Approach the telling of the truth with circumspection – Mencken quote.

•July 30, 2011 • 1 Comment

“For the habitual truth-teller and truth-seeker, indeed, the world has very little liking. He is always unpopular, and not infrequently his unpopularity is so unpopular, and is so excessive that it endangers his life. Run your eye back over the list of martyrs, lay and clerical: nine-tenths of them, you will find, stood accused of nothing worse than honest efforts to find out and announce the truth. Even today, with the scientific passion become familiar in the world, the general view of such fellows is highly unfavorable. The typical scientist, the typical critic of institutions, the typical truth-seeker in every field is held under suspicion by the great majority of men, and variously beset by posses of relentless foes. If he tries to find out the truth about arteriosclerosis, or surgical shock, or cancer, he is denounced as a scoundrel by the Christian Scientists, the osteopaths and the anti-vivisectionists.

If he tries to tell the truth about the government, its agents seek to silence and punish him. If he turns to fiction and endeavors to depict his fellow men accurately, he has the Comstocks on his hands. In no field can he count upon a friendly audience, and freedom from assault. Especially in the United States is his whole enterprise viewed with bilious eye. The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. A Galileo could no more be elected President of the United States than he could be elected Pope of Rome. Both high posts are reserved for men favored by God with an extraordinary genius for swathing the bitter facts of life in bandages of soft illusion.”

– H.L. Mencken (originally published in The New York Evening Mail, 1918)

Cooke, A. (1990) The Vintage Mencken. USA, Vintage Books. (pp 72 – 73)

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Beautiful speech by Eskil Pedersen after Norway massacre.

•July 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment
Eskil Pedersen

Eskil Pedersen

I am just so impressed with the response of the Norwegian people to the tragedy of the massacre in their country. I am especially impressed by Eskil Pedersen’s speech :

“There are many we have lost and are crying for. Many people we miss and are worried about. After the bomb attack on our ministries and the killings of Utøya, our country is changed forever. But it is us who decide what this change will look like. Every step we go after this change is shaping the future of Norway.

Hatred is an obvious emotion. The desire for revenge is a natural reaction. But we, Norway, will not hate and we will not seek revenge. We will stand together in sorrow, in hope and faith for what the youngsters on Utøya worked for- namely a better society.

He used his weapons, we will use your vote. Let the election this fall be a manifesto for our democracy.”

He took some of our most beautiful roses, but he can not stop the springtime.”

Eskil Pedersen

Fluxosaurus at TAM 2011 Las Vegas – report with pictures.

•July 25, 2011 • 3 Comments

So after sleeping off The Amazing Meeting 2011 (aka TAM from Outer Space) and mostly recovering from all the jet lag, I have a report back and a few pictures for my dear readers.

What is the Amazing Meeting some of you may ask, well:

The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) is an annual celebration of science, skepticism and critical thinking. People from all over the world come to Amaz!ng Meetings each year to share learning, laughs and the skeptical perspective with their fellow skeptics and a host of distinguished guest speakers and panelists.

This years theme was TAM 9 from Outer Space and was held from 14th July to 17th July at the South Point Hotel in Las Vegas. I travelled through the US for the month before TAM and ended a long 3 month journey through Europe and the US at TAM. After months spent in crappy hostels and “roughing it” (like 3 Star quality, boy am I showing my priveledged life), I had an awesome room with a king size bed and for once, my own bathroom.

Firstly I must correct a slight innacuracy in my first report from TAM – I was very pleased to find out later that day that I was not the only Skeptic from South Africa attending – Francois Hoffman from the Cape was there with his two children. Absolutely awesome to see young people getting exposed to the goodness that is critical thought. Besides that, I was quite homesick at that point and it was just super cool to meet other folk from the land of my birth. We chatted about the strange land that is America, the weird food and the lack of boerewors – the last being our greatest lamentation. The culinary deficiencies were more than made up for by all the wonderful and friendly American Skeptics I met there. There were also great people from other countries attending – Mexico, various European countries and quite a few Australians.

Hoffman family

The Hoffman family from Hermanus in the Cape with Mr Deity.

I landed in Vegas the day before TAM – there was a Drinking Skeptically at the Del Mar bar in the hotel that night and I was keen to firstly have a break from the previous 2 months of travelling I had just completed, and secondly I was most curious to see how a Skeptics in the Pub type event was held in the USA. Pics are below.

In my first post about TAM I mentioned that I had met Greta Christina on the plane, and shared a cab with another Skeptic from the airport – I had a good feeling about this conference, I was making friends already!

Well, after dropping my gear in an awesome room at the South Point Hotel, I made my way down to the Conference Registration area to check out what was cooking. It was prudent to get there early as the next day was rather busy with registrations. I met some really nice Norwegian Skeptics in the queue – Magnus and Øystein. Primarily I think it was our matching wardrobe choices – Geek / Sci Fi T-shirts – that ensured our making each other’s acquaintance. We eventually got our gear – TAM badges, programmes, and passes. The programme is a kind of collectors item – with blank pages for autographs, just perfect for encounters with one’s Skeptical heroes.

The conference was 4 full days of fun and education. A lot of focus was given to communication strategies for growing the movement, ways in which we can try to understand each other and non Skeptics through sound Psychological science (dissonance theory, communication strategies based on values and even the approach of Roger’s reflective listening).

PZ gave us some wonderful insights about how evolutionary biology can inform our understanding of what life on other planets might look like.

I spoke up after one panel – broke the one rule of TAM as well (every audience comment should be in the form of a question, mine was not) – when some speakers recommended that we have enough skeptical blogs and the focus should rather be on providing content to already established blogs or monitoring and updating Wikipedia entries to stem the tide of un-Skeptical edits. I respectfully disagreed with the panel (in front of 400 people nogal!) and said that we should all be blogging and adding our voices to a resounding response to the voice of the “other side” which is already out there and loud! We should not be quiet in the face of irrationality. I think what the panel was trying to get at though is the idea that a new skeptical blog is going to be swimming in a sea of blogs and it is pointless to be writing away when no one is reading the content. Point taken, but still, I felt, we should not diminish our voice footprint as it were in the blogosphere.

I met so many different people, ordinary Skeptics and famous Skeptics both, had wonderful conversations, avoided awkwardness in every elevator, and generally had an exciting time wandering the halls of the venue with tons of other geeks and Skeptics of all ages, races and genders.

I felt inspired to do more here in South Africa where we need to increase the impact of critical thinking skills and evidence based perspectives on a very superstitious and nonsense plagued populace.

I got autographs from DJ Grothe, PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson and Lawrence M. Kraus and signed copies of Michael Schermer and Donald Prothero’s new books. But enough about me – here are the pics with some blurb about parts of the conference.

All in all, TAM was an amazing experience and I would recommend any Skeptic, or even any person who is merely curious about the world of science and rational thought, to attend one of these events – I will definitely make every effort to return next year.

Fluxosaurus at TAM 2011 Las Vegas Day 1

•July 14, 2011 • 3 Comments

One super excited Dinosaur! Fluxosaurus has arrived in Vegas baby, and TAM is awesome even before it has begun. I met Greta Christina on the plane – that was pretty awesome, and she was super nice. Then I met another TAM’er at the airport and we shared a cab – my first cab ride in the States as well, which made it even more cool. I met some cool Skeptics from Norway – one guy has an almost unpronounceable name which has to use the Symbol character set for its representation – and then I got DJ Grothe’s autograph in my handy TAM booklet which is given at registration and comes with pages for autographs. It is at this moment that I am going to throw out my latest new phrase – conservation of awesomeness – because this place is like a monster cyclotron of Skepticism. I feel like I am at the nexus point, the event horizon if you will, of a giant black hole of critical thinking and cool Geek T-shirts. The place is crawling with Skeptics, and it is just pure awesomeness.

The flight here was super cool as well – new Virgin America plane with lumo, black lighting and a kick ass entertainment system. I watched BoingBoing channel while we flew into Vegas. After a relatively bumpy landing, I was into the airport – gambling machines coming at me from every direction like a herd of mad, mechanised Coelophysis.

The hotel is amazing, really jacked, my only complaint being the innescapable cigarette smoke in the main lobby, which also serves as the only venue for free wifi. Guess where I am writing this.

The TAM registration process was a little caotic and we stood for a while in a line to get our goodies – T-shirt, conference pass, badges, programmes – but it was no sweat as that made plenty of opportunity to chat with other Skeptics and scope out the celebs.

I saw some of the SGU crew in the hall on the way to dropping off my bags and had a slight fan boy moment. Perhaps I should’ve just waved and not screamed, but I am sure they get that all the time.

Well, I am off to my Drinking Skeptically at the pub here  – I’ll try and post reports on the proceedings as often as I can, inbetween cocktails and the pool of course.

Fluxosaurus – only South African (as far as I can tell) at TAM 2011.

Conservation of awesomeness!

Scientific beauty of nature

•March 31, 2011 • 4 Comments

XKCD Beauty

Recently, on a camping trip with some other Skeptics, we went for a walk in the forest.

It was so wonderful to be surrounded by nature, and I was adequately humbled and reminded that our experience of natural beauty is only enhanced by our growing understanding and scientific explication of the wonders around us…

Embedded in the grand elaborations of the vast machinery of evolution

Observing creatures, other animals like ourselves, with similar eyes, yet exquisitely different adaptations across a sea of diversity.

Entranced by the green of a leaf, doing its part in the processing of the energy from our nurturing star.

The caress of bouncing photons illuminating a world of movement, swirling between the twin beauties of pregnant storers of life

and indifferent harbingers of death.

Delicate expressions of an unconscious Universe, experimenting with innumerable forms and the current successes.

An interdependent web of life.

All flooded and revealed in a scream of sunlight and green

With daggers drawn

Life paints on a canvas of molecules and motions foward to the future of new permutations

and leaves marks of nature’s brush strokes for science to find

Crawling things, an entymologists dream

Fan fare welcomes the enraptured eye

Fragile yet strong, an expression of the purpose of form within randomness

My mind takes flight in the scientific beauty of nature.

Asteroid occultation ephemerides

•March 31, 2011 • 1 Comment
Asteroids are cool celestial objects.

PHOTO CAPTION GALILEO June 11, 1992 P-40450-C TOP GLL/GA5 This picture of asteroid 951 Gaspra is a combination of the highest-resolution morphology and color information obtained by the Galileo spacecraft during its approach to the asteroid on October 29, 1991. The Sun is shining from the right; phase angle is 50 degrees. The base image is the best black-and-white view of Gaspra (resolution 54 meters/pixel) on which are superimposed the subtle color variations constructed from violet, green, and near-infrared (1000 nanometers) inages taken in an earlier sequence at a resolution about 164 meters/pixel.

They are thought to be the leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, and hang out in a vast ring between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

Asteroid_Belt

The asteroid belt lies in the region between Mars and Jupiter. The Trojan asteroids lie in Jupiter's orbit, in two distinct regions in front of and behind the planet. Image Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

We have imaged them with space probes, and telescopes but those are not the only methods to discover cool things about distant objects.

Crumbling Asteroid

Crumbling Asteroid

At a recent meeting of the Durban Astronomical Society of South Africa, my good buddy Nigel Wakefield explained an alternate way of imaging asteroids – occultations.

Basically, when a celestial object, like a planet or asteroid passes in front of the light of a distant star we call that an occultation, and we can use the timing of the blocking of the stars light by the object, and its reappearance from behind the object to map out the shape of that object. If the occultation is visible from your location you are said to be in the shadow path of the event.

Using this method is kinda like a large scale human scanner – it looks for a dark object blocking out the bright light of a star for anywhere from a fraction of a second to almost a minute, and using that data we can construct a line delineating the shape of the object for a moment. The other vital part of this process is that we have multiple observers from multiple different locations within the path of the occultation observing and faithfully recording their slightly different experiences of the object occulting the star’s light. What this does is give us a data set with a number of observation lines which when mapped out, can give us some idea of the shape of the occulting asteroid.

Steve Preston over at this site:

http://www.poyntsource.com/New/Global.htm

provides predictions for various locations and occultations. He uses an ephemerides calculation to predict the occultation and resultant shadow path on the Earth. You can download cool images of the predicted path of the shadow on the Earths surface as the asteroid occults the light of a particular star. This one is for Overberg in the Cape.

So how do you know when an asteroid is going to occult a specific star? Well, in order to make your own predictions you need to learn how to use the Occult program available on the site mentioned above. That lets you specify your location and provides predictions of occultation paths that traverse your specific location.

There is a nice help FAQ here: http://www.asteroidoccultation.com/asteroid_help.htm

Then you need a timing method – we are planning to use a radio station correlated with a known timing source and video of the observation, and the observer reporting what he/ she sees through the eye piece (star gone, star back) to build our observation data.

This is what an observation file looks like, with lines delineating separate observers data collated to form the image of the asteroid:

You can even create your own plots in Google Earth:

All my observation opportunities so far have been frustrated by cloud, but any clear observations will be reported here.

My great thanks go to Nigel Wakefield for introducing me to this fascinating subject.

A lack of compassion

•March 16, 2011 • 2 Comments

Tonight I am mired in sadness. Perhaps too much TV news, perhaps not.

Beyond the sadness I feel for the people fighting for some sort of Democratic process in Libya without much assistance from the UN, the terrible aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent nuclear fallout in Japan, my sadness is deepened by an event closer to home.

Tsunami aftermath

I am saddened by a religious person who commented on Facebook that the Japanese deserved this disaster, and argued that this is some kind of divine retribution for their killing of Whales and Dolphins.

How callous and uncaring can you get?

Simple minded generalisation from some portion of a population, somehow calculated and extended as just desserts for an entire nation of people. One of the problems is that I understand this mode of un-thinking un-feeling, primarily because I employed just such illogic for a period of my life when I was a fundamentalist Xtian.

Because your conception of god involves fear and retribution, so subtly this ekes its way into your processing of just who deserves to be “punished” in your mind. All too easily what you imagine to be the righteous objective of gods punishment is blended with your particular bigoted view of humanity. Your enemies are automatically the enemies of your god – how convenient for you and any possible cognitive dissonance you may not feel. I feel that this is a strong argument for the damage of religious thinking on the potential humanistic compassion possible within, and for a person.

Now I am not saying that all Xtians are like this person who thinks that Japan is being dished out some grand retributive act from some unseen dispenser of Universal Justice – no doubt the particular conception of god that this person has in her head. I am referring only to her comment and anyone else who thinks she is right.

If you equate the decimation of a country’s citizenry and the contamination of their land, as a balancing of the scales of justice, then you are the kind of reprehensible idiot I am talking about.

Atheists are often accused of having no absolute basis for their morality – the accusation is a kind of you can’t be moral or decent people because you don’t have a god on high to prescribe what is and is not moral argument. I am always a little puzzled by that, but I understand it to a degree (or at least the faulty assumptions it is based on, and how someone can make a cursory, surface analysis of those assumptions, and on that basis come to that faulty conclusion), and then it just annoys me deeply.

Franklin Veaux’s great post addresses many of the usual criticisms of Atheism and describes rather well I though, how  religious based systems of morality fail to be consistent, modern systems because of the faulty thinking at their core. I am not saying that religious people cannot be moral, for many religious people are, and can be, but I am saying that there are gross deficiencies and pitfalls for the moral action of a religious people versus people who follow a well formed secular morality.

As it turns out, religion is not the only conceptual framework for the development of a moral code and basis for ethical behaviour. Not only are there other systems, but when stacked up next to religious conceptions of morality, they shine much brighter and express a greater degree of excellence for being a good human.

I particularly like the eupraxsophy of Secular Humanism as described by Paul Kurtz in Embracing the Power of Humanism.

I have come up with the term eupraxsophy, which means ‘good practical wisdom’. Eupraxsophy is derived from the following roots: eu-, praxis-, and sophia. Eu- is a prefix that means “good,” “well,” “advantageous.” It is combined in words such as eudæmonia, which means “well-being” or “happiness”; it is also used in euthanasia, eulogy, euphoria, and so on. Praxis (or prassein) refers to “action, doing or practice.” Eupraxia means “right action” or “good conduct.” The suffix sofia is derived from sophos (“wise”) and means “wisdom.” This suffix appears in the term philosophy, combining philos (“loving”) and sophia (“wisdom”) to mean “love of wisdom.”

Later he states:

Thus humanism is a eupraxsophy. Accordingly, the primary task of eupraxsophy is to understand nature and life and to draw concrete normative prescriptions from this knowledge. Eupraxsophy thus draws deeply from the wells of philosophy, science, and ethics. It involves at least a double focus: a cosmic perspective and a set of normative ideals by which we may live.

Part of employing “good practical wisdom” is to act on a genuine state of caring. To see the pain of another creature and to do whatever is in your power to mitigate that.

Weeping Japanese woman

A woman learns that her mother was successfully rescued from a building in Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan. KYODO / Reuters

There is a hardness to the comment that Japan somehow deserves this disaster, it speaks of a deep lack of compassion and caring for others.

Other human beings do not deserve to be raped, to be murdered, to get AIDS, or to die in some natural disaster. It is not a deserving thing; no universal justice is served in suffering. There is no grand plan of retributive justice.

It is always regrettable and sad when bad things happen to people, or the other creatures that inhabit our pale blue dot with us.

Besides that, extending this line of illogic, if some other group of people engage in acts which she deems to be wrong or offensive in some way, her idea of a just and measured response is for their populace to be wiped from the face of the planet.

If religion has the potential to help people to be moral (which is a flaky, weak argument at best) then it seems to have failed in this instance, and with this person.

I fully agree that Japan has erred greatly in their “scientific whaling program”, and I fully support the cessation of all whaling and killing of Dolphins. Perhaps I am a hypocrite in some ways here – I am no vegetarian, I eat beef which is arguably similar to the killing of an animal which the Japanese regard as food. I make no bold claim to being fully consistent in my worldview, but I regard the level of sentience of whales and Dolphins to be a distinguishing factor exempting them from the food chain. They need to be studied and protected as an intelligent, social species. But that has nothing to do with what Japan might deserve for their whaling program, and it certainly does not and should not prevent one from showing compassion for the suffering of others.

Furthermore, I feel that a nation which undergoes a disaster, and receives compassionate support from the international community, is more likely to be open to persuasion to stop whaling than if we are silent in the face of their suffering with some uncivilised, judgemental inaction. Even if they never stop whaling, they don’t deserve to be afflicted with an immense disaster.

I urge all of you who read this to donate to Doctors without Borders. They are a secular charity and don’t expect to receive some post-mortem reward for the good that they do.

I feel the greatest sadness however for the person who made the comment. How hard does your life have to be, how much suffering does a person have to endure before they are inured to the suffering of others. Numb in the face of tragedy and pain of loss. I fear for your heart in a world like this, I fear for a world like this, with hearts like yours in it.

How soundly she must sleep at night – I cannot because there are people like her out there and I cannot let silence stand in the face of their lack of compassion.