Minnesota Product Highlight

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Oooh, baby. That’s a Nu-Life Communion Host Dispenser, equipped with a rapid reload system for fast wafer loading and quad-rotator technology that allows up to 400 wafers to be fired without reloading. If you need to shovel Jesus into people’s mouths at a high rate of speed, this is the gadget for you. And you can get it in gold, silver, or white.

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Or maybe you’d prefer the Communalabra Germ-Free Communion Host Dispensing System, which is only available in gold, but does have accessories: a Host Tube Quick-n-Easy Re-fill & Re-load System, and embroidered carrying cases and covers.

And look at this: they’re both made in Minnesota! I’m so proud. Unfortunately, right now the two companies are tied up in a lawsuit. When they get it cleared up, though, I’m going to have to let them know that I’m available at reasonable rates for celebrity endorsements.

They better act fast, though. I might just throw my endorsement to this automatic disc shooter. Imagine how much fun church will be if all the communion celebrants could just stay in their pews while the priest whips this colorful beauty out and starts winging wafers through the air. Combine it with a super-soaker loaded with wine, and mass becomes a party for everyone…even flyin’ Jesus!

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Start off 2010 with schadenfreude

Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is bleeding money. He just sent out a letter begging for almost a million dollars from his followers.

With 10% of our church family out of work due to the recession, our expenses in caring for our community in 2009 rose dramatically while our income stagnated. Still, with wise management, we’ve stayed close to our budget all year. Then… this last weekend the bottom dropped out.

On the last weekend of 2009, our total offerings were less than half of what we normally receive – leaving us $900,000 in the red for the year, unless you help make up the difference today and tomorrow.

Good.

I don’t mean that it is good that people are poor and suffering; I think it’s wonderful that a pious fraud who preys upon them is feeling a teeny-tiny pinch. I’d feel even more cheerful if I didn’t think that his begging from the faithful will most likely work.

Hey, if anyone wants to see me go into raptures, all they have to do is add to Saddleback’s woes by making their fleecing operation taxable. That would definitely break the back of Saddleback.

Atheism is dooooomed!

I keep hearing people telling me this, but at the same time I keep seeing more and more out atheists, and atheism becoming more and more popular. The refrain is sounding more desperate than accurate — but then, among people for whom wishful thinking is tantamount to a mathematical proof, I suppose just wanting atheism to go away is sufficient to mean it must be going away. I was sent an awesomely pathetic article making just this same kind of weak argument.

There seems to be a growing consensus around the globe that godlessness is in trouble.

“Atheism as a theoretical position is in decline worldwide,” Munich theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg told United Press International Tuesday.

His Oxford colleague Alister McGrath agrees. Atheism’s “future seems increasingly to lie in the private beliefs of individuals rather than in the great public domain it once regarded as its habitat,” he wrote in the U.S. magazine, Christianity Today.

Quoting a few of the usual suspects does not mean you’ve got a “growing consensus”. I don’t even know what “atheism as a theoretical position” means — it could imply that atheism is so dominant that it is taken for granted. As for McGrath…sorry, vacuous, mealy-mouthed, and boring are not sufficient qualities to make one an authority. Again, though, I have no idea what he is talking about — of course atheism is a private or personal belief, and what the heck does it mean for atheism to have inhabited the public domain without being part of individual beliefs? These guys are just stringing words together and pretending to be authoritative.

Two developments are plaguing atheism these days. One is that it appears to be losing its scientific underpinnings. The other is the historical experience of hundreds of millions of people worldwide that atheists are in no position to claim the moral high ground.

One: atheism is retaining its scientific basis. I think the authors comment is a veiled and credulous reference to the common claim by intelligent design creationists that they have scientific evidence of a creator. They do not.

Atheism has never claimed to hold the moral high ground; that’s religion’s schtick. What we have going on right now is growing evidence that religion does not confer morality, either.

This article started stupid, but it just gets worse and worse. Guess who they cite to back up the above claims?

Writes Turkish philosopher Harun Yahya, “Atheism, which people have tried to for hundreds of years as ‘the ways of reason and science,’ is proving to be mere irrationality and ignorance.”

When did Harun Yahya/Adnan Oktar get promoted to philosopher? More appropriate descriptors would be convicted con artist and former mental patient.

We also get senile philosophers pontificating on biology.

As British philosopher Anthony Flew, once as hard-nosed a humanist as any, mused when turning his back on his former belief: It is, for example, impossible for evolution to account for the fact than one single cell can carry more data than all the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica put together.

But we can account for all that data: accumulated variation for a few billion years will do the job. What is so hard to understand about this?

Other tropes in this amazingly dumb article include the imminent demise of atheism. I think Darwinism and atheism must be in a race to be first to collapse, contradicted only by the fact that both seem to be growing stronger day by day.

The stunning desertion of a former intellectual ambassador of secular humanism to the belief in some form of intelligence behind the design of the universe makes Yahya’s prediction sound probable: “The time is fast approaching when many people who are living in ignorance with no knowledge of their Creator will be graced by faith in the impending post-atheist world.”

Oh, and of course we have to have science backing theistic claims, with citations of a science journal.

A few years ago, European scientists sniggered when studies in the United States – for example, at Harvard and Duke universities – showed a correlation between faith, prayer and recovery from illness. Now 1,200 studies at research centers around the world have come to similar conclusions, according to “Psychologie Heute,” a German journal, citing, for example, the marked improvement of multiple sclerosis patients in Germany’s Ruhr District due to “spiritual resources.”

Wait…the studies that showed no statistically significant effect are now being used to endorse prayer? O Topsy Turvy world!

I was amused by the citation to that prestigious medical journal, “Psychologie Heute”. That’s German for Psychology Today, by the way, and the German edition is just like the American one: mass market pop psychology sold at your local supermarket checkout line.

It’s just sad that theists are reduced to this kind of feeble justification for their goofy beliefs.

California crazy

Two distressing news stories out of that wealthy western state:

  • Berkeley High School has a serious problem: it’s a good, relatively well-funded school, but black and latino students aren’t doing as well as white students. Their solution: kill those expensive science labs and redirect the money to remedial classes. Science classes with no labs? Inconceivable! That’s what a body of earnest, well-meaning, and apparently scientifically illiterate parents and teachers have decided to do.

    You cannot learn about science without doing science. It’s like deciding to continue to teach theater and music, but without that troubling and time-consuming business of performing. Or like having a football program that never plays any games (I know, that one is pure fantasy…discontinuing a football team is much, much harder than simply shutting down teaching labs).

    I’m also surprised at the casual bigotry in the proposal. Demolishing their science program won’t hurt black and Latino students? Right. When I taught at Temple University, the biology labs were full of ambitious black students scrambling to pick up those essential, basic lab skills that they needed to be doctors and nurses someday…skills that were not taught in the impoverished urban schools of North Philadelphia. Is Berkeley training their minority students to be part of the cutting edge of science and technology and medicine, or are they more interested in turning out service workers for Taco Bell?

  • Here’s another tricky situation: the California Science Center is being sued for turning away the showing of an intelligent design creationism movie. It’s a tough case, because public institutions should be interested in presenting arguments for issues in science — even if it is a controversial story, the answer to abuses of free speech is more free speech.

    However, there are other parts of this story that mean I can’t just jerk the ol’ free speech knee. One key point is that what the movie was presenting was not a scientific controversy at all—seriously, any movie that tries to present the Cambrian as a serious problem that makes evolution impossible is celluloid trash. Because the venue can be leased should not imply that the CSC is open to anyone showing home movies, or to the latest porn impresario from the San Fernando Valley using it for the premiere of his latest flick. I would think a science center would have a vested interest in protecting its reputation for showing science.

    And of course, the creationists know about that reputation. That’s why they try to book prestigious places of science, like the Smithsonian, your local museum, or as we see all the time at the University of Minnesota, the physics auditorium, to show off their bogosity in the reflected luster of science. The reverse is also true: scientists don’t rush to unveil their latest discovery at the nearby church.

    The science center also had clear grounds for canceling the showing: the creationists tried to imply in promotions that the movie showing was a Smithsonian-endorsed event, which it was not — they were merely a gang of bozos who had the cash to lease the room. The center also had a clause in their agreement to prevent that kind of credibility-theft, requiring promotional materials to be screened before release.

    It’s all part of a growing problem: creationists know that their institutions have no scientific credibility at all, and they desperately want to borrow some authority for their lies from real science.

Naked blue giants must be the new SF trope

I saw the most awesome tech demo reel tonight — a little show called Avatar. It was well worth the admission cost, but you should be prepared with reasonable expectations.

There isn’t a plot. Well, actually, there is…but it’s so predictable that they might as well have left it out. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy on rails. Don’t worry about it, as long as you don’t expect to be challenged or surprised, it’s fine.

There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are really, really good, and the bad guys are really, really bad. Like straight from the associate of arts degree program at the local Cartoon Villain College. When there’s nothing else to do, they blow things up that gain them nothing but universal loathing. They also have standard cartoon villain military tactics, which usually involves sending in swarms of moronic foot soldiers to accompany their high-tech airborne missile platforms and act as targets for the defenders.

There is a climactic battle scene that puts the Ewok’s Battle for Endor to shame.

You get the idea. Don’t go in to the theater looking for cleverness or wit or even, dare I suggest it, intelligence in the story. But it’s OK, I heard several ten year olds behind me cheering at key points.

The planet Pandora is the real star, anyway, and it’s inhabited by strange alien creatures that exhibit some real creativity in their design. Except, unfortunately, for the protagonist aliens, who are basically human beings stretched out to be 8 feet tall and with lovely golden Keane eyes plastered on, but otherwise follow our body plan pretty much exactly, right down to the toenails. If I saw that situation for real, I’d be an intelligent design creationist, because it’s obvious that the intelligent aliens did not evolve from the animal stock on that world.

I kept wishing that the makers had shown a little bravery and made the aliens alien. Some of the animals had this creepy slick black epidermis, for instance, that looked like a mucous-covered wetsuit; why not drape that over the aliens instead of the pretty blue skins they had? Most of the alien animals also had an interesting complex dentition with a lipless covering — again, be daring and make the aliens look like something that you wouldn’t ever want to kiss. District 9 did it, and got away with it — the aliens in that movie were definitely different.

But then, this was a demo reel. They were showing that they can get awfully close to realistic human performances with computer graphics, and this was a story about native Americans anyway, not really about aliens on a different planet. And it actually pulled it off: the characters were impressive and expressive.

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Speaking of which, one thing I was wondering about was that the aliens, and in particular the lead female character, were hot: lithely sexy, and barely clothed. It had me wondering what kind of rights the lead actress, Zoë Saldaña, has retained to the image. After all, it’s clearly her, despite the distortions of the alien form, and that image is now in a great big digital bucket on some computers somewhere, and could be trundled out and reused in other films. I imagine it would be valuable information to the porn industry, which you just know is itching to get its hands on that technology. There must be some kind of legal protections for digital likenesses being hammered out somewhere, because one thing this movie is going to do is start making that potential problem acute.

I’ve been belittling the movie, but it really wasn’t that awful. It’s a phenomenal demonstration of a technology that will let movie-makers create anything on the screen, where all the stories are told by geeks and nerds with very sophisticated machines. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Star Wars: an absolutely enthralling experience on its opening day which completely changed the look of all science fiction films to come, which changed the way the movie industry worked (for good and bad), and which used visual spectacle to help us overlook the silly story and the embarrassingly bad dialog.

Now we can look back at Star Wars, especially with the aid of the hideous prequels, and see that a lot of it was pure crap movie-making. Avatar is in the same situation (although I hope it isn’t mined out making a series of increasingly terrible sequels) — but it’s also got the shine of some magic in it.

Some things never change

Zeno has posted the complete text of a long creationist screed published in the Sacramento Bee. It’s got everything: the second law of thermodynamics, the fallacy of the excluded middle, the ‘law’ of biogenesis, mysterious barriers between species, and of course, the Imminent Death of Darwinism. It’s tediously familiar, and you’ve probably heard it all many times before. Only two things make it interesting.

It was published in 1981, and it’s mostly indistinguishable from creationist rhetoric in 2009. Which is rather depressing, if you think about it.

The author is someone who also defends geocentrism. The creationists have mostly given that one up, so there are some signs of progress.

Alaska’s War on Science

Several people expressed surprise at Alaska’s high position on the list of non-religious states. We can’t have people’s expectations shattered, so here’s something to reassure you all that the world has not turned inside out: an Alaskan scientist castigates the state’s attitude on science.

Alaska’s escalating war on science should be a grave concern to us all. On climate change, endangered species, predator control, environmental impacts of industrial development, and other important policy issues, Alaska now has arguably the most anti-science government anywhere in the nation.

It just goes to show that simply leaving the church behind does not guarantee that a population will live the life of reason.

Crawling pigments

Here’s another of Casey Dunn’s Creature Casts, this time on shifting color spots in marine snails.

Pigment cells are always very, very cool. I’ve been intrigued by them for a long time — they show up in my time-lapse recordings of developing zebrafish and are always active. Here’s a quick one, a few hours of time in a roughly 24 hour old zebrafish embryo, compressed to about 30 seconds. You can see one corner of the dark eye at the bottom left of the image, and that oval structure near the middle with two spots in it is the ear and its otoliths. The melanocytes are writhing over the side of the head and down onto the yolk sac; they’re not quite as colorful as the snail, but then, the zebrafish is a mostly black and white animal.