Archive for August, 2009

A big hole in the ground

August 28, 2009
Pot of gold at at Grand Canyon

Pot of gold at at Grand Canyon

It was sort of a last minute thing, but we just spent a few days in the Grand Canyon from which we’re now back. A magnificent site. Besides the size, of course, one gets the impression of age. This is an ancient place. The Colorado river has worn away rock over millions of years to open up this expanse. The exposed rocks and formations are themselves ancient. We have near the bottom a group of layers called the Tonto group which consists of Tapeats sandstone (beach sand deposited around 550 million years ago), Bright Angel shale (calm water sediment from 540 million years ago), and Mauv limestone (sea sediment from 530 million years ago). Fossils from these layers include jellyfish, trilobites (some of which we saw in some of the exhibits, unfortunately the memory card on the camera was full), and others. Near the top is the Kaibab formation, which are old sea sediments from around 250 million years ago. Fossils here include trilobites, sponges, brachiopods, etc. In between there are deposits from swamps, flood plains, ancient rivers, etc. A snapshot of earth’s ancient history.

The corroborative techniques of radiometric dating, fossil layers, and other techniques all point to the same answers for the ancient ages. What about the canyon itself? How old is it?

As late as last year, a report pointed to a strong possibility that the canyon may have formed, or at least started forming, 55 million years ago. From the article:

The team believes an ancestral Grand Canyon developed in its eastern section about 55 million years ago, later linking with other segments that had evolved separately. “It’s a complicated picture because different segments of the canyon appear to have evolved at different times and subsequently were integrated,” Flowers said.

The ancient sandstone in the canyon walls contains grains of a phosphate mineral known as apatite — hosting trace amounts of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium — which expel helium atoms as they decay, she said. An abundance of the three elements, paired with temperature information from Earth’s interior, provided the team a clock of sorts to calculate when the apatite grains were embedded in rock a mile deep — the approximate depth of the canyon today — and when they cooled as they neared Earth’s surface as a result of erosion.

Apatite samples from the bottom of the Upper Granite Gorge region of the Grand Canyon yield similar dates as samples collected on the nearby plateau, said Caltech’s Wernicke. “Because both canyon and plateau samples resided at nearly the same depth beneath the Earth’s surface 55 million years ago, a canyon of about the same dimensions of today may have existed at least that far back, and possibly as far back as the time of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago.”

Of course, some literal fundamentalist Creationists would like people to accept their hypothesis, if it could be called that, that the canyon was formed during Noah’s flood where it rained 40 days and more water that exists on our entire planet covered it for a period of time. So that instead of 55 million years towards which the evidence points, they would like to advance the idea that the canyon was formed in about a year, I guess. So here’s what I suggest to Creationists to test their ideas. Since the time scale suggested is so short, this should be easy. Scale model. Get some limestone (We’ll only deal with the top Kaibab layer here, to give a starting point) of some thickness, and perhaps combined with shale as well. Put on top of it the appropriately scaled volume of water. Allow it to drain for an appropriately scaled amount of time. This will probably 2 weeks to a month, depending on how much limestone you have and I’m too lazy to work out the numbers. It will be up to you to convince scientists that the appropriate amounts of rock, water, and time were chosen. See if you make a small canyon. I eagerly await your results.

Of course, I suppose also for literal fundamentalists, the well known optical laws of refraction and reflection (see here or here) did not exist before Noah’s flood.

Gog, Magog, Iraq, and the mafia

August 21, 2009

So here’s a little sample of what happens when you make a interesting cocktail mix of politics and religion, especially bizarre religious mindsets. President Chirac recounts a story you may have heard before about the lead up to the Iraq war.

Now out of office, Chirac recounts that the American leader appealed to their “common faith” (Christianity) and told him: “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East…. The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled…. This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.”

This bizarre episode occurred while the White House was assembling its “coalition of the willing” to unleash the Iraq invasion. Chirac says he was boggled by Bush’s call and “wondered how someone could be so superficial and fanatical in their beliefs.”

Well, there’s a huge contributing factor to what got us in Iraq. Dulled uncritical religious thinking. This is also consistent with all those Bible quotes from Rumsfeld, of course, fueling the fire for Bush’s self-proclaimed crusade. How many lives have been lost and how many resources have been squandered for Bush’s religious misadventure? Whatever the opportunity cost, it certainly has left us in a sorry state. As everyone should know by now, there were no weapons of mass destruction, Iraq was not allied with Al Queda, and Iraq posed no serious threat to us and now our economy is a mess. Although the latter is not entirely the fault of going into Iraq, but it certainly hasn’t helped.

So, what does what happened then have to do with now? You may recall America’s own dark little mercenary unit called Blackwater. It seems Obama is still funding this group. Why? There is a bit of information on one of the cofounders of Blackwater, Erik Prince, a crony of Bush. He is a big sponsor of and intimately related to that repressive group, The Family Research Council, known for wanting to disestablish public education, put prayer back in schools, and bigotry against gay people in regards to marriage. It was alleged (bottom of the wiki) by two Blackwater employees that:

Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”

But wait, there’s more! We also have the C-Street Christian mafia, an organization in which Congress are members of, and which seems to act as a kind of white washing facade for all sorts of corruption. Here you can hear more about this insidious organization from author Jeff Sharlet (be sure to check out his book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of
American Power
, a behind the scenes frightening look at what these power hungry self righteous tyrants are all about.

From American Atheist, we have a few tidbits of information.

Family leaders consider their political network to be Christ’s avant
garde, an elite that transcends not just conventional morality but
also earthly laws regulating lobbying. In the Family’s early days,
they debated registering as “a lobby for God’s Kingdom.” Instead,
founder Abraham Vereide decided that the group could be more
effective by working personally with politicians. “The more invisible
you can make your organization,” Vereide’s successor, current leader
Doug Coe preaches, “the more influence you can have.” That’s true —
which is why we have laws requiring lobbyists to identify themselves
as such.

Yes, super secret organizations wielding power behind the scenes. Because, you know, a healthy democracy just thrives on that stuff.

But David Coe, Doug Coe’s son and heir apparent, calls himself
simply a friend to men such as John Ensign, whom he guided through
the coverup of his affair. I met the younger Coe when I lived
for several weeks as a member of the Family. He’s a surprising
source of counsel, spiritual or otherwise. Attempting to explain
what it means to be chosen for leadership like King David was —
or Mark Sanford, according to his own estimate — he asked a young
man who’d put himself, body and soul, under the Family’s authority,
“Let’s say I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think
of you?” The man guessed that Coe would probably think that he was
a monster. “No,” answered Coe, “I wouldn’t.” Why? Because, as a
member of the Family, he’s among what Family leaders refer to as the
“new chosen.” If you’re chosen, the normal rules don’t apply.

So, if you are chosen by God, according to the Christian mafia, the normal rules of man do not apply. Well, of course, why didn’t I think of that earlier? If I get myself chose, I can do anything! Their self proclaimed role models are Hitler, Mao, and Stalin. A very powerful light needs to be shone on this group.

Yes, many people do not take their religion to this extreme. There are many moderates content to believe, go to church on various Sundays, and have a normal life. But, like a cancer, religious memes are not content to remain local and benign. Inherent in religious thinking are threats to a healthy democracy, and all humanity. Humanity, as a whole, needs to stop giving any religion a free pass and examine these beliefs critically. After all, even the moderates stand on the same foundation as those in Blackwater, the Christian mafia, and all the rest.

Thanks to Vjack at Atheist Revolution for the posting about this.

Disabling the Cain myth

August 20, 2009

There was a bit of stir in the blogsphere recently concerning a certain visit of freethinkers, scientists, and assorted godless heathens to a certain Creation “Museum”. The Creation Museum, located somewhere in Kentucky, of course stands out as a shining example, a tremendous monument to humanity’s ability to remain stubbornly and willfully ignorant, while still somehow retaining the ability to read. The event was sponsored by the Secular Student Alliance (Go here to get involved.) and was a resounding success, such as from the above links and here (with associated links), and elsewhere.

Other than that, I won’t say much about the visit as I was unfortunate enough not to go and much more about can be found elsewhere. I was sent a book from this Hall of Ignorance previously, which when I free up some time I hope to review a bit of here. A cursory glance reveals extremely poor and misrepresented science, lies, and ad hominem attacks against Charles Darwin. Wonderful. Now one of the items I saw when looking through the various blog reports concerning this Cargo Cult Museum was an entire panel explaining from where Cain picked up his wife. Given the absurd starting assumptions, the only possible answer is that his wife was his sister.

As luck would have it, I came across this very topic discussed at Not surprisingly, the author supports Ken Ham’s (the creator, if you will, of the afore-mentioned Baffle ’em with BS Museum in Kentucky) proposition. For a site advertising itself as showing God through science, I was surprised at how little science there was in this particular post. The idea is that man (an creation) was formed to perfection. Therefore no genetic flaws. So there will not be the genetic problems of inbreeding right from the start. These imperfections started multiplying after the so-called fall. So, at the time, marrying your sister was fine. I had seen further arguments elsewhere that this is consistent with the longer lifespans in the earlier parts of the Bible, presumably believing that genetic mutations necessarily lead to shorter lifespans.

The problem is that this is not how science is done. You don’t start with a conclusion based on an old book you think is right, and throw around some sciency terms, like genetics, in an effort to arrive at some self consistency. You might as well analyze the science in Lord of the Rings. You may get some cool ideas and interesting consistencies, but it is still fiction.

Let’s start with the idea of perfection, which I guess means no genetic defects, whatever that means. A genetic characteristic is beneficial ultimately in the “eye of the environment”, so I’m not really sure what this perfection entails at a reasonable level of precision. Certainly there are some defects which turn out to be harmful, some neutral and a few of which happen to be advantageous for a particular environment. I presume the biblical justification is that Adam was made “in the image of God”, since I can’t find any Bible references to Adam being genetically perfect. So God has genes, and specifically none of which are defective? Has anyone done a genome sequence of God to discover by how much we differ from genetic perfection? Or is being made in the image something different? Perhaps spiritual awareness? Would this entail knowledge of good and evil? God supposedly knew good from evil, but humans had to eat magic fruit to obtain this? So, perhaps not a perfect image? How did the introduction of sin lead to genetic defects and how can you test this? So right away our first assumption leads to more questions for which no clear answers are available.

At one time I did hear arguments that the old age (some to past 900, including Adam) to which people lived in the pre-flood era were consistent with the idea that human started with “perfect” genes before the fall. It is not at all clear to me how a lack of genetic defects leads to lifespans on the order of those mentioned in the Old Testament. I’ve seen no scientific evidence to support this. Other interpretations hold that the numbers associated with the long ages held only symbolic meaning, so not all Christians buy into a literal long lifespan picture presented by the Bible. That the earliest humans had the longest lifespans also flies in the face of available evidence (also mentioned in the discussion at the bottom of the page here). Note that the average life span in the Neolithic age, that is 9500 B.C., close to 5000 years before Creationists say we had the first human, was about 20.

So, how could this be made somewhat scientific? First thing to do is forget the Bible. You want independent evidence that will corroborate it, not by starting off with the Bible as your conclusion. Where is the evidence that the earliest humans had far fewer genetic defects? What predictions does this model lead to? Should we see an increase in the number of genetic defects through human existence? Should we expect a continuous rise in defects (accounting for systematic error due to pollutants in our industrial age)? If you want to take the approach that the earliest humans were living over 500 years of age, apart from old mythological stories, where is the actual evidence? Bone analysis can tell us something about age and we haven’t seen anything like the claimed ages in the Bible.

We do have bones from some of the earliest humans from 195,000 years ago. We also have the skeleton of a 25-35 year old woman from France who died about 13,000 to 15,000 years ago, roughly 7000 years before death came into the world, according to Creationists.

Stimulating park

August 17, 2009
Joshual Tree National Park early spring

Joshual Tree National Park early spring

The picture above is from a little trip we took to Joshua Tree National Park a couple of years ago and shows a few of the Joshua trees for which the park is named in the foreground. Really a wonderful trip. The U.S. has a pretty extensive national park system that covers a wide array of unique scenery and habitats. As Obama just underwent a whirlwind tour of a few national parks, I figured it would be interesting to see how the national parks fit into Obama’s picture. The national parks received 589 million dollars in stimulus from the stimulus bill. That was for roads and some infrastructure. There is also 146 million for trail maintenance, etc., etc.

One question the GOLP earlier raised were concerns on what good funding the parks under a stimulus package would be? The idea is that you pretty up the parks, or what have you and then you are done; what has been done to help the economy?

Our national parks were largely neglected under Bush, so, every little bit to get our parks back up to snuff is a good thing. There are all sorts of opportunities for maintenance of buildings, roadways, etc. This is work which, albeit temporary, could help keep people employed long enough to last out the effects of this recession. As an example, check out the projects planned for the Great Smoky Moutains. The work being drawn up there means jobs. In the end, all of us benefit from having a well maintained park system housing some of the true wonders of our planet.

GOLP — The Grand Old Loony Party

August 16, 2009
The New Republicans

The New Republicans

Well, even for somebody with no time like myself, these past few weeks have been pretty amusing. Of course, we all know about the so-called “Birthers”. People, which many Republicans don’t seem to discourage, who remain convinced, in spite of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, that Obama was not born in the U.S. The latest bout of lunacy emerging from the far right concerns health care. Of course, anyone can read the health care bill being proposed by a quick google search. In spite of this, we have Republican inciting their base with lies, misleading information, and hysteria. For example, for a quick web-reference, we have from Urban Legends one section of the bill that appears to have stirred up some controversy. It is a bit long to reproduce here, so feel free to read it for yourself, but essentially what it boils down to is more frequent consulting sessions for Medicare will pay for more frequent consulting sessions to discuss end-of-life issues when faced with terminal illnesses and such. From this we get the wizened philosopher Sarah Palin stipulating this means government death panels. Such a leap is rarely found, except in the delusional minds of conspiracy nuts, or the power hunger tyrants who want rile them up.

We also have claims that a government run plan being offered as an option to help the uninsured will lead to “socialized medicine”, for which medical care here will become as horrible as it is in Germany or France. In fact, while I was in Germany, I received really good health care. For more on health care in Europe, look here. As one of the stories embedded therein, you can read how German patients are mostly quite happy with their health care system.

But don’t expect to see little snippets of reality like this from right-wing Republicans. Health care here in the U.S. is in serious need of reform. By not acting now, the cost will be higher in the future. This may not be the most perfect of all bills, but is a step in the right direction. There is still serious discussion to be had regarding the contents and the vision of health care in our country. It is immoral to simply neglect the health care of those many who are currently uninsured. But serious discussion is exactly what we are not seeing from the Republicans. Instead we see fear mongering, misinformation and disruption. See any of the famous town hall meetings for an example. We see actual prevention of any attempt for serious discussion. We see efforts to try to simply stop progress, sometimes because they simply don’t like the President, or just simply fear of change. Fear that the Republican leadership and media like Fox News are only too happy to feed.

It is actually coming back to bite some of the Republicans as well. In today’s LA Times there was an article describing just this. They’ve riled up their credulous mob to such a state that it is backfiring. According to the article:

But the conservative mobilization has also created an unusual dilemma for Republican leaders, who want to turn the enthusiasm into election victories next year but find themselves the target of ire from many of the same activists.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the GOP’s Senate campaign committee, was booed at a “tea party” rally in July for supporting the government bailout of the financial services industry.

And one of the GOP’s most reliable conservatives, Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, was shouted down at a recent town hall meeting when he criticized a conservative broadcaster and tried to counter claims that children would soon be forced to receive swine flu vaccinations.

“You cannot build a movement on something that is not credible,” said a frustrated Inglis, referring to the vaccine issue and other false rumors being spread by more aggressive critics of the health bill.

“Going door to door, I found opposition tending toward hostility,” Inglis added. “At town meetings, the hostility went straight through to hysteria.”

So, it seems the more right-wing Republican are fervently steering our country into rule by credulous and unthinking mob (even to their own detriment). The GOP has actually stepped over the line and become completely insane.

The Beck paradox

August 14, 2009

Unfortunately, I have not had very much time to put into watching actual news, let alone Faux News, but after my run and during stretches tonight I managed to see a little of the Colbert Report (caution, automatic audio there) which had an interesting clip of Glenn Beck. The whole Beck video can be found here.

Essentially, he said that Obama has a “deep seat hatred for white people”. When confronted with the fact that Obama has actually put many Caucasians (or “white people”) on his staff, he replied that he wasn’t saying that that Obama “didn’t like white people”, but that he was still was clearly a racist. His evidence was that Obama attended Rev. Wright’s church (I would be prepared to call Obama delusional on this point, but that’s a different story). Oh, and calling the actions of a cop stupid for arresting a professor for behaving obnoxiously. I am not sure Beck understands the meaning of the word evidence.

This begs two questions.
1) Why is Glenn Beck still on the air?
2) Why would anyone hire Beck for any position requiring at least a high school diploma?

But then, this is television, and Faux News no less. So, probably the answer to 2) explains 1).

Dear Birthers

August 1, 2009

Was President Obama born in the United States?

Birth certificate from a real actual U.S. state

Birth certificate from a real actual U.S. state


You may now return to your regularly scheduled Michael Jackson news.