Thursday, November 29, 2012

Priceless video: Bill O'Reilly tries to explain Gangnam Style

Bill O'Reilly just can't explain that.

Not only does O'Reilly not seem to realize that other languages exist, but apparently cannot even do the most cursory research into the meaning behind Gangnam Style or who Psy is.

Its clips like this that make the Colbert Report work.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Obama Conspiracy Theory Roundup

MotherJones did an interesting round-up of conspiracy theories about Obama earlier this month.  Most of them are pretty normal: "Born in Kenya", "Secretly Muslim", "Is the Antichrist", "Is a Lizard."

But some are so orthogonal to reality that it may be impossible to understand their origins. I was incredulous at first, but MotherJones provided links demonstrating that each of these conspiracy theories is actually believed by some.  Click through to these sites only after donning your combat rated facepalm helmet. 

Via MotherJones

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jon Stewart Calls God out on Priorities

Yesterday on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked God to meet him at camera 3 for a little heart-to-heart on the middle east.  After apologizing for not praying much and copious amounts of masturbation, Jon casually asked God: "Where have you been?"  In case you've been living in a bubble, the Gaza Strip has erupted in violence as hundreds of rockets and bombs have been launched.

Hopefully the recent cease-fire will hold, but it does beg the question; why is there so much violence taking place on God's watch in his own back yard?
"Look, I'm not asking you to solve the problem, although...obviously you could...easily, and it seems a little strange that you haven't...I know you don't want to intervene in every earthly disaster...but this is your house!  Whichever version of you is the correct one, they are fucking up YOUR shit!"-Jon Stewart to God
And what has God been doing instead of cleaning up his own house?  He claims he was helping Notre Dame get to the BCS national-championship game, which admittedly a pretty impressive feat.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Miracles and Historic Method

Richard Carrier has some fringe ideas when it comes to the historicity of Jesus, but he is trying to convince others and change consensus within the community of historians.  In pursuit of that goal, he has a lot of useful things to say about historical method and how it's been applied (and should be applied) to miracle claims.

Carrier recently spoke about historical method at Skepticon 5.  I love this talk because it is just full of juicy tall tales from the time of Christ that Christians don't believe.  What I love more is that most of those stories where obviously and definitively made up by Christians.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Check out the New Facebook Page!

Hello all!

This week is going to be very busy for me.  All project deadlines are starting to converge as the semester winds down.

Yet I still somehow found time to procrastinate by setting up a Facebook Page for Lots of Tiny Robots.
Check it out and like it.

It's pretty much bare bones at the moment, but it will pick up speed soon.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bertrand Russel: Timeless and Wise Advice

One of the greatest minds to grace this past century, Bertrand Russel, speaks to us through time.

Friday, November 23, 2012

RoboBuilders Style

Due to Thanksgiving induced lethargy, today I will simply share this interesting robot video.
I realize that the Gangam Style craze has just past its peak, but this video still made me crack a smile.

(Via robot-dreams)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review of "Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our Children."-Chapter 2 (part 3)

Last time we discussed Oxytocin and its roll in female pair-bonding.  Chapter 2 concludes with a section on Vasopressin, a close relative of oxytocin and its effects in males.

File:Arginine vasopressin3d.png
Arginine vasopressin (AVP), commonly known as vasopressin is a hormone that performs many regulatory functions in mammals.  It helps maintain homeostasis by controlling water retention and permeability of various barriers such as blood vessels and certain kidney tissues.

What's of more interest to us today is its potential effects on the brain.  Vasopressin has been implicated in partner selection and bonding in some mammals, though the evidence is scant at this point for a causal link as we shall see.

Hooked paints a much stronger picture of the relationship between the hormone and bonding.
"Women are not the only ones who bond during intimate physical contact.  The neurochemical responsible for the male brain response and synaptic change is called vasopressin. ...Vasopressin seems to have two primary function related to relationships-bonding of the man to his mate and attachment to his offspring. ...Often referred to as the 'monogamy molecule' vasopressin seems to be the primary cause of men attaching to women with whom they have close and intimate physical contact."-Hooked pg. 41 (emphasis added)
Often referred to by whom I wonder? All the references I've found online to 'monogamy molecule' point to Hooked or blogs of similar ideological bent.  Let us be generous though and consider the evidence they present. Don't worry, it won't take long.

On the next page we find that their only source for their claim that vasopressin is "responsible for the the male brain response" is a small series of studies in prairie voles.  In fact, the same prairie voles are at the core of their arguments for oxytocin bonding as well.  I already discussed the problems with generalizing from animal studies to human psychology in Chapter 2 (part 1), so I won't repeat myself except to again recommend this article by Stacy Schiff on the subject.

But a closer look at these studies gives us less reason to support the claims of Hooked rather than more. First, not all prairie voles in the studies are in fact monogamous, and moreover biologists don't even mean the same thing by monogamy.

Consider this excerpt from "Monogamy and the Prairie Vole" by Carter and Getz.
"...although common in birds, monogamy is rare in mammals.  In an exhaustive survey, Devra G. Kleiman of the National Zoological Part in Washington, D.C., found that only about 3 percent of mammals are monogamous.  Sexual exclusivity, however, is not a feature of monogamy.  Studies of the prairie vole as well as those of other mammals and birds have indicated that absolute sexual monogamy is not necessarily associated with social monogamy.  In fact, DNA fingerprinting tests have shown that offspring of female prairie voles are not always fathered by the cohabiting males.  In some cases, a litter may have mixed paternity."  
While only 3% of mammals monogamous, all have oxytocin and vassopressin.  Oxytocin and vassopressin likely play a role in bonding but it is unscientific and overly simplistic to claim either of them are the cause.

More importantly though, the "monogamous" prairie voles sleep around.  The paragons of rodent fidelity are clearly not as virtuous as Hooked purports them to be.  Clearly an overabundance of oxytocin and or vasopressin mixed with "casual sex" has not impaired the voles' ability to pair bond in the slightest.

The last chemical influence mentioned in the chapter, however briefly, is human pheromones.  Their claims about pheromones are much more reserved and appropriately so.
Research has revealed that pheromones are involved in a woman's sexual attraction for a specific type of man.  We also know that pheromones are involved, to some unknown extent, with a woman's sexual satisfaction with a man.-Hooked pg. 44
The evidence for human pheromones is sketchy at best.  The papers used to support this claim do suggest that a man's odor has an impact on a woman's sexual attraction.  However, pheromones and odors are not identical.  Pheromones are used by many animals to communicate, especially during the wondrous activities leading to procreation.  Pheromones excreted by one animal are detected by the other using the vomeronasal (Jacobson's) organ.

Unfortunately for proponents of the human pheromone hypothesis, the vomeronasal organ is atrophied and non-functional in humans.

So what's the point of all this?

Stepping back from the scientific details to examine the larger themes of this chapter, we notice a clear trend.  Chemicals at work within your body conspire to destroy your ability to bond with your future (opposite-sex) spouse if you decide to have sex with anyone else in your life.

The authors even put forth this rather curious analogy:
Their inability to bond after multiple liaisons is almost like tape that loses its stickiness after being applied and removed multiple times. -Hooked pg. 43
Imagine for a second that this was true: that oxytocin  forms a partial bond with whoever triggered it and consequently weakens each successive bond.  What would such a world look like?  Mothers who cannot breastfeed or delivered by Cesarean would be less able or unable to bond with their children.  Our loving grandmothers, well beyond menopause, would display a decreasing ability to bond.  Massage therapists would be unable to maintain committed relationships because they bonded with every one of their customers, and their customers would be increasingly unfaithful to their own partner with each visit.  Mothers delivering multiple children would be less able to bond to their latter children.  People who have and care for pets would likewise be less able.  And most interestingly, people who live in blue houses would be destined to never marry.

Is this the world we live in?  Do these implications mesh with our experience? Clearly not.

What is far more interesting than the implications of this idea is its origins.  The tape analogy provides a clearly traceable fingerprint leading back most proximally to Dr. Eric Keroack.

Dr. Eric Keroack
Dr. Keroack was an OBGYN in Massachusetts who acquired great fame in conservative circles promoting abstinence as a public health measure.  Until around 2006 he presided as the medical director of a pro-abstinence organization called "A Woman's Concern" that opposed contraception and suggested that condoms "offer virtually no protection" against herpes or HPV.  But the claim he is most famous for is the central thesis of Hooked: premarital sex disrupts brain chemistry making happy marriages more difficult.

Despite (or more likely in light of) the scientific failings of Dr. Keroack's beliefs, in 2006 he was appointed as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services by then President George W. Bush.  The Bush administration unilaterally gave Keroack the position, from which he would oversee all federally funded family planning programs.  Fox, meet hen house.

Keroack's influence is pervasive in Hooked.  Much of the claims he first popularized are repeated here verbatim   Let's examine the similarities.

Keroack calls oxytocin "God's Super Glue." He believes abstinence is the best form of birth control and says that women who engage in premarital sex can wear out their oxytocin response.
"People who have misused their sexual faculty and become bonded to multiple persons will diminish the power of oxytocin to maintain a permanent bond with an individual."-Keroack
He even appears to have originated the tape analogy itself.
Extrapolating in part from research with prairie voles, which are monogamous, he postulates that oxytocin cannot survive too much sex, at least with multiple partners, at least prior to marriage. By way of demonstration he proposes the duct tape test: you need only an adhesive and a hairy arm. The tape represents the brain. Press it down. Now reapply. See what happens? Less sticky, right? Concludes Keroack: “Basically, you will end up damaging your brain’s ability to use the oxytocin system as a chemical mechanism that serves to help you successfully bond in future relationships.”-Link
In 2001, Keroack co-authored a paper with Dr. John Diggs for a group called the Abstinence Clearinghouse. The report concluded:
"People who have misused their sexual faculty and become bonded to multiple persons will diminish the power of oxytocin to maintain a permanent bond with an individual. . . . Just as in heroin addiction . . . the person involved will experience 'sex withdrawal' and will need to move on to a . . . new sex playmate."
Reportedly, the citation given in the paper was a 1999 preliminary study by Dr. Rebecca Turner, a researcher at California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University.

Fortunately, we have Dr. Turner's rebuttal to Keroack's "complete pseudoscience" misrepresentation of her work.
"In any case, none of our studies provide a basis for their claims," Dr. Turner averred. Keroack did not cite any of Turner's later, more definitive work. 
"Scientific research has shown that the hormone cortisol rises with psychologically-induced stress," Dr. Turner explained. "Our research examined whether blood levels of oxytocin would similarly increase with sad or positive emotions induced by interview discussions and emotionally-evocative film clips. The research was a collaboration between CSPP and the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), and was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health in 1998. Margaret Altemus, MD, a psychiatrist at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, was Co-Principal Investigator for the studies. The initial study was cutting-edge research at the time; but, in the end (2002), we did not find changes in oxytocin levels that were related to these emotions."   
At least Dr. Keroack's co-author did acknowledge that they were developing conclusions that no scientists would ever put forth."
If the original author of the research decrying his conclusions was insufficient, consider the words of another prominent critic of Keroack's work: Dr. Jill Schneider .
He has the results of the animal studies somewhat garbled. He's spreading misinformation about the studies themselves. Then, his extrapolation to humans is also unfounded. Keroack is using something he learned about oxytocin and bonding, and fabricating a story that somehow premarital sex would release oxytocin and prevent a woman's ability to form a long-term pair bond in marriage. 
It's basically medical misinformation to say that the only healthy human relationship is monogamous marriage. Clearly, there are healthy single people and healthy people who practice serial monogamy. The United States is full of all types of healthy families.
For example, oxytocin is released during childbirth and breastfeeding and orgasm. If a mother experiences this great oxytocin release with her first child, there's no evidence that it would cause her to bond exclusively with that child. She certainly has the ability to welcome the next child and the next one. So, why would this guy think that oxytocin going up during premarital sex would prevent a healthy pair bond during marriage?
Dr. Keroack's hypotheses on oxytocin are not supported by the scientific community at large or by the producers of the original research they're based upon.  Despite this, Hooked continues to pass the claims on as verified scientific fact.  Moreover, they suggest very strongly that our brains were in fact designed to punish us for infidelity.
"Taken as a whole, these complicated processes offer a compelling pattern. They are designed to lead toward and strengthen long-term monogamous relationships, supporting and reinforcing the family structure that is so vital to our survival."-Hooked pg. 45
Again and again Hooked points towards a sort of overarching design of our neurochemistry.  The designer they imply is not merely the "values neutral" blind watchmaker of natural selection, but a value laden fully intentional designer who wanted us to be monogamous.

Despite their claims to be scientific in their endeavors, the authors of Hooked have strayed well off the scientific reservation and into the perilous lands of intelligent design.  It is at this point that I abandon all hope of their return.

Previous: Chapter 2: Meet the Brain (Part 2: Oxytocin)
Next: Chapter 3: The Developing Brain and Sex
Table of Contents

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jerry Dewitt's "Sermon" at Reason in the Rock

My friend Jerry Dewitt still gives a rousing sermon after all these years.  

Can I get a Darwin?

Thou Shalt Not Proofread

Many times I have looked back over my writing and noticed too late that I had made an embarrassing spelling or word usage error.  My writing style of "get it right the first time" is prone to that sort of mistake.  But fortunately, the blog medium allows for incredibly easy retroactive correction.

However, if I was writing my blog on say...giant stone tablets in a very public better believe my writing style would adapt quickly to include a thorough and careful proofreading step.

Which is why, despite my editorial failings, I cannot help but revel in the schadenfreude over Oklahoma's new Ten Commandments monument.

Ten Commandments outside Oklahoma Capitol building in Oklahoma City

Apparently Rep. Mike Ritze (R)(surprise surprise), who sponsored bill erecting the 2000 lb monument, was in such a hurry to defy the First Amendment that he forgot to even use spellcheck.

What could be a better metaphor for the constitutional illiteracy required to expect the monument to endure the inevitable lawsuit from the ACLU?

Ten Commandments monuments are nothing new and have become a sort of symbol of the lost traditional America by the religious right.  Phrases like "Christian Nation" and "founded on Judeo-christian values" have become commonplace in conservative and even some liberal circles.  Moreover when the lawsuit comes down it's portrayed as religious oppression of the Christian majority in this country.

Now it's easy to demonstrate that our laws are not "based on the God of the bible and the ten commandments."  True, three commandments are codified in our legal system: the prohibitions of murder, theft, and bearing false witness (perjury).  Contrary to the claim, however, the first five injunctions are actually blatantly unconstitutional (or would be if we made laws of them).

Requiring the worship of Yahweh and no other gods is the antithesis of the religious freedom guaranteed by the first amendment itself; forbidding taking his name in vain is a blasphemy law in violation of free speech. Work on Sunday )or Saturday depending on your choice of Sabbath) is not a capital offense. Parents are not awarded automatic honor.

Moreover, the commandments against coveting our neighbors property (which includes his wife BTW) would be devastating to our capitalist society.  The free market, which is invariably idolized by erectors of these monuments, is built on demand created by desiring your neighbor's possessions.

And on the subject of idolatry, I find a delicious irony in the near deification that ten commandments monuments have received in recent years.  I fully realize that most Americans don't actually know what the ten commandments say, but they should at least realize that venerating a carved stone monument that explicitly prohibits worshiping carved stone monuments is problematic.

But still the monuments go up and still the lawsuits push forward. A common response from theists and non-theists to the lawsuits is "Don't we have bigger things to deal with?  Why are you atheists so concerned about a little monument or a cross on public land?"

Van Orden v. Perry is why.  In this supreme court case, a ten commandments monument at the Texas State Capitol was "grandfathered" in because it had been in place for decades.  The 5-4 decision set a precedent of "if no one complains about it right away, eventually it becomes legal."

If we can learn anything from these ten commandment battles we should learn to make our voices heard.  By remaining silent on these seemingly minor issues we establish an atmosphere of indifference to the slow encroachment of religion into our supposedly secular government. Our silence emboldens our enemies, and they have become far too bold already.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Light Painting with the PUMA

I just finished a long group project for my Intro to Robotics class and wanted to share the result. 

We were using this 6 DoF PUMA robot arm with a multicolored LED at the end to create long exposure photographs (light paintings). The process wasn't perfect and we had a camera that tended to wash out the colors on some frames but I am very pleased with the result.

The Puma

The result is this rotating globe image drawn one frame at a time.  Each frame took about 3 minutes to draw and a minute to process.  If we had a lot more time we would have slowed down the rate of motion so that we didn't have so much jerking from the arm's inertia.  Note that this is drawn on a 3D sphere, so you can see continents appear to float above the horizon a bit due to a trick of perspective.

Boy Scouts Remain "Morally Straight"

Since 2008 I have been a registered Republican.  An accident of birth, perhaps, but true to this day.  I sometimes consider changing my official status to independent, which is more accurate, but then I would miss out on things like this.  Since the 2008 caucus, where I was a regional delegate, I have been added to every extreme right wing mailing list.  I get emails from MN for Marriage, Michelle Bachmann's campaign, Dan McGrath of the MN Voter ID advocacy group, Focus on the Family, and more recently the Family Research Council.

What follows is the complete content of one of their recent emails, as originally presented.  I'll let you read it for yourself without my commentary, save to point out their use of the phrase "morally straight" to describe their fellow anti-gay organization the Boy Scouts.  I shall return below once you have returned from bizarro world.


What Can Brown Bully for You?

The Boy Scouts are experts at survival, which certainly comes in handy when the Left is trying to shut them down. Despite relentless pressure to make its message more politically correct, the Boy Scouts have kept their commitment to keep the organization "morally straight." Unfortunately for millions of young boys, not everyone in America respects that decision. Instead, their stance on homosexuality has often made the Scouts the target of harassment, ridicule, and now financial bullying.

After the July announcement that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) would uphold its ban on homosexual scout leaders, corporate supporters have come out swinging. Computer giant Intel was the first to pull its support. Now, Georgia-based UPS is following suit. After years of generosity, UPS (whose policies are 100% aligned with the homosexual movement) said it was pulling the BSA's funding because its non-discrimination policy doesn't match UPS's. In a statement, UPS executives announced that they would "cease all future funding to the Boy Scouts until gay Scout leaders are welcome within the organization."

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. What UPS and other corporations refuse to acknowledge is that the Scouts' policy isn't a matter of intolerance--but security. After hundreds of cases of child sex abuse plagued the organization, the BSA tried to create a membership criteria in the best interest of kids' safety and parents' rights. Over the years, the Boy Scouts have paid millions--possibly hundreds of millions--to boys victimized by same-sex predators. And the financial toll was nothing compared to the emotional trauma of these children, whose lives are forever scarred by those encounters. For more than 100 years, the Scouts have focused on instilling character and leadership into America's boys. They aren't about to compromise that mission just to placate liberal companies and activists.

As usual, the Scouts reacted to UPS's announcement with the grace and class that is so rarely extended to them. "We are disappointed to learn about this decision, but respect everyone's right to have and express a different opinion," said BSA spokesman Deron Smith. "Unfortunately, this decision will have a direct impact on the youth we serve in local communities." As a private company, UPS has every right to determine who it supports. By the same token, so do we. With whom will you stand?

U.S. Takes a Term for the Worse

The election may be over, but the time of choosing has just begun. While none of us can predict what the next four years will hold, we can safely assume that the President will try to make good on his promise "fundamentally transform America." As our country has come to understand, the path to that transformation leads straight through the heart of the church. The nation made its decision, however poorly, and now Christians must too. President Obama has made it abundantly clear--through his legislation and regulations, his public remarks, and even the full weight of his judicial team--that he believes religion and conscience should take a back seat to his pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, anti-freedom agenda.

FRC will be on the front lines exposing and blocking this extremism. But the time is coming, perhaps sooner than we think, when all Christians will have to choose between being subservient to the state and its social engineering--or heeding the call to discipleship, at all costs. Earlier this year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) recognized that the day is rapidly approaching (August 1, 2013) when faith-based hospitals, charities, schools, and other organizations will have to find the courage to defy an unjust law. "No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith."

Now, a full week after the President who trampled our first freedom has been reelected, bishops like Nebraska's James Conley, are digging in for the dark days ahead. "The Catholic Church is not going to back down," said Conley, who will become the new bishop of the Lincoln Diocese on Nov. 20. "We are never going to compromise our principles. We will defy [the mandate] and face the consequences."

Unfortunately for believers of all faiths, the war over ObamaCare is just a preview of the bigger confrontation to come. A member of the President's own leadership team has already warnedthat when religious liberty clashes with homosexuality, religious liberty must lose. For millions of American parents, business owners, teachers, and military chaplains who refuse to treat same-sex "marriage" as the equivalent of natural marriage, those beliefs could have serious government consequences. Are we, as a movement, willing to face them?

In the Manhattan Declaration, signed by hundreds of thousands of Christians, the answer was clear. "Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."

On convictions of faith, the choice is ours. Will we dial down or double down on truth? In a new column, FRC's Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison suggest, "Resistance with Respect."

** For all of the Obama administration's offenses, America still has a lot to offer the world in promoting religious freedom. Tomorrow, we'll explore how the U.S. can help the Christians across the globe who are suffering physically, financially, and emotionally for their faith. Join us for an important webcast this Wednesday at noon, as we partner with Voice of the Martrys to highlight the persecuted church and how you can make an impact. Special guests include: Todd Nettleton, Director of Media Development, Voice of the Martyrs; Dr. Thomas F. Farr, Director of the Religious Freedom Project, Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs; Dr. Hormoz Shariat, Founder, Iran Alive Ministries; Emmanuel Ogebe, Nigerian Christian Attorney; myself, and more. Click here to watch live or to access the archived video.
*** The Supreme Court's calendar isn't entirely filled, but FRC's Ken Klukowski has a preview of one of the more compelling cases--especially after this year's election. Check out his latest Breitbart column on next year's challenge to the Voting Rights Act.


Now that that's over, let me point out a few of the more egregious passages. (emphasis mine)
In a statement, UPS executives announced that they would "cease all future funding to the Boy Scouts until gay Scout leaders are welcome within the organization."

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. What UPS and other corporations refuse to acknowledge is that the Scouts' policy isn't a matter of intolerance--but security. After hundreds of cases of child sex abuse plagued the organization, the BSA tried to create a membership criteria in the best interest of kids' safety and parents' rights....They aren't about to compromise that mission just to placate liberal companies and activists.
Time and time again we hear this disgusting and completely unfounded comparison between homosexuals and pedophilia.  The FRC has made this claim so many times.  The difference between consensual sex between adults and pedophilia is huge.  Gay men are no more attracted to 12 year old boys than straight men are to 12 year old girls.  Even if this was true, how would this possibly justify banning gay scouts as well as scoutmasters?

The email then switches over to the recent election results.
The nation made its decision, however poorly, and now Christians must too. President Obama has made it abundantly clear--through his legislation and regulations, his public remarks, and even the full weight of his judicial team--that he believes religion and conscience should take a back seat to his pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, anti-freedom agenda.
First of all, Obama hasn't been very active in supporting a woman's right to choose.  He has made some encouraging statements in that regard, but he has largely been silent on the issue.  Obama's continued support from the pro-choice community has largely been a reaction to the increasingly crazy positions that the religious right has been taking on women's issues.

As for pro-homosexual, he only this year affirmed his support for same-sex marriage.  Don't get me wrong, that's a big deal; he's the first president to publicly support marriage equality.

But what is most frustrating is how they portray Obama as "anti-freedom."  The group that wants to limit the freedom to marry, freedom to choose, freedom to end human suffering, and more thinks Obama is "anti-freedom."  Like many right-wing Christian groups, the FRC has confused not getting everything they want with being persecuted. More on that later.
We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's.
The problem is what they claim as "God's" keeps growing.  Apparently God has a unique interest in contraception. When you believe that government needs to be led by God in order to preserve religious liberty, you have no idea what religious liberty means.  Take this excerpt from the FRC homepage:
The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from interfering with a person's practice of his or her religion. We believe in religious liberty for people of all faiths and of no faith, but we deny that minority religions are entitled to greater protection than members of the country's majority Christian faith. Family Research Council opposes any actions by Federal or state legislatures to curb the freedom of religious expression, or to criminalize under so-called "hate crime" legislation any individual who expresses moral beliefs. We oppose attempts by educational institutions to indoctrinate students in a manner which offends their religious beliefs or penalizes them for expressing those beliefs. Similarly, we oppose attempts in the workplace to sanction those who seek to live their lives in accordance with their religious beliefs. We also oppose the forced privatization of faith, which would strip all religious expression from the public square. Faith-based organizations providing social services to the community should have access to government funding on the same basis as secular non-profit groups, without being asked to give up the religious character of their programs or staff. FRC also supports religious liberty around the world as a fundamental human right.-Link (emphasis mine)
The double standard here is enough to induce whiplash.  The FRC opposes "attempts by educational institutions to indoctrinate students in a manner which offends their religious beliefs" but promotes teaching creationism in schools. They support minority rights except when that minority is a religion other than Christianity.  They believe they have a right to not be persecuted, but call it persecution when they aren't allowed to discriminate against homosexuals.

The religious right has fallen into a sort of persecution complex.  If gays are allowed to get married that is anti-Christian discrimination.  When schools are prevented from introducing creationism into the science curriculum, they are persecuting Christianity.  When school mandated prayer is stopped because it violates the first amendment, it's the beginning of the end of America.

Frankly, I'm getting sick of hearing how the incredibly influential and powerful Christian majority in this country is being persecuted.

Mind Controlled Robots

(Via Robot Dreams)

Researchers at AIST are working on a non-invasive brain computer interface that allows rudimentary teleoperation of a robot by focusing on flickering icons on the monitor.  By flickering the icons in various patterns and frequencies, the active electrode cap the subject wears can detect which icon is being focused on.  The signal processor then interprets that as a command and instructs the robot to execute it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Happy Diwali Everyone!

One of the best parts of being an atheist, I am now discovering, is the ability to partake in Hindu festivals without being guilty of idolatry.

Today I got to experience my first Diwali Puja, as well as a general feeling of claustrophobia.  While Indian people may have no qualms about fitting thirty people into a small 2-bedroom flat, I with my open grasslands heritage gained a renewed appreciation for the plight of sardines.

But the company and the food more than made up for the lack of oxygen.  The wide variety of sweets, both homemade and store-bought, brought great joy.

I shall have to continue this tradition of celebrating the secular aspects of every festival and holiday that I can.  With the sheer number of disparate cultures and religions on the globe surely I can find cause for celebration every day of the year.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Rowan Atkinson-Welcome to Hell

Just came across another great sketch by Rowan Atkinson.  Atkinson plays the devil (aka Toby) welcoming the new denizens of hell.

My favorite bit:
"Atheists, Atheists over here please.  You must be feeling a right bunch of nit-wits."-The Devil
 Followed by:
"And finally Christians, Christians? Ah yes, I'm sorry I'm afraid the Jews were right."-The Devil

University of Pennsylvania Chaplaincy Nice to Work With

I've been working as a board member for the University of Pennsylvania's secular group Rekindle Reason for a couple months now, and I have to say I've been pleasantly surprised by the cooperation and encouragement we've received from the Office of the Chaplaincy on campus.

Unlike the campus religious organizations that I'm used to dealing with, the chaplains are there to promote coexistence and cooperation between people of different belief sets rather than push any one of them.  The chaplains I've met with have been very kind and pretty liberal.  They've helped us navigate the religious environment at Penn and my job would be a lot harder without them.

So a big thank you to the Chaplain's Office and their staff.

As an example of the good work they do, here's an excerpt from their web page about avoiding high-pressure religious groups. This is a list of ways to avoid being snatched up by extreme religious groups that pray on the homesick, lonely, and overwhelmed students.
In most instances you can expect a good experience with most religious groups at Penn. However, at these times of stress and uncertainty high-pressure religious groups may seek you out and try and recruit you.
Some ways to identify high-pressure groups:
Observe the group’s responses to you and how you feel. If you can answer “yes” to three or more of these statements, you should seriously reconsider your involvement.
  • The group seems to be perfect. Everyone agrees and follows all orders cheerfully.
  • The group claims to have “all the answers” to your problems.
  • The group offers “instant friendship.” They will not take “no” for an answer; invitations are impossible to refuse without feeling guilty and/or ungrateful.
  • You are asked to recruit new members soon after joining.
  • The group insists on total obedience to their leaders and discourages questions or doubts as signs of weak faith. You may be rejected or shunned if you persist in asking questions.
  • Your parents and friends are described as being “unable to understand or help you” with religious matters.
  • The group encourages you to put their meetings and activities before all other commitments, including studying.
  • The group puts down your past religious, social or political affiliation.
If you can answer “YES” to any three of these questions, you should consider talking to a University staff member or administrator. Remember…
  • Your mind is a gift! Don’t waste it, use it!
  • You don’t have to be manipulated!

I am in full agreement with this advice. Religious groups that use such recruiting tactics should be avoided at all costs by religious and non-religious students alike.  It's refreshing to see religious leaders speaking out on the issue, and again I thank the chaplains for their support.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

From the Onion: VoteRite-Voter Discrimination in the Palm of your Hand

According to the Onion, the GOP has heard your concerns about the inconvenience of waiting in line for hours at the polls only to be forced to cast a provisional ballot that probably won't be counted because of partisan legislation that discriminates based on likely indicators of party affiliation.

They have heard your cries and don't worry, you won't have to wait in line to be disenfranchised ever again.

Introducing Vote Rite, the new smartphone app that lets you be easily disenfranchised on the go.  Just fill in your basic registration info, snap a picture of your skin, and it does the rest.

No more waiting in lines, no more provisional ballots.  You can just stay home next election and save yourself the trouble!

Yes, this is a joke.  And no, it's not all that funny. 

University of California Makes a Robotic Squirrel

Biologists studying an interesting interaction between squirrels and rattlesnakes have teamed up with roboticists at University of California to create an artificial squirrel.

Rattlesnakes sense their prey using pit organs that see in infrared.  Some squirrels that interact with the snakes have developed a trick of heating their tail and waving it around as a distraction.  Zoologists are fascinated by this behavior, but it is very difficult to observe in nature.  It takes a lot of patience and luck.  Apparently when the biologists ran out of both, they turned to robots.

Using a taxidermy squirrel, a servomotor, and several independent heating coils, researchers created an artificial squirrel that they could put into harms way with a real rattlesnake and experiment with various heating/tail wagging strategies to see what will work.

It's amazing the things that are created when different disciplines get together.

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Feelings Exactly

Via Facebook

Fox Station Gives Quickest Route to Canada

(Via Raw Story)

Fox 23 traffic reporter Jeff Brucculeri

The day after the election, Fox 23 News in Oklahoma ran a special traffic report segment detailing the quickest route from OK to Canada.
“We had some folks make a special request,” Brucculeri explained. “I know a lot people said that if their candidate lost the election, they’d be moving to Canada — not sure why, but that was some of the folks’ promises out there.”-Raw Story
What I find the most hilarious about this story is that it's not a joke.  People are actually moving to Canada to avoid big government, gay marriage, and socialized medicine.  Clearly these people are as ignorant about Canada as they are of everything else.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Calm Down Iran

When John Stewart made an offhand joke about the first one to 270 electoral votes winning the right to bomb Iran, I laughed.  Now I'm realizing it may not be that funny.

The Pentagon has just announced that Iran shot at one of our predator drones over international airspace.

A MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft in an undated photo. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force

According to the report they made a couple passes and missed both times, but all evidence suggests they could easily have shot down the unarmed drone without much difficulty.

Up until now, Iran has been content to push back on the political stage, but with the addition of military threat   I fear for the future.

What if they had hit the drone, intentionally or not? How would the US have responded.  Worse yet, this happened Nov. 1.  What if the news had slipped before the election? Would we have a different president?

This should serve as a reminder of how precarious our place in the world is.  This is not a time to exaggerate problems and oversimplify solutions.

I hope Obama knows what he's doing.

Nicholas Cage Reboots Left Behind Series

When I was a teen, I read through the entire Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.  Not only did I read it but I believed it was actually going to happen.  Well, clearly not exactly like that because once you make a firm prediction about the end times the bible says it is automatically wrong, but I thought it was a reasonable approximation.

I even read some of the Left Behind for Kids series but found them to be horribly written and boring.

In 2001, Kirk Cameron of so little fame starred in a film adaptation of the first few books.  It was not well received among critics.  Here's just a sample review from James Berardinelli of ReelViews
"Cheesy. Silly. Moronic. Dull. Plodding. Torturous. All of those words can easily and accurately be used to describe Left Behind, an exceedingly poorly made motion picture that purports to offer a Biblically influenced approximation of what the so-called "End Times" might be like. In fact, Left Behind is less interested in telling a compelling story than it is in preaching. I really can't see anyone who isn't an evangelical Christian finding anything the least bit engaging about this motion picture. Left Behind will probably gain some support from its core target group, but the average movie-goer will likely find the experience of sitting through Left Behind to be tedious at best. As propaganda, Left Behind probably works; as a feature film, it's an abject failure." Link

Looking back and re-watching the films is a multiply painful experience for me, due in no small part to the haunting realization that at one point I thoroughly enjoyed them.

But now, Cloud Ten Pictures has announced that its upcoming big budget reboot of the series will star none other than Nicolas Cage.  The man who brought us such thrilling classics as The Wicker Man, Next, and Knowing.

Some material just writes itself.  I thought we would never see a popular Christian Apocalypse movie that deserved more ridicule than Kirk Cameron's, but hopes are riding high.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Glenn Beck Says Buy Farmland and Guns

Did your party lose the election despite your predictions of a miracle?  Are you terrified of this country turning into a Marxist Socialist Stalinist Atheistic Nazi regime ruled by Sharia law?  Have you finally realized that moving to Canada to escape socialized medicine is just plain stupid?

Then Glenn Beck has your plan B all prepared: find the reddest county in the states with good farmland then lock-and-load.

(via Right Wing Watch)

Big Win for Marriage Equality

Since 1998, gay marriage has been put to a popular vote 33 times around the country.  Of those 33, exactly 0 came down in favor of marriage equality.

Until last night.

VICTORY IN ALL FOUR. Congratulations and THANK YOU to everyone involved in the fight for equality.

According to the projections as of now, all three ballot initiatives to legalize or sustain marriage equality in Washington, Maryland, and Maine will pass.  This is historic, because it is the first time in American history where gay marriage has been put to the vote and won.  Even in my home state of Minnesota, the attempt to carve the existing ban into constitutional stone has been thwarted.

This is a huge leap forward from the past decade, and I never thought I'd say it so soon but the tide has shifted.

Also a big thank you to President Barack Obama for mentioning the LGBT community in his victory speech.
I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you're willing to work hard, it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you're willing to try. - Barack Obama, Victory Speech November 7, 2012

And thank you Mr. President for officially stepping behind marriage equality right before an election.  It showed a confidence and sense of principles that we needed in our politics.

Obama Projected To Win

Via Facebook

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Fly You Fools!

Air New Zealand has partnered with Weta Workshop to create this Hobbit themed airline safety video.  Peter Jackson even makes a cameo.  Hopefully this will make a for a nice break from your election day woes.

(Via Christian Science Monitor)

Election Decision Tree

We just went through a section on decision trees in my Machine Learning course, so when I came across this  really cool interactive election decision tree I was really excited.

The article doesn't call this a decision tree, but that's exactly what this is.

A decision tree splits all of the possible outcomes based on the data that makes the largest difference in the predicted outcome.  In this case, the outcome of Florida makes the biggest difference.  If Obama wins Florida, Romney must win every other battleground state to win.  Next in importance is Ohio, then North Carolina, and so on.  Each contributing successively less information to our prediction.

Isn't robotics amazing?!  It can even be applied to politics.

Voter Suppression-It's not just Voter ID

Ohio and Florida have early voting on weekends, which allow people who work 9-5 jobs on election day to vote at their convenience.

But this year, it is anything but convenient.  The Republican governors of the states have restricted early voting hours, resulting in lines that stretch around the block.  People have been reporting waiting in line for 8 hours to vote.

Instead of 5 weekends in a row of early voting in Ohio, it's been cut down to just 1.  Why would the Republicans in charge of election rules make this change knowing that lines would result?  Because the lines are the point.  People who are likely to vote democratic are the people who are likely to use early voting, and anything that discourages people from voting can influence an election.

The Romney campaign has sent "poll-watchers" in Pennsylvania to precincts that are overwhelmingly African-American.

We've been hearing so much about voter fraud from the proponents of Voter ID, so why aren't they highlighting this much much larger problem of systematic voter suppression?  Because they are the ones suppressing the voters.

If you are in MN, I urge you to vote NO twice.

Watch this report for more on this story.

(Via The Young Turks)

If You Support Same Sex Marriage, Here's How You Should Vote

Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for sharing this graphic from TheFour2012.

If you live in Minnesota, Maine, Washington, or Maryland, don't forget to vote in support of marriage equality.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Great Electoral College Calculator

For those of you who, like myself, have had an increase in anxiety leading up to the election, take a look at this really cool electoral college calculator.

Play around with it and pay particular attention to Florida and Ohio.

If Obama wins Florida, he has won outright baring any last minute surprises in the Midwest.  If Obama wins Ohio, he needs only one other swing state to win.

Romney must win both Florida and Ohio to have a shot.

Robert Price Takes on William Lane Craig

Today I was reminded of my favorite Robert Price speech.  In his opening statement when debating William Lane Craig, he spends the full 20 minutes detailing the intellectual dishonesty of his opponent and why Craig's entire methodology is nothing but shameful.  It seems to be a modified version of his online essay "By This Time He Stinketh."

Unfortunately, this allowed Craig to literally laugh off his entire opening statement as not being relevant to the topic of the debate.  The speech should be completely devastating to anyone who still thought Craig was arguing in good faith or had any scholarly methodology behind him.

Watching the rest of the debate however, I can see why Price said the best part of the debate was when it was over.

Curiosity Takes Beautiful Self Portrait

Meanwhile on Mars, curiosity is taking a moment out of its busy day to take the classic extended arm facebook picture.

Using the Mars Hand Lens Image (MAHLI), curiosity took 55 hi-res images of itself that were compiled into this fantastic composite.  The camera is on the end of a 2-meter robotic arm, allowing the rover to examine Mars rocks up close and personal.

Click to see amazing full size image
(Via Bad Astronomer)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review of "Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting our Children."-Chapter 2 (part 2)

Back in August, I started a review of Hooked and then it tapered off when I had to return the book that I borrowed.  Since then I've purchased my own copy so that I can finish what I started.

We left off with a lengthy discussion about the role of dopamine in relationships and sexuality.  Because of how central this chapter is to the main thesis of the book, I decided then to devote multiple posts to exploring the claims in great detail.  We still have two neurotransmitters to go plus some bonus pseudoscience about pheromones to wrap up the chapter.  So let's get started!

Oxytocin, colloquially known as the love hormone, is involved in many processes in the brain related to sexual arousal and bonding behaviors.  It is released during all sorts of behaviors including orgasm, breast feeding, labor, and....hugging or petting your dog.

But to the authors of Hooked:
"While [oxytocin] is present in both genders, it is primarily active in females.  According to the research we have today, the female body uses oxytocin at four different times."-Hooked pg. 35
First of all, while it does have more clear effects in women (only women have a uterus and lactate), oxytocin is quite active as a neurotransmitter in males and plays a similar role in bonding behavior (though vasopressin is more powerful in this capacity).  Why are they marginalizing males here? Because they are setting up support for the narrative that women bond during sex more strongly than men do and can get addicted to partners who don't reciprocate.  The entire chapter repeats this idea ad nauseam: oxytocin makes vulnerable women fall prey to those manipulative sex crazed males.  As we see a little later in the chapter:
"There is a warning here for parents and young people, particularly young women. If a young woman becomes physically close to and hugs a man, it will trigger the bonding process, creating a greater desire to be near him and, most significantly, place greater trust in him. Then, if he wants to escalate the physical nature of the relationship, it will become harder and harder for her to say no.  The adolescent girl who enters into a close physical relationship may therefore find herself, because of the normal effect of her brain hormones, desiring more physical contact and trusting a male who may be using manipulative pledges of love and care only to get her to have sex."-Hooked pg. 39
The citation for this dimorphic claim is "The Female Brain" by Louann Brizendine, a work cited several times throughout this chapter. In this book, Brizendine argues that men and women are wired differently from birth and provides many anecdotes to that effect.  When it comes to the science content however, the book has met with very negative reviews.  Brizendine was given the tongue-in-cheek 2006 Becky Award, which is given to "people or organizations who have made outstanding contributions to linguistic misinformation." A review in the journal Nature described it as follows:

"The book is riddled with scientific errors and is misleading about the processes of brain development, the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general....The text is rife with ‘facts’ that do not exist in the supporting references. A typical example is the claim that young boys “physically cannot hear” the cues in the intonation of adult human female voices that girls can, “just as bats can hear sounds that even cats and dogs cannot”. The references provided (including a paper on songbird brains) require major misunderstanding or misrepresentation to be twisted into such a statement, a state of affairs that is repeated throughout the book...Ultimately, this book, like others in its genre, is a melodrama"-Psychoneuroindoctrinology, Nature
If that wasn't enough, here's a quote from the book that appears in Hooked. which the authors referred to as "compelling evidence" (emphasis mine).
"From an experiment on hugging, we also know that oxytocin is naturally released in the brain after a twenty-second hug from a partner-sealing the bond between the huggers and triggering the brain's trust circuits.  So don't let a guy hug you unless you plan to trust him.  Touching, gazing, positive emotional interaction, kissing, and sexual orgasm also release oxytocin in the female brain.  Such contact may just help flip the switch on the brain's romantic love circuits."-The Female Brain, as cited in Hooked pg. 39-40
So don't even let a guy hug you? Wow. The sources that they draw upon are continuing to impress.

Speaking of sources, what is their citation for "the female body uses oxytocin at four different times"?  A quick peek at the endnote reveals that our old friend the Institute for American Values makes another guest showing with a report (not a study) entitled: "Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities."

This report argues that we should encourage the construction of "Authoritative Communities" and bringing up our children in them. What does that entail?
"These [authoritative communities] make character possible by teaching the young to subordinate their own opinions and desires to what their respective communities require of them."-Religion Today
And what is the "Authoritative Community" they recommend establishing? Why the Evangelical Christian church of course, grounded in the ultimate benevolent authority: God.

This study is being used to argue for national marriage amendments and prayer in schools and such.

The full report is behind a pay wall, but the point seems to be that creating communities based on authority and hierarchy are good for raising children to hold the same moral values that we do and not question them. I think that's exactly why authoritative communities must be avoided; they squelch opposing and disagreeing voices.

But what do they cite this report for? To say "the female body uses oxytocin at four different times." What? A word search for oxytocin in the report indicated that there were roughly four scenarios mentioned in which oxytocin played a role in family development so maybe that's where they get the claim. But there are certainly way more than four ways oxytocin is used.

What this and many other citations throughout hooked should indicate is the ecosystem in which Hooked finds its niche.  I cannot restrain myself from providing one more glaring example from the chapter.
"The oxytocin bonding that takes place in the normal male-female relationship often results in long-term connectedness.  For example, in America when a marriage is intact, it is rare for a woman to have sexual intercourse with anyone except her husband."-Hooked pg 37 (emphasis added)
The poorly disguised jab at same-sex couples is quickly unmasked by considering the source of their marriage statistics: The Case for Marriage by Maggie Gallagher of National Organization for Marriage fame. As Hooked again reminds us, neurotransmitters like oxytocin are "values-neutral" (pg. 37).  This suggests that all the value laden phrases spread throughout this chapter such as "healthy normal male-female relationships" and "sexually destructive behaviors" reflect solely on the values of the authors.

Finally, I feel obliged to reiterate my point on the view of women needing protection from themselves.  This chapter repeatedly implies that women just can't help it. Their brains are wired to make stupid sexual decisions and we need to intervene on their behalf.  This implication is made explicit a little later on.
"A woman's brain can cause her to be blindsided by a bad relationship that she thought was good because of the physical contact and the oxytocin response it generates.  The truth about such a relationship may be apparent to parents or friends who are concerned about the girl's well-being, but it takes wisdom and tact to effectively warn a young woman about a relationship others can see could be dangerous to her."-Hooked pg 40
Apparently they are well aware that they are giving this impression, as they half-heatedly correct themselves on the next page.
"Not all relationships, of course, are made up of a manipulative male and an unaware female, and our point is not to imply this.  But young women especially need to be aware of the powerful bonding effect of oxytocin.
In addition, they cannot know that they actually are seriously damaging a bonding mechanism that they are born with, a mechanism put there to allow them to, in the future, have a healthy bonded marriage that is a stable relationship and provides a healthy nest for children that might be conceived and born into their home, a problem we'll discuss later."  -Hooked pg. 41 (emphasis added)
They cannot know? What barrier is there in a young woman's mind from understanding the neurology involved?

Also, notice the subtle insertion of intent into the biological mix.  "A mechanism put there to allow them, in the future, have a healthy bonded marriage."  It should be clear by now that, in the opinion of the authors, nature is not the designer who put such a mechanism in place.

That's all on oxytocin.  Actually there is a great deal more I could say about oxytocin but I think this post is long enough already.  If you are interested, here are some further articles you should explore:

Next time I'll take a look at vasopressin and pheromones to finally complete my review of Chapter 2.

Previous: Chapter 2: Meet the Brain (Part 1: Dopamine)
Next: Chapter 2: Meet the Brain (Part 3: Vasopressin)
Table of Contents

The Ontological Bomb Shelter

Via Jesus and Mo
The best of all possible bomb shelters must exist, because if it didn't exist it wouldn't be a very good bomb shelter now would it?