own experience with excessive efforts by adults to control what adolescents see, but at the first Doctor Who episode of the 8th season, I found my limit. The episode, entitled Deep Breath, features robots that mask their mechanical identity with pieces of flesh that they harvest from the bodies of humans they have killed. As the robots try to make a getaway, one of them uses a hot air balloon that has been stitched together from pieces of human skin.

doctor who human skin balloonI understand that the Doctor Who writers meant for the robots to be a kind of dark version of The Doctor himself, and for his Tardis time machine, but the balloon made of human skin was a step too far. It wasn’t necessary to make any larger point. It was a shocking element that had no purpose other than being shocking.

Well, it worked. I was shocked. I was disgusted.

More importantly, I was disappointed. A balloon of human skin is frightening, but it isn’t intelligently frightening. It isn’t subtle. It isn’t interesting. It’s just plain abominable. It is, like the pseudo-Satanism of heavy metal rockers, a cheap trick to distract from an underlying lack of substance. It’s an insult to the audience.

I’m not against fear. I’m not even against horror. I’m against the use of disgusting cheap tricks to evoke these feelings simply in order to provoke a physiological excitement. There’s no creativity or eccentricity within that sort of fear.

There are fears that are deep and dark within the human psyche, but transcend the brain stem’s anxieties about pain and death. When we explore these fears, we learn important things about ourselves, and become the better for it. That’s not he kind of fear that Doctor Who season 8 seems to be interested in. So, this is where my son and I will leave Doctor Who.

As a palette cleanser, on this last week of summer before school begins, my kids are watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Journey. This show does what Doctor Who ought to be doing, expanding minds with possibilities rather than shrinking them down with terror of alien predators.

But what next? I’m looking for smart, creative books, audio, or video that pushes the boundaries of our assumptions about reality. I don’t care whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. I want materials for my teenager that can bring the sense of openness that I once thought we could find in Doctor Who – without the ever-present monsters and ghoulish provocations.

Any suggestions?

Jesus Cares? Help is Just a Prayer Away?

That’s what roadside church signs tell me on my drive through central Maine today:

Help is just a prayer away

Jesus cares about you

There are a lot of good people suffering in the world. Jesus (and God the Father of whom Jesus is supposed to be one mysterious aspect) are supposed to omniscient and omnipotent. If they exist and they care about the suffering of good people, why don’t they relieve that suffering? They could, you know, with no bad repercussions. That’s what “omnipotent” means. But if they exist, they don’t relieve the suffering of good people. What does that say about the character of Jesus and God?

In communities all over the world, many people are praying to an omniscient and omnipotent God for the relief of the suffering of good people. Some of those good people are going to go right on suffering. If God exists and God is good, how can anyone say that “help is just a prayer away”?

Frequency of Miracles, Charted

From the Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin, a chart of the frequency of miracles over time:

frequency of miracles

Redefining Sexual Versatility

Young, sexed up human beings might get some useful perspective on their struggles by considering the plight of Cloeon dipterum, a common species of mayfly that lives in the Northern Hemisphere. Mayflies have a period of adult sexuality that only lasts a few weeks. The short sexual life of the mayfly is common knowledge, and is reflected in the scientific name of the group of insects: Ephemeroptera.

Cloeon dipterumWhat’s less well known is that males of Cloeon dipterum are so hyper-focused on finding sexually available females that they have evolved extra parts to their eyes, called turbinate eyes, so that they can locate single females as they swerve through giant mayfly swarms in the air. Going to a bar to pick up sexual partners is predictable and calm compared to the chaos that mayflies have to endure.

What’s more, young Cloeon dipterum don’t just have adolescent angst. They go through periods where they are going through so many changes that they literally cannot breathe. In a paper published in the September issue of the journal Freshwater Science, researchers report on observations that when larval members of the species molt, they lose the lining of the tracheal systems through which they breathe, and have to go through the insect equivalent of holding their breath while the lining reforms. Global warming may increase the respiratory stress of molting for these insects, the researchers speculate.

But, for those who make it to the brief mayfly adulthood, sexual mores are fairly flexible, according to the Journal of the North American Benthological Society. Female mayflies are able to produce young without mating at all, but the females continue to mate with males nonetheless every now and then, in order to add a touch of tangy genetic diversity to the mix.

A War on Whites? Consider the Bogardus Distance Scale

Congressman Mo Brooks, a Republican Representative of Alabama’s 5th District, has taken repeatedly to the airwaves in order to declare that America is plagued by a “War on Whites”:

“This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else. It’s a part of the strategy that Barack Obama implemented in 2008, continued in 2012, where he divides us all on race, on sex, greed, envy, class warfare, all those kinds of things.”…

“I want the American people to start recognizing what the heck’s going on,” Brooks said. “When the Democrats bring up race time after time after time, what’s the theme? It’s skin color. Who are they saying who dislikes whom? They’re saying the whites dislike the blacks, the whites dislike the Hispanics and the Democrats are the ones who will protect you from those whites. That’s the subliminal and sometimes open message.”

Is Rep. Brooks right? Is there really a “War on Whites” in which white Americans are being singled out for disparagement? Is it unfair to say that nonwhites are the target of discrimination in America? There is an empirical way to answer this question, thanks to Emory Bogardus. In 1926, the sociologist developed a general “social distance” scale in which a respondent indicates how close she would allow members of some group to come to her.

“For each of the groups listed below, please indicate on a scale of 1 to 7 how much closeness you would find to be acceptable between you and members of that group:

1 = as close relatives by marriage
2 = as your close personal friends
3 = as neighbors on the same street
4 = as coworkers in your job
5 = as citizens in your country
6 = as only visitors in your country
7 = you would exclude them from your country”

For many decades, the Bogardus scale has been used to survey Americans’ reports of willingness to tolerate to various racial and ethnic groups, with lower scores indicating greater tolerance and higher scores indicating greater intolerance. With the exception of the initial survey of 1926 (in which the “English” receive a slightly better tolerance score), the social category of “White Americans” has consistently received the highest tolerance score out of dozens of racial and ethnic groups. White Americans’ status as the most-tolerated group in America persists in the most recent study using the scale, a survey of American college students by Vincent Parrillo and Christopher Donoghue. As you review these rankings below, keep in mind that the group Parillo and Donoghue studied in 2012 is actually the least likely to exhibit differences in racial attitudes, since their sample is dominated by young, highly educated people (see here and here on trends in racial attitudes by age and education):

Group Average Bogardus Score Standard Deviation
White Americans 1.15 0.57
Italians 1.32 0.8
Canadians 1.35 0.89
British 1.36 0.91
African Americans 1.42 0.78
Irish 1.46 0.94
French 1.5 1.03
Germans 1.51 1.01
Greeks 1.52 1.01
Indians (American) 1.57 0.94
Africans 1.61 0.93
Dutch 1.62 1.09
Polish 1.64 1.08
Puerto Ricans 1.64 1.09
Filipinos 1.68 1.08
Dominicans 1.71 1.14
Chinese 1.72 1.04
Other Hispanics/Latinos 1.72 1.14
Russians 1.73 1.17
Cubans 1.74 1.2
Jews 1.74 1.11
Jamaicans 1.74 1.08
Japanese 1.8 1.14
Mexicans 1.8 1.29
Vietnamese 1.85 1.11
Koreans 1.87 1.24
Indians (India) 1.89 1.22
Haitians 1.91 1.27
Arabs 2.16 1.55
Muslims 2.23 1.52

Not only do “white Americans” still garner the highest tolerance scores of the 30 groups, but 8 of the 10 most-tolerated groups are either white or European in origin. Only 1 of the 10 least-tolerated groups, “Jews,” is arguably either white or European in origin.

There are many ways to consider and interpret results of Bogardus-scale social distance research. None of them is empirically consistent with the fantasy of a “War on Whites.”

News From Occupy Washington?

I was a little surprised this morning when I saw an announcement on Twitter that Occupy Washington has released its latest online newsletter.

occupy washington 2014

I was even more surprised when I discovered that the Occupy Washington newsletter, “Based on #OccupyTogether – a group that occupies McPherson Square in Washington DC,” showed nothing but photographs of Justin Bieber. I was there when Occupy Washington began, and it didn’t look like this.

But then, the Occupy Movement never began with any goals, or specific grievances, or centralized control. The idea was that people would show up, and then things would just sort of happen.

Well, now Justin Bieber pictures are happening. Who is to say this isn’t an authentic manifestation of the Occupy Movement? I certainly don’t see anyone else trying to do anything with Occupy Washington.

Pouty photographs of teen idols certainly have done a better job of occupying bits of turf in Washington DC than protesters have.

occupy justin bieber

Does It Help The Environment To Live On An Iceberg For A Year?

A professional adventurer named Alex Bellini has decided that he’s going to spend an entire year living on an iceberg off the coast of Greenland. His purpose: To show people that climate change is something they should pay attention to.

alex belliniBellini also says he’ll be performing scientific study: “My objective is reporting and investigating, by means of scientific methods, the entire lifetime of an iceberg. I want to prove how the pace of ice-melting has dramatically accelerated over the last decades.”

An obvious problem with this scientific aspect of Bellini’s project is that it would take decades to prove that the pace of ice-melting has dramatically accelerated over the last decades. Bellini’s observations won’t provide evidence of global ice-melting, either, just evidence of one iceberg melting.

It isn’t news that icebergs melt, nor is the melting of an iceberg necessarily related to climate change. Icebergs have been observed melting for thousands of years. It’s an expected phenomenon, even if climate change isn’t taking place.

People aren’t really concerned about icebergs melting so much as they are concerned about Arctic Sea Ice thinning, and ice melting on Greenland and Antarctica. Why isn’t Bellini going to watch the ice melting there? Because the scale of these melts isn’t as personal? Because the storyline is wrong?

There’s little drama to Alex Bellini’s trip. The iceberg he’s on will melt. Maybe it will melt away. Perhaps it will melt just a little bit.

In the meantime, there are real scientists doing well-designed, useful scientific research to track global patterns in ice melt. Among them are the people at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. They don’t showboat, but day after day they provide data that are then communicated to people around the world.

Maybe that isn’t adventure, but it is, in the long term, the best way to communicate to people that climate change is an issue they ought to pay attention to.