Mad scientists, start drooling

The future is arriving fast. Here are the instructions for assembling a $500 home molecular biology laboratory — you can do it! And it’s getting cheaper all the time!

The widespread and increasing availability of second-hand professional laboratory equipment or inexpensive new commercial surrogates means that it is now unchallenging to set up a fully functional molecular laboratory for less than $500 in equipment costs. Coupled with the presence of sources for all reagents and supplies needed in formats that are safe for general use, the work presented here demonstrates that capacity to set up functional molecular biology teaching modules is well within the reach of even the smallest educational facilities. When coupled with outsourced PCR product Sanger sequencing available from commercial sources at prices approaching $5/reaction, the capacity of such “home labs” to start undertaking research of real potential scientific value—such as surveys of microbial biota in unusual environments—at negligible costs should not be underestimated. Similarly, the potential for setting up labs of this type for medical applications in emerging countries may be worth considering. While current best methods have moved to real-time and array-based high throughput, contamination resistant methods, the methods demonstrated here were “state of the art” for clinical and research molecular diagnostics in the Western world only some 15 years ago.

Hmmm. The kids have flown, I’ve got more space than we know what to do with…maybe this summer I should tinker with setting up something like this.

(Also on Sb)

Why I am an atheist – David Spero

Dave Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, posted recently over at Open Salon a copy of a letter he received from an atheist friend. The friend wrote the letter to his own 11-year-old daughter, who was “very upset about her father’s non-belief” — particularly his refusal to pray for her (something apparently advocated by the friend’s wife, who is a Christian).

I won’t comment on a family situation I know next to nothing about, but it did remind me of the very issue that began the unraveling of my own faith: prayer. About 20 years ago, I was on a path to ministry. I was in the middle of co-founding a fellowship organization on my college campus and had just finished drafting the group’s constitution (as required by the school to be an official student organization and thus receive activity funds) when I had a moment of clarity while praying for guidance. Yes, I appreciate the irony.

The path I was on would have led me to fervent proselytizing. I was 19 years old, post-Catholic and in training to present the Word to non-believers. I studied the Bible with an ordained mentor and doggedly researched apologetics. I was going to provide irrefutable answers in defense of Christ in debate.

But there were no irrefutable answers.

I decided to keep on it — after all, I was just getting started and I had faith more would be revealed as I continued in my studies. But each revelation was more suspect than the last. Every question I had was answered with circular reasoning (e.g., why believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God? Because the Bible says so.). Finally, while praying to understand God’s will, a giant hole ripped in the fabric of my belief: Who am I praying to? Why? Why does God require me to pray when he is supposedly omniscient? What does that say about the nature of the god I’m praying to?

The God I believed in was supposed to be perfect. Too perfect, in fact, for mortal minds to fathom. Ultimate love. True goodness. Omniscient. Omnipotent. Omnipresent. The whole nine yards and then some. Whenever something about God didn’t make sense to me, I countered myself by saying my definition of God must simply be too narrow. But because of that, God soon became just an infinitely broad but paper-thin abstraction. It was then a very small step to the realization that the concept of a personal God was absurd. Eventually, I came to understand the fallacy of the “God of the Gaps“. There was no chance I’d turn to another religion; it was clear they’d all fail the litmus test instantly.

I claimed to be an agnostic throughout my 20s. I left open the door to the idea of a higher power but, again, was pretty sure the matter was too complex to be comprehended. It wasn’t until my 30s that I faced the issue head on and realized I had been making the same weak excuses.

A sequence of events and introspection ultimately left nowhere for my intellect to hide. Once I allowed myself to practice skepticism honestly, the absurdities appeared everywhere I looked. There was no God. And it quickly became clear that many of civilization’s messes — either directly or indirectly — were catalyzed by some form of religion. My eyes were opened, and I was faced with one big question: Now what? It didn’t take long to understand that the only sane response to an insane world was to roll up my sleeves and try to make it a better place. All alternative responses were (and remain) unacceptable. Ultimately, I discovered my ideals matched those of organized Humanism.

So yes, you could say that prayer accidentally provided me with guidance. It was exactly the spark I needed to put me on the right path.

David Spero
United States

A completely justified howl of moral outrage

You may recall that comic book artist Frank Miller posted an appalling rant against the Occupy movement, revealing that he really is a nasty right-wing conservative fascist deep down…as if we hadn’t noticed in his work. Now another legendary icon of the comics world speaks out: Alan Moore says what he thinks about Miller.

Well, Frank Miller is someone whose work I’ve barely looked at for the past twenty years. I thought the Sin City stuff was unreconstructed misogyny, 300 appeared to be wildly ahistoric, homophobic and just completely misguided. I think that there has probably been a rather unpleasant sensibility apparent in Frank Miller’s work for quite a long time.

As far as I can see, the Occupy movement is just ordinary people reclaiming rights which should always have been theirs. I can’t think of any reason why as a population we should be expected to stand by and see a gross reduction in the living standards of ourselves and our kids, possibly for generations, when the people who have got us into this have been rewarded for it; they’ve certainly not been punished in any way because they’re too big to fail. I think that the Occupy movement is, in one sense, the public saying that they should be the ones to decide who’s too big to fail. It’s a completely justified howl of moral outrage and it seems to be handled in a very intelligent, non-violent way, which is probably another reason why Frank Miller would be less than pleased with it. I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it. We would definitely have to agree to differ on that one.

I’ve never met Miller, but I have met Moore a couple of times, and have heard him speak a few times, too. He’s weird but interestingly so, and I can also say that he seems to be a genuinely good person — a nice demonstration that you can be opinionated without being an asshole.

Going live on BlogTV right now

I’m on the Jinn & Tonic show right now.

And…now I’m done. Whew, two hours.

And it’s already up on youtube!

I have got to remember to set up better lighting when I do these things. It was fun, anyway, although it got a little exasperating late in the show when the Muslim apologist spent so much time trying to wheedle me into debating Hamza Tzortzis.

Cain is out

Finally, Herman Cain has suspended his presidential campaign under a cloud of accusations of sexual harassment and adultery, clearing the field for…Newt Gingrich? Philanderer and sleazebag? This is not a step up in ethics.

At last, I understand something, though. Gingrich has been an odious creature throughout his entire political career; a venal, pretentious moral monster. What it’s done, though, is given him an armor of repulsiveness. Just wait — there’ll be a revelation that he drinks the blood of Christian babies and wears a fake toothbrush mustache while at home, and everyone will just say, “Oh, that’s just Newtie…” and it will make no difference to his campaign at all.

Why I am an atheist – Cat

I’m an atheist because I don’t “believe in” God. Yes, it’s as simple as that. I don’t see any evidence that such a being exists (or plays an active role in the world, which amounts to the same thing).

That’s actually stating things too narrowly: the truth is, I don’t believe in gods. Or spirits, or the supernatural in any form, really. If something is genuinely supernatural – truly “beyond” or “outside of” the natural world – then by definition it can’t affect us. If it can affect us, it isn’t supernatural; it’s just a part of nature we don’t understand (yet). So it’s fair to say that I’m an atheist precisely because I’m a materialist.

There’s a classic accusation leveled against people who’ve left their faith. “You were never a Christian (or whatever) to begin with!” That’s… actually kind of true, when it comes to me. I was raised Christian, but it was never a big part of my identity. It was just one more item in a long list of things that didn’t make much sense to me, but seemed to be very important to everyone else. As I got older, and looked at it more critically, I quit identifying as Christian at all.

The big turning point for me wasn’t realizing “I just can’t believe this” so much as realizing that the fact that I couldn’t believe it didn’t necessarily mean that something was wrong with me.

United States