This site is up again?!?

This server has been down for the longest time, since at least the 23rd. I haven’t seen any announcements/explanations/apologies from Oregon State University about this, but that could be because I’m no longer a student there. To be honest, I’m surprised I still have access to this web server.

I’ve been thinking about moving the blog to its own domain, with a new host, but those cost money. Using OSU’s server is free, so I’ll stay with it as long as they’ll let me.

To the person who stole my backpack

I just had a scary experience today. I went to the bookstore at Western Oregon University. They have signs at the entrance stating that backpacks are not allowed in the store for security reasons, and they provide convenient cubbies in which we can put our packs temporarily. Not lockers, cubbies.

My dad and I went in together, quickly found the two textbooks we were looking for, and paid for them. It was a quick, simple process, taking no more than a few minutes. By the time we got back to the entrance, however, my backpack was gone.

We alerted store personnel, who in turn called the campus police.

The backpack itself obviously isn’t worth much – it’s just a cheap black bag that looks just like any other – but it had inside it my laptop computer. A computer which I needed for my schoolwork. Laptop computers can be very expensive, and so I’m sure mine would have gotten a good price on the black market.

To whoever stole my backpack, thank you for returning it so quickly once you realized you had mistakenly grabbed the wrong one. Your honesty is greatly appreciated!

What do atheists believe?

So I’m sitting here right now, listening to the latest episode of No Religion Required (episode 024 – We Are Joined By Atheism 101 Podcast). Slightly before the 1:28:00 point (where I paused to write this), Miss Ashley brings up the question of what atheists believe.

I paused there because I think it’s a question that a larger number of public atheists need to answer, myself included. We spend so much time knocking down people’s religious beliefs, but comparatively little time offering up our own world views for consideration. I wanted to take a shot at answering this question before I hear everybody’s response on the podcast.

Let me start by getting the obvious disclaimer out of the way: I’m just one guy. I don’t represent all atheists everywhere. There is no single guiding document – no “bible” – that tells us all what to believe.

A lot of atheists – myself included again – say that we believe in science. Scientific evidence found by way of the scientific method. That’s true to some extent. I have looked at animals and seen morphological similarities that I think are best explained by evolution. I have looked at (photos of) rocks and seen different layers of sedimentation, with different animal bones in them. I have looked at the sky and seen the stars and planets (N.B.: The word planet comes from the ancient Greek ‘πλανήτης’, meaning ‘wanderer’ or ‘wandering star’), and have noted the planets’ movements which can most easily be explained in a heliocentric solar system. To the extent that I have been able to personally verify it, science has shown itself to be reliable. This is why I say that I have faith in science. I believe in Lemaître’s primordial atom theory (more commonly called the Big Bang, but I think ‘primordial atom’ sounds more poetic) because that is the most commonly accepted theory among scientists regarding the initial formation of the universe.

More to the point of what Miss Ashley was trying to ask, what do I believe that affects my life and how I live it? Beliefs about the origin of the universe are one thing, beliefs about how we ought to live are different. Atheism alone has nothing to say in this regard: an atheist can be a nihilist, a Nietzschean, or many other things. I was raised as both a humanist and a secular humanist; I list those separately because, though they both use the word ‘humanism’, they are not entirely the same thing. A humanist, in the broadest sense, is one who believes that we have to be as good as we can in this life. As an atheist, I don’t believe in reincarnation or any other kind of afterlife, so naturally I fit this definition of humanism. A more specific concept of humanism includes the betterment of the self through education, and the betterment of others through the seeking of social and economic justice. I save my money not for the sake of having money, but for the sake of using that money in ways that will benefit myself and others. Some of that money pays for my continuing education, some is given to organizations that I think do good in the world, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Secular humanism, I would define as the belief that keeping religion out of politics will benefit us all – that we as a society need to base our decisions not on dogma or superstition but on reason and ethics.

I guess I’ve run out of things to say, so I’m going to end this post. Stay happy, stay free, and don’t forget that you don’t need to believe in God.


The Lion King: Simba is evil, Scar is good

I’m listening to the soundtrack CD for Disney’s The Lion King right now. It’s got to be my favorite movie. I’ll always have a place in my heart for Simba, although I know he’s a fictional character and a villain.

Yeah, I think Simba – the main character of the story – is actually the villain. It all started some time ago, as I was watching The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride (relatively good for a Disney sequel). In that movie, Simba is almost as evil as a character can get. He’s basically the Hitler of the lion world. I’m not making that comparison just because of Godwin’s law; there are real parallels to be drawn. At the end of the first movie, Simba inherited a country in dire economic condition. The phrase “money to burn” is said to have come from post-World War 1 Germany, where it supposedly was cheaper to burn money than to buy firewood. Disney’s lions don’t have money, but if they did I’m sure they would have said something similar. Simba rose to political power in part because some believed he had inherited the throne from his father, not unlike Hitler’s Third Reich inheriting power from the Holy Roman Empire (“First Reich”) and the German Empire (“Second Reich”), and in part because he gave his Aryan/lion subjects the perfect scapegoat: the Jews/hyenas. He concentrated the hyenas into camps, which he called “the bad lands”. This portrayal of Simba as evil did not fit with my recollection of the first movie, and it didn’t make sense until I re-watched the first movie with that in mind.

Going back in time to the first movie, we see Mufasa doing exactly the same thing as Simba did in the second. I guess that’s where the similarity to Germany ends, as I don’t remember reading about concentration camps before the Nazis came to power. So there’s Mufasa enforcing racial purity, and there’s Simba who’s just an innocent little kid. Then there’s Scar. Scar, whose entire identity – whose very name – is based on the fact that he has sparred against Mufasa in the past. Scar, the freedom fighter. Yes, he’s greedy, he clearly implies that in his song “Be Prepared”. But in that same song, he promises long-awaited prosperity and justice for the hyenas (“Stick with me, and you’ll never go hungry again!”)

Scar dethrones Mufasa. He takes over the kingdom. How does Simba respond? By shirking his responsibilities and bumming around the jungle for a while. And we’re supposed to root for Simba? He doesn’t go off to some far-away ninja dojo to hone his fighting skills like some incarnations of Batman. He just leaves, just gives up. Those hippies Timon and Pumbaa don’t help either; they just encourage him to smoke pot eat roaches and stare at the stars.

One night, after spending several years doing nothing in the jungle, Simba gets high hit on the head and hallucinates seeing his father in the clouds, who tells him to go take back the kingdom. So with no preparation whatsoever (except that he had met Nala and was not completely alone in his quest), Simba runs back home. Lucky for him, Scar was an incompetent ruler and the troops were literally starving under him, otherwise I’m sure Simba would have had no chance of winning.

At least Scar had good intentions as a king. Simba just took power because he thought it was his divine right to rule a country. God Mufasa told him so.

So why did I say that I love this series, and Simba, so much? Simple: It’s masterfully done. It takes a real gift to write a story in such a way that you don’t even realize you’re rooting for the wrong team. The other aspects of the movie are also top-notch: the songs are memorable, the animation incredible, the voice acting amazing.

The Man From Earth gets a TV series (if you want it enough)!

Okay, so anyone who’s read this blog probably knows my enthusiasm for the movie called “The Man From Earth”. It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It has a solid 8.0 rating on the Internet Movie Database, which is almost impossibly high. I like it for the thought-provoking story concept (what if a man from the upper paleolithic era survived to the present day?), the total lack of visual effects (Most of Hollywood seems to think that “science fiction” means “action movie that totally ignores science, set in space!”. The Man From Earth is real science fiction, not an action movie.), and the fact that it was created on a very low budget (as a low-budget movie maker myself, I find this encouraging).

Although they failed in their previous attempt to crowdfund a sequel, director Richard Schenkman and producer Eric Wilkinson haven’t given up: they’re now trying to crowdfund a Man from Earth TV series. I’ve pledged $40. How much will you pledge?

Man From Earth: The Series -- Kicktraq Mini

Unintentionally insulting card

I’m about to graduate from OSU. I don’t know what will happen to this blog – whether I’ll be allowed to keep it on OSU’s server as it is now, or move it somewhere else.

I just got my first card from a relative congratulating me on my graduation. “For a special graduate,” it says on the front, followed by “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.” (Proverbs 16:3). I should say at this point that I’m an atheist (always have been).

On the inside of the card is printed the message “CELEBRATING your achievement and looking forward to the amazing future God has planned just for YOU.” Which makes me wonder just how much of an achievement the senders think this was for me. I mean, if God planned this all out, do they really think I had any hand in it?

The worst part is this handwritten note: “This comes with warm congratulations & a prayer that you’ll always be reminded God is the source of all true success in life. May you contrived to be blessed – Blessings to you”. To me, as an atheist, this seems like giving a compliment and then immediately taking it back. I am also a bit confused by the use of the word “contrived” in past tense here.

What really makes me stop and think, though, is the reminder that God is the one who should be thanked for all this. Do those who believe in God feel some subconscious need to send each other cards reminding them of something that obvious? “Don’t forget that you believe in God!” says one to another. “Don’t worry, I won’t forget,” says the other. “I’ll also thank him for making you remind me!”

Another written note, in somebody else’s handwriting, says “Congratulations James ~ We are proud of you – Always be proud of yourself!”. This is in my opinion far more fitting for a card like this. It’s the kind of thing I’d write if I were the one sending the card. But it makes me wonder: considering that this card quotes Proverbs 16:3 on the front, did this person not remember Proverbs 16:5? “Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished.”

The best part, of course, was the $25 check enclosed with the card. It renders my previous blog post out-of-date.

How do you cure the hiccups?

I have a hypothesis about hiccups. Specifically, I’m hypothesizing that the cures for hiccups run along family lines – in other words, which cure is most likely to work is somehow inherited. In my family, for example, a heaping spoonful of peanut butter works every time. For other families, a glass of water does the trick. Yet other people may cure their hiccups by being startled.

The problem, aside from the fact that I’m not a scientist and have no real connections to anybody in the medical world, is that I can think of only one way to test such a hypothesis: polling a large sample of the general population. I can’t imagine any way to do a controlled, double-blinded study, which is what I’d really like to see. You can’t give somebody a sugar pill and convince them it’s a glass of water. You can’t even (as far as I know) consistently cause hiccups in people, so even if you did find some way to do a controlled study, it would take forever to gather a significant number of samples.

The biggest problem with polling people, I think, is that it relies on self-reporting. Asking people what works and what doesn’t is, as a way of finding anything out, extremely vulnerable to peoples’ biases, preconceptions, and misconceptions. (See the Wikipedia article on superstition, subsection “Superstition and psychology“). People tend to link two actions if those actions happen sequentially, even if they actions are unrelated. Once this link is formed, it can be reinforced by confirmation bias and the placebo effect.

So, asking random people what kinds of hiccup solutions work is a really unreliable way to get good data, but I don’t know what else to try. I’m asking you: what works? How do you cure the hiccups? Does your family use a similar method? What about your friends, coworkers, et cetera? I’m asking these questions purely out of curiosity, not as part of any formal study. You can answer whenever you read this; there’s no end date.

The Blender Foundation wants to make a Free movie.

The Blender Foundation has announced that they want to make a movie. They’re crowdfunding it with the hope of reaching €1.9 million (that’s $2.626 million US dollars calculated using DuckDuckGo). €1.6 million with their own resources, for a total of €3.5 million ($4.837 million). That’s the minimum amount they would need to make Project Gooseberry, as they’re currently calling it.

The best part is, this being the Blender Institute (makes of great shorts like Big Buck Bunny and Sintel), they’ll release everything Free under the Creative Commons Attribution license. In fact, they’ve already started doing that.