Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Pope Francis

Pope Francis occasionally says some nice things. And look, if by doing so he inspires people to behave more humanely, then that is a good thing. But keep in mind that for all his seemly humanistic words, he has not altered Catholic doctrine. The church remains just as misogynistic, homophobicruthlessly authoritative, and capable of obfuscating child rape investigations as it ever was under his predecessors.

This Pope has a long way to go if the Church is to regain any legitimate moral authority.

Monday, December 30, 2013


I recently saw Disney’s new animated film, Frozen, and I really liked it. It is one of the better animated movies I’ve seen and that’s saying something because there have been some good ones made in the last few years. I’m looking at you, Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon. But to me what makes Frozen noteworthy is its combination of good storytelling, voice talent, music, and animation with a great (and frankly unexpected) message.

The message I saw in Frozen is that girls don't need a man to solve their problems for them or to provide a happy ending. Males were important parts of the story -- sources of fun, excitement, danger, romance, heroism, complications, and humor. Some were villains. Some were helpful friends. But ultimately the heroines resolved the story, saved the town, and reforged their relationship via their own wit, courage, and love.

I like that positive message, especially in a genre known for males who swoop in and save the helpless girl. Instead, this story was empowering for girls and did so without casting males as a whole in a nasty light. The movie even poked fun at its own genre's themes and subverted absurd depictions of romance. Well done, Disney.

Friday, December 20, 2013

December 2nd

Earlier this month my mother died.

This was not completely unexpected. She had been deteriorating from the effects of frontotemporal lobe dementia for years. She had already beaten the odds by lasting so long, but the speed of her decline in the last few days was shocking. It is undeniably sad to have now lost her completely, forever.

Since 2010, the course of her disease was that she would suffer a sudden decline of ability that would stop and level out for a few months, perhaps even gaining back some of what was lost, then there would be another rapid decline. In this way over the last few years Mom lost her memory of my sister and niece and nephew. Then she lost her memory of me and then she forgot Dad. Though for a while after she forgot who Dad was, she would still look outside for his car, waiting for “him” to come visit. But in time that faded too along with what was left of her personality, vitality, and all those traits that made her who she was to us and to herself. In very real ways, Mom died inch by inch over the last few years.

That was a hard thing to watch happen to her… to Dad.

When she declined this Autumn we expected things to stabilize for a few months as it always had before, but that wasn’t to be the case. She developed some trouble walking. So I got her a wheelchair, but over the next weeks she kept declining. So I arranged for a hospice service to come to the assisted care facility where she lived to provide additional expertise and equipment as needed to maximize her quality of life. Hospice got Mom into a reclining wheelchair which was more comfortable. Next she began to have trouble eating, sometimes forgetting how as she became less and less engaged with the world around her. Mom’s last couple of days were spent in a hospital type bed.

Dementia had taken so much from her, but it also took away her ability to understand, to fear, to suffer. She died peacefully in the early afternoon of December 2nd.

Monday, December 9, 2013

I Hate Onswipe

I cannot express adequately how much I hate Onswipe.

I do almost all of my web browsing and internet stuff via my iPad. It is a fine device for such usage without any need for a tablet version of most websites, much less for a tablet version that makes the user experience extra choppy, slow to load, and out of phase with inputs, e.g. Onswipe.

In recent months more and more websites have begun using the Onswipe interface as the default if navigating there via an iDevice. There seems to be no way to kill Onswipe within the system software on my end so that all websites load up as their normal versions and never as Onswipe. So I'm left with three bad choices: deal with Onswipe; boycott the ever growing number of websites that use it; or wait for each instance of an Onswipe page to eventually load, hope that the option to use a desktop version is presented, and then wait for the desktop version (which is all I want anyway) to load before using the website.

If you create or distribute content on the web using Onswipe as the default for iDevices, I hate you, at least a little bit.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Tea We've Brewed

Due to the shutdown of our government, the National Park Service was closed this week, with employees prohibited from coming to work. There was no one to open the parks. There was no one to maintain it's website or money to pay for it. NASA was closed too, except for support staff for the International Space Station. The National Institutes of Health had to stop taking new patients (200 people turned away so far) and suspend research. And that is just a short list of consequences. This shutdown is seriously messed up and outrageously irresponsible. It is also the work of one faction of one political party.

It is Tea Party Congressional Republicans who've flatly refused to pass a budget unless their long list of demands are met, including defunding the Affordable Care Act health care law. They have figuratively held the budget process hostage and therefore the funding of our national services to the point of a shutdown -- all to protest a law already passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and upheld by the Supreme Court. 

They really, really don't like Obamacare. They didn't vote for it, many weren't in Congress at the time, and they want it gone. What needs to be understood is that it doesn't matter who constituted the Congress when the ACA was passed. It is law. Want it changed? Then new laws have to be passed. Holding up the entire budget process of the United States in what amounts to little more than a temper tantrum is not how new laws get passed in this country. Attempting to do so is circumventing our constitutional system and ignoring the one job Congress is obligated to do every year -- pass a budget. 

Now on to the debt ceiling, which is the next big partisan battle in Washington. Raising the debt ceiling is not borrowing more money or defrauding future generations. It is promising to repay what we have already borrowed. Not raising the debt ceiling is defaulting on our obligations. It is going back on our word. It would trash the value of our government bonds and our currency. Just the threat of refusing to raise the debt ceiling sends serious and harmful ripples through global financial markets -- actually defaulting on our debts would be catastrophic. It is the very height of reckless irresponsibility for our Representatives to threaten our country and the whole global economy with that -- dishonorable too. 

Making these antics even more frustrating to watch, the debt ceiling and our budget deficit are barely affected by the ACA which is mostly paid for by new revenue and shifting existing revenue around. It is projected to cost just $1.2 billion total from 2012-2022, compared to the at least $4 trillion cost of our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan over a similar time frame. Use of the debt ceiling to protest the ACA is... baffling and childish. All the more so that this stuff is making a mockery of what was once of a party of careful, rational, nuanced thinkers and intellectuals. Some of whom are no doubt still in the party, but whose hands are tied for fear of being "primaried" by Tea Party challengers, as so many of their fellows were in 2010. And this... embarrassment going on in Washington right now is the legacy of that condition.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Hug an Atheist, a Documentary

Sylvia Broeckx has been working on a crowd source funded documentary film about being an atheist in America. It is done and will be released on September 14th at the fifth annual Atheist Film Festival in San Francisco. I'm really looking forward to seeing it, once I can purchase a copy.  

Hug an Atheist is about the lives of American atheists told in personal interviews that cover topics like love, loss, decency, and discrimination. It humanizes humanists and works to dispel some of the more pernicious misconceptions that are spread by the hateful or the ignorant.

What the film does not do is serve to attack the philosophical underpinnings of religion or lay out a case for why atheism is the more reasonable position. It isn't an atheist polemic. It isn't about how the believer and the unbeliever are different. It is about our shared humanity, morality, and emotional richness. 

Dan Fincke is one of the atheists in the film and he has published a wonderful article describing it.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Actually Reducing Abortion Rates

I sort of sympathize with anti-abortion feelings. 

I don't ultimately agree with that point of view, because to me abortion is an issue of body autonomy for the woman above all other considerations. The same bodily autonomy all adults have that protects us from being forced to donate kidneys, bone marrow, liver sections, etc., not even to save a life. Therefore I think no one should be empowered to force any woman to get or remain pregnant against her will, ever. 

Still, I sincerely understand the moral queasiness abortion invokes. And as with anti-abortion people, I and most other pro-choice people would like to reduce abortion rates too. However it is very important to me that such efforts be genuinely effective, be based on solid information, and cause the fewest possible harmful side effects.

Fortunately, we don't have to cast about in the dark, stumbling for effective strategies. We already have plenty of verifiable evidence from actual policies and rigorous studies. Sensible plans to reduce abortion should be built around: comprehensive sex education; free and universally available contraception; excellent pregnancy and child development assistance; and though it might seem counter intuitive, legal and available abortion.

Countries and communities that utilize those policies have drastically lower abortion rates than those that don't. It isn't magic or wishful thinking. Those strategies are by far the most effective at reducing abortion and do so without needlessly endangering women's lives or health. So I implore those who strongly oppose abortion to please endorse evidence based solutions and help implement them. If you can spare a few minutes, I highly recommend the essay "How I Lost Faith in the Pro-Life Movement" by Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

More Faith vs Trust

I've written about this before, but it bears repeating because too often I've encountered bad arguments that conflate trust with faith in order to sow confusion.

 Faith and trust aren't the same thing. Yes, evidence based reason like science does require some trust, but that does not open the door for faith or justify a false equivocation between faith/trust and science/religion. Unlike faith, trust is always conditional and provisional; strengthened or weakened by the evidence. By way of example, I don't have faith that the sun will appear to rise tomorrow in the east. I trust that it will rise and that trust has been earned by countless examples and very well understood scientific explanations. Should I be presented with compelling reasons to change my expectation of the sun rising, then I will. See? Conditional, provisional, and evidence based. Not faith.

There are some basic assumptions about the universe utilized by science and they aren't faith either. These axioms are kept as few and as simple as possible: the universe exists and it can be understood. I provisionally accept those. Even if I am actually a program in a vast and unfathomably complex computer system, there is no reason to alter those starting axioms, as the universe is still apparent and can still be understood. Moreover there is no evidence whatsoever that those axioms are false or in violation of Occam's Razor, although adding unwarranted supernatural explanations would be.

Once we start adding the unnecessary, unfounded, or unsupported then there is no end to it. Without sticking with naturalism and science as much as possible, then any ludicrous idea is just as plausible as any other. In other words, if the Christian god then why not Zeus, why not Xenu, why not the Flying Spagetti Monster? No, no thank you to all of those. I'm content with evidence based reason. I'm content with a scientific mindset. I'm content to reserve my beliefs for those that are best supported -- adjusting those views as scientists expand human knowledge. I'm content to live this tiny, insignificant life; to love and learn and be compassionate; and then one day to die and cease to exist anymore.

Incompatible Mindsets

Science and faith. These are two different mindsets. So different that they are fundamentally incompatible.

The methodology of science is based on careful analysis of verifiable observation. Scientists subject their own ideas to repeated checks to uncover flaws and expose their own errors. Scientists even invite their peers to go through their work to find such mistakes, which is potentially humiliating but necessary to avoid the effects of enthusiasm for an idea overstepping what is warranted by the evidence.

Faith on the other hand is defined by very different characteristics. Faith doesn't require evidence or observation. Faith is considered to be strongest in the absence of proof. In fact, faith can require turning away from evidence. Faith is choosing to believe based on what is wanted to be true, not on what is or is not actually observed.

Science simply cannot incorporate such wishful thinking, because the scientific method requires evidence and rationality at every step. It is a way of analyzing reality wholly dependent on evidence based reason. Such observation of the natural universe cannot incorporate faith directly nor substitute faith for any of its processes and remain intellectually honest.

Now that isn't to say that a productive, respected scientist cannot also have faith in the supernatural. Dr. Ken Miller is a practicing Catholic. He is also a well respected biologist and outspoken opponent of intelligent design creationism. I have great respect for Dr. Miller and other scientists like him. I even respect their right to believe in unfounded, supernatural, faith driven ideologies. But any such scientist must take pains to set aside religious faith when doing science, switching from one mode of thinking to another in order to consider only the naturalistic evidence. They cannot substitute a faith-based explanation no matter how tempting.

History shows us that sometimes even great scientists fail in that. But what we remember most aren't their scientific failures, but their successes. The great work of long dead natural philosophers and astronomers is valued for providing insights into understanding the universe in measurable, verifiable ways. Those insights were gained through vigilant observation under the care of brilliant, rational minds. Or at least they remained rational about their now famous research, even if in other ways their minds were polluted by nonsense, like Newton and his alchemy.

I want to emphasize that I'm not suggesting that scientists must be atheists. I know that some scientists will learn about the natural world and chose to interpret the meaning of that through their religious faith. But that is an additional, personal conviction of theirs that isn't directly warranted by the evidence. As such it fails to withstand Occam's Razor, isn't part of their scientific work, and represents a necessary switch from one type of thinking to another – because the mindsets of faith and of science are incompatible ways of determining what to believe about reality.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Yesterday two bombs were detonated at the Boston Marathon, killing several people and injuring many others. In the aftermath, I've heard laments about how such acts of terrorism show that our country has degraded. I disagree. 

It is a place where -- just seconds after explosions ripped through the crowd -- police, volunteers, photographers, runners, spectators, race officials, and national guard soldiers rushed in to help the injured, tossing barricades and debris out of the way to provide first aid and comfort to those in need. It is a place where people opened their homes and businesses to stranded, shell shocked runners. It is a place where exhausted people who had just run 26.2 miles realized a need and ran to a hospital to donate blood.

We should not let ourselves be defined by the terrible acts of a deranged few, certainly not against the contrast of far more numerous acts of heroism both large and small shown by the many who responded with immediate compassion and selflessness.