The Goddess On The Beach

The other day, I swear I saw
A Goddess on the beach
An apparition, lovely to behold!

But Hindus used the force of law
To keep her out of reach
Those swimsuits are no longer being sold!

The images of Lakshmi
Have effectively been banned
Non-believers like myself, of course, may scoff

Though there’s nothing there that shocks me
If I see one, on the sand,
I’m demanding that the wearer take it off!

The Sydney Morning Herald (among other places) has the story of good intentions running into offended religious sensibilities (or of insensitive Aussie louts insulting devout faithful, depending on perspective), in which a swimsuit designed to turn heads did so, but for all the wrong reasons.

I do note, with no surprise at all, the fact that the photographs of the suit have now been on headlines across the world, so it’s probably good that the protesters made such a big fuss over them, to protect the dignity of Lakshmi.

Run, Newt, Run!

So Newt is about to announce? How wonderful! He and The Donald can race for the moral high ground in debates! Newt takes hypocrisy to an art form; he is a gift to us all. Case in point: the New York Times is running an article on Callista Gingrich (wife #3, with whom Newt cheated on wife #2 for six years), and how she might be his “secret weapon” in his run for office. After all, she allows him a do-over, a mulligan, and he can be a marriage traditionalist, oppose same-sex marriage, and not pay the penalty for adultery.

In honor of Newt’s imminent announcement, I am reposting a song, from last year when he lectured us on how same-sex marriage was destroying the institution he was so fond of, and railed against the overreaching of an activist judge.

Damn, he’s so sexy when he’s hypocritical.


I’ve been watching the news from California
Where an activist judge had his say
And conservative pundits now warn ya
You’ll only be safe if you’re gay
They talk to the networks and papers
And they speak of the dangers and harms
Then they swoon, with a case of the vapors
With their trophy wives clutching their arms

“They’re changing the meaning of marriage
The bonds that we used to hold dear
From a heterosexual pair-age
To a union a little more queer
A marriage is sacred and holy
Or at least, it has been so for me;
And perhaps a divorce, as a matter of course,
For to marry wife two or wife three”


I’ve been watching the queers at the courthouse
Where they pose for the cameras, and kiss
And although I’m not gay, there is one man today
Whom I’d join in connubial bliss:

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
He’s perfection in only one man
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
So I’m thanking the courts that I can!

Cos Newt is an expert on marriage
A commitment “till death do us part”
He’s so smart, and so cute; he’s my teddy-bear Newt
And I love him with all of my heart

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
The conservative man I adore
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
And love him as “spouse number four”!

We’ll walk down the aisle together
On that wonderful, magical day
We’ll be “Mister and Mister”, and maybe Newt’s sister
Could give her big brother away

Oh, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
What a wonderful, marvelous thing!
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
I’ll be wearing Newt Gingrich’s ring!

Sure, he left his first wife on her deathbed
And he left “Mrs. Two” for “Miss Three”
But with Newt on my arm, I say, “fourth time’s a charm!”
He’ll be happier married to me!

Yes, I wanna marry Newt Gingrich—
He’s perfection in only one man
I wanna marry Newt Gingrich,
So I’m thanking the courts that I can!

The Vanishing Hillary

Yesterday—I thought it weird—
I saw two women, disappeared
Religious censorship held sway
Oh, how I wish it’d go away

When first I saw the photograph
Two women numbered in the staff
But when the censor photoshopped
The both of them were simply dropped

Go away, go away, from the situation room!
Go away, go away, or the censor will fume

Yesterday—I thought it weird—
I saw two women, disappeared
Religious censorship held sway
Oh, how I wish it’d go away

I expect you have seen both the original and the doctored photo by now–it is already an iconic image–my favorite coverage of the issue is here, at the Washington Post. Of all the variations on the classic photo, Der Zeitung’s is the only one I disapprove of (My favorite features a velociraptor).

The verse, you might recognize, is stolen from “Antigonish“, by William Hughes Mearns. Just because.

Oh, and:

Secular Studies At Pitzer

Hooray, Pitzer College! The first to acknowledge
The worth of the secular studies
Which will offer a few new alternatives to
A theology class with your buddies

And now if a student considers it prudent
It’s there as a major or minor
In an oddly strange quirk, it is clearly the work
Of a truly intelligent designer

Of course, that intelligent designer is, in this case, Phil Zuckerman. The secular studies major was announced a short while ago, but the NY Times has a nice story up as of yesterday, on how Zuckerman put it together.

You may remember Zuckerman from this paper, a tremendously useful resource when combatting negative stereotypes of atheists. If you haven’t seen that paper, you may want to bookmark it; if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll run into the same “arguments” again and again, and Zuckerman’s paper is a handy weapon tool to have.

Oh, and…

Have No Fear–Underdog Is Here!

One of the many useful features
Of social creatures

Is the ability to band together to do what cannot be done
By one

It doesn’t take a Confucian
To see that if you have enough people working together, it doesn’t matter if they are small, tiny, or downright Lilliputian

So long as each does their bit
And does not quit.

And so, I join with the members of Team Underdog, and raise my voice with theirs to say, although it won’t be easy
Beat PZ!

If you want more information about Camp Quest, and why it is worthy of support, click here. Or you could just trust me. And at this point, frankly, it’s mostly about seeing how many midget wrestlers it takes to bring down Andre the Giant. Having been PZ for a day, I have some idea of the amount of traffic he gets, so when Greta Christina asked if I would join Team Underdog, my first thought was “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, but my next thought was “I wonder if it can be done?”

So, it’s an empirical question. And we love empiricism around here. And even though I just got back from spending 5 hours and 1000 dollars fixing a car, and would much rather have a fund raiser for myself, I can’t resist all those godless kids. Well, I can resist them one at a time, but when they gang up on me… well, that’s kinda the point, I guess.

They Will Be Leaving

The rapture is coming on May Twenty-First
And the man with the sign is expecting the worst
He gave me a pamphlet that tells me I’m cursed
And I’m shocked at the news I’m receiving
The earthquakes are coming; the dams will be burst
The believers, they will be leaving

It’s a tale of God’s glory, and a tale of God’s wrath
And the terrible justice and judgment God hath
With humanity here on a difficult path
We must always be true, but we’re weaving
We’ve crunched all the numbers and done all the math
The believers, they will be leaving

So wives leave your husbands, and husbands, your wives
And it’s too late to care about your teenagers’ lives
And remember, it’s better if no one survives
For the ones who remain will be grieving
We’ll know it when May twenty second arrives
The believers, they will be leaving

So leave your possessions; abandon your jobs
Go proselytize to the uncaring mobs
Their laughter today very soon will be sobs
As with sorrow their sides will be heaving
You’re a beacon of hope for the atheist snobs
The believers, they will be leaving

Go tell all your family; go tell all your friends
To pray for forgiveness and make their amends
There’s limited time till the universe ends
And no more that they should be achieving
They should grasp for the hand the lord Jesus extends
The believers, they will be leaving

There are some who look forward to that terrible day
When told of the Rapture, they solemnly say
Just don’t let the door hit your ass on the way
If you’re stealing away, then get thieving
And the ones left behind will shout hip hip hooray
The believers, they will be leaving

We’ve seen it before in other media; this time it’s NPR’s turn to report on the end of the world. Well worth a read or a listen–it puts a human face on an unbelievable story of belief. In a story we’ve seen scores of times before, somebody “crunched the numbers” in the bible and found that the rapture is upon us. In just a couple of weeks. Confident predictions have been made before, but that does not stop people from leaving jobs and families to hit the streets warning us that the end is near. Some families believe together; some families are torn apart by differences in their belief.

If you, like me, read comment threads like others read the comics, please note a couple of things. First, the number of calls for interviews on the 22nd. If history teaches us anything, it is that a great many of these people will have their faith strengthened by disconfirmation–I predict that their great show of faith is what saved us. Second, note the number of predictable comments. It’s the law.

Not Just A Good Idea…

…It’s The Law

It was not my intention, but I like the way it sounds: “the law of the predictable comment“. My little verse, referred to as canon. Well, internet canon.

I approve.

In fact, I encourage one and all to police comment threads for similar malcontents, ne’er-do-wells, and trolls, and to slap their wrists with “the law of the predictable comment”. You know you’ve seen them everywhere–now you have a response!

(Ok, in truth, I’m just envious that my pal Kylie has her own well-deserved Wikipedia page, and I probably never will, so I’m aiming for a bullet point in “internet rules”, well beneath Godwin and Poe…)

There are dozens of internet laws
Which police our rhetorical flaws
All I want is one more
So I beg and implore
Won’t you please lend your weight to my cause?

Emergence Of Mind

“The emergence of mind” is a devilish question;
The way that it’s phrased is a trick in itself.
We’re looking for something that’s somehow “emerging”
Not merely complex, but a difference in kind

So take a step back, is my humble suggestion,
From dualist analyses filling the shelf
The hidden assumptions could use a good purging
That lay in the phrase “the emergence of mind”

The mind in inferred from what people are doing;
(A skull’s not transparent—we don’t look at brain)
An answer depends on the question we’re asking:
The way that we look may distort what we find

Reductionist models are just misconstruing;
They merely describe, though they claim to explain
To look at our neurons may merely be masking
The real explanation of “emergence of mind”

Over on NPR’s 13.7 blog, one of my pet peeves is on display, if only as a small part of the post. The big question is one of the influence of technology on our ability to observe; clearly, technology expands our senses hugely–allowing us to see spectra far beyond what evolution allows us, for instance, or to curve that radiation and focus on objects too small or too far away for our own eyes. Technology can let us hear, smell, or taste things (rather, detect the existence of pressure waves or molecules in air or water) beyond our own senses. We may have a tough time feeling the difference between 10 pieces of paper and 11, but technology can build us a scale that can measure even the weight of the ink it took to sign one of those papers.

Some problems are easier, some more difficult–some more linear, others chaotic.

As I tell my students, most of the easy problems (those that can be solved analytically) have been dealt with. Now, we must move on to the tough, nonlinear domain. Among the many open problems in many fields, here are three: the climate, the emergence of mind, and the origin of life. Not too shabby. None will be thoroughly understood without computers or, as scientist Katy Börner of Indiana University calls them, our “macroscopes.”

And there we have my pet peeve. The emergence of mind, being written about by a theoretical physicist. Now, I don’t mean to imply that “mind” is necessarily an easy thing, but it does not help that we continually ask the wrong questions about it. The very phrase “emergence of mind” (sometimes other, similar phrases are used, like “gives rise to consciousness”) implies a qualitative difference, a difference in kind between the biological meat puppet and the controlling mind. Even when this is not intended, the language gets fuzzy, and possible answers are entertained or denied in part due to how they fit this fuzziness (quantum consciousness, anyone?).

In the discussion at 13.7 (as, it seems a law of nature, with similar discussions wherever the question is raised), the complexity of the brain is trotted out, and it is implied that mind somehow emerges (or cannot, depending on your stance) from the workings of the brain. This view is so commonplace now that to question it seems heresy. But it is wrong.

We infer mind from behavior, not from brain activity. My car has a mind of its own, as does my computer–I say this because neither acts the way I want them to, and the real explanation for what they are doing is beyond my personal knowledge. When the external causes of X’s behavior are unknown to me, I put the causes inside of X; this “theory of mind” allows me to predict what a person, an animal, a car, a computer, will do. Imperfectly, of course, from which I infer that it has a will of its own (rather than just admit my ignorance of causes).

Our observation of the behavior of others, combined with our vocabulary describing this, is what leads to an understanding of “mind”, and indeed to “mind” itself. Aaaaand, I think I’ll leave this here for now. I can unpack it more, and have done so, but I’d have to start charging you for tuition. Bottom line is, a given problem can seem more intractable than it actually is, when you pursue it by asking the wrong questions. We are complex enough when we ask the right questions.

Oh! and I almost forgot– for one of my all-time favorite discussions (for my money, it is the best comment thread in all of the history of blogging) of this topic, take a look at the comment thread on this post from a couple of years ago, in which my commenters clearly outclass me.

Right All Along

From the simple gut reaction that’s dependent on your faction
(Everybody wears their heart upon their sleeve)
We can see, with no confusion, how you came to your conclusion:
What is true depends on what you first believe

And it’s hip, hip, hooray
For the thing I learned today!
That convinced me I was always right
     and you were always wrong
And it’s cheer, cheer, cheer
Cos it couldn’t be more clear
I’m not boasting, I’m not bragging,
     but I knew it all along!

All around our mighty nation, finding brand-new information
Makes us more convinced of what we thought before
There’s no need for a detective; every comment is projective;
Dr. Rorschach, we don’t need you any more!


Simply take a look around you, and it’s liable to astound you
The objective world has all but disappeared
With our inner thoughts projected, we see just what we expected
And the problem is exactly what we feared


Our opinion of the President’s not tied to his accomplishments
Instead, it’s based on what we think of him
If some Teabag son or daughter saw Obama walk on water
They’d complain because “the President can’t swim!”


Ok, so I’m not 100% happy with this one, but I had to say something. Regular readers will both recall that I loves me some comment threads. After the Bin Laden news, comment threads have been both a delight and a source of tremendous frustration. Every bit of information that comes in seems to have the effect of strengthening the positions people held before that bit of information showed up.

 Republicans are praising the president for his actions which led directly to the death of our #1 enemy… that’s president Bush, of course. Democrats, though, somehow see no reason to credit W at all. Go figure. The president’s decision was tremendously brave and embarrassingly cowardly, depending on whom you ask. Torture was and was not useful. Hell, Bin Laden was or was not killed, and Obama was or was not born in the US.

I am reminded of the time my mother-in-law cheered for Reagan when he said he wanted prayer in school.  The dyed-in-the-wool Republican that she is, it must have slipped her mind that she is an atheist.

The Sandwich Less Traveled

Two buns diverged from a breaded mass,
And sorry I could not, like a snake,
Unhinge my jaw to let it pass
Took one small bite, affecting class,
And thought it likely a mistake.

Then took another, as just a tease
And knowing I could not eat it all—
The deep-fried patty, stuffed with cheese—
I gobbled up with seeming ease
Until the point I hit the wall

And, gut distended, there I lay
With melted cheese upon my shirt
Oh, I lived to eat another day
And try again? Perhaps I may,
When I’ve recovered from the hurt.

I shall be saying this, with a sigh,
When fever fades, and I’m making sense:
Two buns diverge, and I will not lie,
This Heart Attack could make you die
And that would make all the difference

If you have never seen “Wait Wait… Don’t Blog Me!” and their regular feature “Sandwich Monday”, then you are missing one of life’s great joys. Today’s sandwich is the Heart Attack On A Plate, which is… well, hey, go take a look. When you read their first paragraph, you’ll see where my verse comes from.