July 23, 2013

July 22, 2013

  • Elephants

    In 1986, Mkele Mbembe was on holiday in Kenya after graduating from Northwestern University. On a hike through the bush, he came across a young bull elephant standing with one leg raised in the air.

    The elephant seemed distressed, so Mbembe approached it very carefully. He got down on one knee and inspected the elephant's front foot, and found a large piece of wood deeply embedded in it. As carefully and as gently as he could, Mbembe worked the wood out with his hunting knife, after which the elephant gingerly put down its foot. The elephant turned to face the man, and with a rather curious look on its face, stared at him for several tense moments.

    Mbembe stood frozen, thinking of nothing else but being trampled. Eventually the elephant trumpeted loudly, turned, and walked away. Mbembe never forgot that elephant or the events of that day.

    Twenty years later, Mbembe was walking through the Chicago Zoo with his teenaged son. As they approached the elephant enclosure, one of the creatures turned and walked over to near where Mbembe and his son Tapu were standing. The large bull elephant stared at Mbembe, lifted its front foot off the ground, then put it down. The Elephant did that several times then trumpeted loudly, all the while staring at the man.

    Remembering the encounter in 1986, Mbembe couldn't help wondering if this was the same elephant. Mbembe summoned up his courage, climbed over the railing and made his way into the enclosure. He walked right up to the elephant and stared back in wonder.

    The elephant trumpeted again, wrapped its trunk around one of Mbembe's legs and slammed him against the railing, killing him instantly.

    Probably wasn't the same elephant.

July 21, 2013

  • Genesis 1

    Let's look at what Genesis 1 says today, shall we? Anyone with a decent background in science who looks at this critically will recognize that the creation account here is at best an allegory for the creation of the universe, and at worst a total fabrication.

    Early in the creation, God separated the waters into two distinct bodies so that the land could appear between them. He called the water below "seas" and the water above "sky", which he held aloft using a "firmament", which is a solid body. This is verified by the Hebrew word for it, raki'a, which means a solid body, despite the NIV's translation of it into "expansion".

    Why is the KJV translation more in line with the author's intent? First, it's the primary use of the word. Second, it reinforces the aforementioned idea of the sky ocean, which would need a solid protective layer to suspend the water if there truly were an ocean in the sky as the Bible suggests. Third, it compliments the known widespread primitive beliefs. Take the mindset of an ancient Hebrew for a moment by ignoring any contemporary understanding of the world that you may have. You glance at the sky above and observe it's blue, like the color of water, while periodically water falls down from the sky. With no further evidence, it's perfectly logical to conclude that there is a mass of water in the sky. If this is true, then a solid object would be required to hold that water up. Perhaps windows even open in the firmament to allow rainfall (Genesis 8:2).

    God created the sun and moon on the fourth day of the creation, but this causes a plethora of troubles since God's first creation was light, to divide the day in light and the night in darkness. How can there be night and day without the sun, the major source of light on Earth? Again, we must take the probable mindset of the author to understand his position. Look into the sky away from the sun. It's unreasonable to assume that the earth is bright at it's distal boundaries because the sun is shining. On the contrary, the light shining from the giant ball of fire appears to stop at its edges. There's no reason to assume that the sun is the source of the light. In fact, the Bible explicitly states that the sun and moon are merely symbols "to divide the day from the night". In addition to the sun gaffe, the author also makes the mistake of counting the moon as a source of light. If we were to be rigidly technical about the Bible's claims, this is yet another scientific error. But we'll let it slide on it being a colloquialism.

    Another problem with the sun not appearing on the fourth day is that the plants appeared on the third. While it's extremely likely that plants could survive a day without sunlight, it causes problems for people who like to argue that a day in Genesis is a vast expanse of time, usually in the order of millions of years. Another problem with this interpretation is that a morning and evening are described for these days, making a million year day seem quite dubious.

    God created the stars on the fourth day, but what were they and what were their purpose? Biblical authors believed that stars were small sources of light contained within the imaginary firmament covering the earth. In other words, they got no divine inspiration telling them that they were actually many many unfathomably enormous gaseous spheres just very far off. In short, the author's celestial hypothesis was wrong on location, number and size. Verification of the location of stars can be demonstrated quite easily. After God made the sun, moon and stars, he "set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth" (17).

    So a reading of Genesis 1 makes much more sense if we see it as a primitive people trying to explain the creation of the world as they saw it, not as how it actually occurred and was then dictated by God to Moses. At this point, we can safely say that anyone trying to safely harmonize science with the book of Genesis is veraciously wasting his or her time

  • Creationism on Race

    I almost agree with some pieces of what these guys at onehumanrace.com say. Except for the fact that they are insane.

    What is the only answer to racism?

    Before we can solve the problem of racism, we must first ask the question: "Where did the different 'races' come from?" Explore this site for the answer, plus fascinating scientific research demonstrating that there really are no "white" or "black" people.

    Take it piece by piece. There is no one answer to racism, so the opening question is misleading; but otherwise, the next assertion that it would be useful to know about the origins of human races sounds reasonable to me. But wait: there are no people who can be distinguished by skin color, by ethnicity and history? Weird. I'm going to have to follow a few of their links to see what the heck they are talking about.

    Before you leave the front page of the site, though, look at the fine print at the very bottom of the page. Uh-oh.

    Sponsored by Answers in Genesis, in association with GospelCom.Net and Master Books.

    You now know what to expect. This is going to be race and racism as explained by the residents of a clown college.

    So, how do we answer this essential preliminary question about where races come from? If we need to know the answer before we can solve the problem of racism, this had better be a very good explanation.

    According to the Bible, all humans on Earth today are descended from Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives, and before that from Adam and Eve (Genesis 1-11). But today we have many different groups, often called "races," with what seem to be greatly differing features. The most obvious of these is skin color. Many see this as a reason to doubt the Bible's record of history. They believe that the various groups could have arisen only by evolving separately over tens of thousands of years. However, as we shall see, this does not follow from the biological evidence.

    The Bible tells us how the population that descended from Noah's family had one language and by living in one place were disobeying God's command to "fill the earth" (Genesis 9:1, 11:4). God confused their language, causing a break-up of the population into smaller groups which scattered over the Earth (Genesis 11:8-9). Modern genetics show how, following such a break-up of a population, variations in skin color, for example, can develop in only a few generations. There is good evidence that the various people groups we have today have not been separated for huge periods of time.

    Nope. We've got very good evidence that the human species is over 100,000 years old. We can measure the frequency of variations between human subpopulations, we know quite a bit about the rate of accumulation of new variation, and we can calculate how long one group has been diverging from another. We can also look at the pattern and distribution of human genetic variation, and work out historical migrations. This is that distribution:

    Pictured: actual science.

    I carry a set of mutant markers that put me in the M343 group, along with a lot of other Europeans. M343 is a relatively new marker, but I also have some mutations that put me in the M173 group; I also share genetics with the M45 goup; they in turn share markers with the M9 group; and working backwards through many shared alleles, I can trace my parentage right back to East African groups, between 100 and 200 thousand years ago.

    Ken Ham is simply lying. Genetics can show how a small number of novelties can arise in a short time…but the evidence shows that human populations have accumulated a large number of variations, and any competent scientist will tell you that there is no way all human variation could have arisen in 4000 years from a starting stock of eight people. Throughout the site, the Hamites constantly make this kind of dishonest argument: they show that a couple of alleles could assort in a couple of generations, and then leap to the assertion that time is irrelevant, and the sum total of all variation could have arisen very quickly, and further, that all human variations were carried by those 8 people on Noah's big boat.

    It's strange stuff to read. The creationists have been compelled to accept a surprising amount of evolutionary theory — this bit is hilarious because it shows that they understand the basic principle of Darwinian evolution, and are actually teaching it to their kids. They just shy away from the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion of their reasoning.

    Thus, we conclude that the dispersion at Babel broke up a large interbreeding group into small, interbreeding groups. This ensured that the resultant groups would have different mixes of genes for various physical features. By itself, this dispersion would ensure, in a short time, that there would be certain fixed differences in some of these groups, commonly called "races." In addition, the selection pressure of the environment would modify the existing combinations of genes so that the physical characteristics of each group would tend to suit their environment.

    That's just plain old basic evolutionary theory right there, and in fact, it's a kind of hyper-Darwinism…except for one significant difference that they spill in the next paragraph: no novel variations are allowed. Every gene now present in our population stepped off the Ark with Noah's family.

    There has been no simple-to-complex evolution of any genes, for the genes were present already. The dominant features of the various people groups result from different combinations of previously existing created genes, plus some minor degenerative changes, resulting from mutation (accidental changes which can be inherited). The originally created (genetic) information has been either reshuffled or has degenerated, but has not been added to.

    This is simply false. For example, the published count of alleles of ABO glycosyltransferase, the gene associated with the ABO blood types, is up to 29 so far. The three sons of Noah and their three wives only had a total of 12 copies of chromosome 9, where the gene is located, and even assuming maximum heterozygosity and no shared alleles between any of them, that still leaves 17 alleles that had to have arisen later. We know that Ken Ham is wrong both logically and empirically, and we also completely lack a magic mechanism that would simultaneously guarantee the purity of the original alleles inherited from the tiny Noachian population while simultaneously maximizing subsequent diversity to reach modern levels.

    Reading that site, it's clear that they've just battened upon a few elementary genetic facts, and then abused them inappropriately to pretend that science supports them. Whenever they write "Modern genetics supports…" and then state some bizarre Biblical claim, they are lying.

    And then, of course, they end it all with an ironic twist, saying that the reason racism is a problem is that false claims are made about the origins of races, and then listing several cases of scientific racism. They conveniently leave out the fact that there were also Biblical justifications for slavery and racism, and that most scientists (and many Christians!) today deplore those distortions. We do not correct them by adding another layer of lies on top, though, as Answers in Genesis has done.

July 20, 2013

  • Now Taking Requests

    So Xanga has a week and a half left. You have very little time to enjoy me (unless you start to follow me on my WordPress). So, dear Xanga, what subjects would you like me to tackle before we put up a tombstone to Xanga?

    Any requests?

    Basically how I picture Xanga 2.0

July 19, 2013

  • "RAWR!" Is Dinosaur For "I'm Gonna Fucking Eat You"

    Weeks ago I told Xanga that I'd answer select dinosaur questions. Luckily, I get to pick and choose which ones to answer, because otherwise this would feel too much like homework. Here are my select replies:

    "How fast could the fastest of the dinosaurs run?" - @TheSutraDude

    This is an extremely inexact science, but the general consensus is that a therapod (beast-footed) dinosaur such as Utahraptor or Gallimimus would be the fastest. We model them mainly by comparing them to ostriches, since the leg bone structure is remarkably similar. Depending on who you ask, Gallimimus would have clocked a top running speed good enough to let them run on most American highways, with some estimates up to 70mph.

    "How did the dinosaurs become extinct?" - @twloha18

    We have conclusive evidence that an asteroid struck the earth in Mexico, in a worldwide layer of Iridium (an element that is found primarily in extraterrestrial objects). Whether this led to giant weather changes (and what exactly those were) or if weather changes happened prior to the asteroid, and the impact was just the final straw.

    Although there are other theories...

    Explain the kangaroo thing again! " -twloha18 again

    Early models of bipedal dinosaur such as T-rex and parasaurolophus were depicted as having their tails dragging on the ground. We now know that they held their bodies much more horizontally, with the tail acting as a counterbalance to their head. The reason the initial images were wrong is that they were based on the extant animal most resembling the bipedal dinosaurs: the kangaroo.

    Roar! I'm basically a furry dinosaur!

    Why are there smaller creatures and fewer huge ones? Do you think humans could have survived to the point we have if we had more very large animals?" - @crazy2love

    First, the largest animal we have evidence of EVER existing lives today: the blue whale. Second, larger land mammals were possible partially due to a much higher oxygen content in the atmosphere. Third, humans came to being fighting giant animals such as sabre-toothed cats (twice as large as a tiger), the terror bird (about three times the size of an ostrich and carnivorous) and the cave bear (four times the size of a grizzly).

    It's amazing our ancestors didn't spend all their time shitting their loin cloths.

    Thanks for the questions, everyone!

July 17, 2013

  • Governor Perry, I learned from my own example

    This is an article that moved me greatly for pointing out the hypocrisy of the pro-life movement as advanced by so-called "pro-life" politicians. I would normally be happy sharing it in link format, however the site I got it from, The Rude Pundit, doesn't allow linking to individual posts. So I'm sharing it with you here, hoping it can emphasize why access to comprehensive women's health and choice is so important.

    I’ve spent the past month completely pre-occupied with events in Texas, Ohio, and North Carolina. A pre-occupation that has interfered with my work and time with my family. It’s always this way for me when abortion issues take center stage, though not for reasons people might suspect. I’ve never had an abortion. Technically, I don’t have “personal” experience with it. Yet, my existence is intrinsically connected to this issue.
    My mom was 15-years-old when she became pregnant. I was born in October 1972, nine days after Roe v. Wade was re-argued before the Supreme Court. I was three months and two days old when the opinion was issued. If my conception had occurred one year later, I might not be here.

    I am also passionately pro-choice. 
    My opinion on this matter isn’t a form of masochism, nor the result of a bad childhood. In fact, my mom and I are extremely close. But I have spent the past month, indeed years, listening to politicians explain how much they value life and about protecting “those little babies.” I was one of those babies. Unlike those of politicians, my opinion is born of actual experience and a perspective that casts a glaring light of hypocrisy on the pro-lifers passing these laws. I get to take their words and reasoning personally because I am exactly who they deign to be protecting through their exploitive legislation. Frankly, their hypocrisy and willful ignorance has grown infuriating. 
    In 1972, when my mom was a teenager, women didn’t have any choices in pregnancy, nor did they have a lot of other things. Schools didn’t teach comprehensive sex education, meaning they never covered topics such as contraception, consent, risks. Young and poor women didn’t have access to clinics where they could obtain affordable reproductive health care, nor did they have access to birth control. No knowledge, no care, no protection, no choice. And in October of that year, while the Supreme Court pondered Roe v. Wade, my mom became a mother. 
    When I compare today’s world with that one, I am terrified by the similarities emerging. Oklahoma and Texas schools are not required to provide sex education. If a school does, it is required to teach an “abstinence-only” curriculum. Information regarding STDs or contraception is completely (and absurdly) optional. 
    Moreover, Texas’ recent legislation will likely close all but 5 clinics. In a state that is over 700 miles wide, where 42 clinics currently provide care to literally millions of young and low-income women, this will inevitably mean many women won’t have access to reproductive health care, cancer screenings, birth control or safe abortions.
    No knowledge, no care, no protection and no choice. Sound familiar? Think about that while also considering Texas currently has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Oklahoma comes in fourth. It’s as if these states want unintended pregnancies because they certainly work to create the perfect storm.
    Still, it’s the differences between the pre-Roe v. Wade world and today that are the most terrifying. Looking back to my early childhood, it is blatantly clear to me now that we were skirting the poverty line. I was one of the lucky ones, never actually going without food or clothing, but I was distinctly aware we were poor. Fortunately, my mother eventually took advantage of every program available to her to drag us out of poverty. After years of dead end jobs that barely paid the bills, she went to college while I was in elementary school. She received Pell Grants to help pay for tuition and took out a reasonable amount of student loans. I recall her using both welfare programs and food stamps at least part of that time to help with housing and food. We were still ridiculously poor, but we had a future.
    In the end, the government more than profited from its investment in my mom. She has been an economically productive, tax-paying professional for over thirty years. I grew up healthy and went on to college and then law school. Officials talk about needing to cut off the circular nature of government dependence, but they rarely discuss the circular nature of independence government investment can foster.
    Today, the programs she used have been slashed by the same legislatures that proclaim themselves pro-life. Pell grants, 74% of which are awarded to families making $23,000 or less, cover less than 1/3 of tuition costs. The welfare and food stamp programs are exceedingly limited in both time restrictions and benefit cuts. They emphasize immediate employment in low-wage jobs with no future. These programs no longer lend themselves to long-term changes through higher education but instead to a cycle of poverty to pass on through generations. It is possible for a mom to do what mine did, but highly unlikely.
    Further, there is a telling correlation between those voting pro-life and those cutting any care we might receive once we’re actually breathing. I was a healthy kid but like most, I didn’t make it all the way to adulthood unscathed. In second grade, I broke both bones in one arm completely in half (an over-achiever, I know). I wore a cast that covered ¾ of my arm from May through August. At the time, this seemed a tragedy because I wasn’t permitted to swim. Now though, I cringe at what that must have cost. A trip to the emergency room, overnight hospital stay, multiple cast changes and ex-rays equate to substantial bills even for a professional carrying decent insurance. My mom was a poor college student. She has since told me a government program paid a portion and she made monthly payments on the remaining. How would that play out today? Not well in Texas or Oklahoma.
    Both states tout women’s health and protection of babies as their noble reasons for passing these laws. Yet, in spite of hospital and medical associations pleading with them to do otherwise, Governors Perry and Fallin refused Medicaid expansion. In Texas, expansion would have provided $100 billion to pay for health care for the poor, including children. This in a State that had already cut $700 million from state Medicaid funding in its previous budget. Texas currently has the highest percentage of uninsured adults in the nation with 28.8%. Keep in mind, Texas is a monstrosity – 28.8% is 4.78 million people, higher than the entire population in many states.
    In 2007, Rep. Jodi Laubenberg, sponsor of the Texas bill and rape-kit intellectual extraordinaire, proposed an amendment to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”), which helps cover uninsured children in low-income families, to require mothers to wait three months before they could begin receiving prenatal and perinatal care. When this was challenged, Laubenberg explained her reasoning as, "But they're not born yet." Two years later, when Texas had 1.1 million uninsured children, Laubenberg voted no on a bill that would increase the number of children eligible for CHIP. Pro-life? Really?
    Nothing illustrates the inconsistency of the pro-life platform better than the 20-week ban. Abortions after 20 weeks are rare and are almost always related to developmental defects of the fetus, something parents don’t generally become aware of until the standard 20 week ultrasound. In Texas, babies with birth defects that I can’t even wrap my mind around will be born into a pro-life state that has gutted children’s health insurance programs and refused federal funds for the same.
    Arizona passed similar legislation, though it was struck down following a legal challenge. During appellate court arguments, one of the judges, a Bush appointee, expressed concern about forbidding parents the opportunity to make any decisions after becoming aware their baby might develop “horrible birth defects.” Arizona’s solicitor general candidly responded, “With due respect, that’s the woman’s problem.”
    Though by now I shouldn’t be surprised, I admit, I was stunned by his answer. It’s not at all clear to me that anyone in that situation is receiving “due respect,” certainly not the child these laws purportedly protect. The Arizona law provided for criminal prosecution of any doctor who performed an abortion after the cut-off. I think about my life, the assistance my mother received when I had something as elementary as two broken bones. The idea there would be nothing to assist the mother or the child born with birth defects after the government forced that birth to occur makes me question who the real criminals are in that situation.
    Pro-life advocates are rabid in their supposed desire to protect the unborn. They are not so moved to protect the welfare of a living child, especially if it might cost the government money. I cannot reconcile these positions and I have yet to gain any answers to this paradox from those that so violently advocate for life. If those social and medical programs do not offer anything else, they offer hope and opportunity. Ironically, they offer life to the next generation of statistics like me.
    All I can ever think about while the pro-life advocates are yelling about protecting the unborn is, “You’re not there once we’ve arrived!” It is a choice that should be made by those who will actually be present. In the meantime, pro-lifers could spend their energy on programs that actually prevent unintended pregnancies, but no. Instead, they remain perversely obsessed with forced births.
    If abortion had been a legal option, my mom might have taken it. And if I had been her friend sitting beside her, as I was later to a friend in college, I would have supported her and truthfully answered, “I’d probably do the same thing in your situation.” People desperately want this to be a black and white issue but it just isn’t and never will be. The only clear thing is this – as one of the protected unborn, I know officials cannot legitimately tout themselves as pro-life and opine about protecting the most vulnerable, while simultaneously cutting every program that gives us any hope in life. It fills me with rage when I watch them force us to be born and then abandon us as soon as we take a breath. Protecting life has to involve more than just requiring existence because my life didn’t end simply because I was born.

July 10, 2013

  • God's Loophole (NSFW)

    "I do whatever the Bible tells me to
    Except for the parts that I choose to ignore
    Because they’re unrealistic and inconvenient
    But the rest, I live by for sure

    So let’s not talk about how the good book
    Bans shellfish, polyester and divorce
    And how it condones slavery and killing gays
    Because those parts don’t count of course
    Let’s cherry pick the part about losing my cherry
    And [midgets] for ambiguities and omissions
    And circumvent any real sacrifice
    And still feel pious in my arbitrary parroted positions
    And don’t you dare question my convictions
    And don’t look closely at the contradictions
    Just focus on the sacrificial crucifixion
    And have faith in its complete jurisdiction

    It’s the only way to measure if you’re good or not
    And when you’re in a debate, just say to have faith
    Because when up against logic it’s the only card you’ve got"

July 9, 2013

  • Faith

    Discussing religion with a believer, for me, is like driving into the cul-de-sac from my old neighborhood. The houses in this neighborhood had a high turnover rate, so every time I drove down it there would be something new to see; a different car in the driveway, a new basketball hoop set up over the garage, a fat man sunning himself in a kiddie pool on the front lawn. But the drive always ended at the unkempt house at the end of the block. Its windows are boarded up, the grass is dead, the porch is full of carpenter ants; but for some reason the owner refuses to let the dilapidated peace of shit go to let the city planners continue the cul-de-sac into a true road and make some real progress.

    The same is true for the back and forth I exchange with any believer. I'll occasionally see some new sights in a familiar neighborhood, but we always end up at that rotting, dilapidated obstruction to getting somewhere meaningful: Faith.

    Nobody has ever explained to me why having faith is considered a good thing. As far as I can tell, its the equivalent of saying "it's true because I'm wishing it was true really super hard." Faith is a word you use when you're out of reason and logic. It halts any progression of the thought process you're on.

    Our scientific history has been made almost exclusively by people who did things not on faith. Newton could have taken it on faith that gravity was a magic trick from God, but instead he used his reasoning to formulate mathematical formulas that dictate how the natural phenomena of gravity works. Galileo could have taken it on faith that the sun revolves around the earth, but he broke free of this dogma (at great risk to his livelihood and his life at the hands of the faithful). Paul and David Merage could have taken it on faith that you couldn't create a microwaveable sandwich burrito, and if they had we'd never have gotten Hot Pockets.

    Now there are those that tell me I just put my faith into science instead of religion, I call bullshit, and refer you to Brian Cox:

    You can't back up faith with evidence. If you could, it wouldn't be faith. That's what makes science so awesome. Faith is just the obstacle in the conversation we're trying to have. If you're going to decide that "faith" is the answer in our discussion, why not just start there instead of spending 30 minutes listing so-called miracles or showing how irreducible complexity disproves evolution or pointing out successful Biblical prophecies? If "faith" is enough of an answer, why bother with giving any other answers?

    The truth is, "faith" isn't an answer. I don't even believe it to be a virtue. I have never had anybody successfully describe how belief in something without proof is a positive thing. I can't consider a single scenario where someone's life would be improved by taking something as fact without proper evidence. And let's face it, if faith were considered an all-around good thing, I'd stop having people try to insult me by derisively claiming "atheism is just as much of a faith as Christianity."

    I know it looks like the road dead-ends at a cliff up ahead, but just have some faith and you'll make it across the canyon just fine.