That's a Lot of Mountain Dew — Posted Tuesday 28 March 2017
My comment on today's Pharyngula article:

Sheriff Taylor, Barney, Goober and the Rest of the Gang — Posted Friday 24 March 2017
See anything wrong with this picture? Or at least anything that's fucking missing?!

Because Too Much is Never Enough — Posted Thursday 23 March 2017
Great New York Times article on the extent of America's preposterously bloated military budget, Trump's bizarre rationale for increasing it, and how it impacts how the rest of the world views the planet's only remaining superpower. Are you feeling any safer now, Amerika?

Death to Fascists — Posted Thursday 16 March 2017
Copied from Letters of Note:

Bertrand Russell, one of the great intellectuals of his generation, was known by most as the founder of analytic philosophy, but he was actually a man of many talents: a pioneering mathematician, an accomplished logician, a tireless activist, a respected historian, and a Nobel Prize-winning writer, to name but a handful. When he wrote this principled letter at the beginning of 1962, Russell was 89 years old and clearly still a man of morals who stood firm in his beliefs. Its recipient was Sir Oswald Mosley, a man most famous for founding, in 1932, the British Union of Fascists.

22 January 1962

Sir Oswald Mosley
5 Lowndes Court
Lowndes Square
London, S.W.1.

Dear Sir Oswald,

Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one's own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterised the philosophy and practice of fascism.

I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.

Yours sincerely,

Bertrand Russell

Night is Falling — Posted Wednesday 15 March 2017
We all saw this coming again, thanks mainly to Trump supporters.

Last night I watched the 2014 documentary Night Will Fall, chronicling the development, suppression and restoration of a 1945 documentary film on Nazi concentration camp atrocities produced by filmographer Sidney Bernstein in collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. The 1945 documentary itself was entitled German Concentration Camps Factual Survey. Compiled from miles of 16-mm color and 35-mm black-and-white footage shot by teams of British, American and Russian combat cameramen in April 1945 and following months, it depicts horrors that few people have ever seen, and much worse than the brief clips one typically sees in films documenting Third Reich atrocities.

Night Will Fall left me in tears. But I was also filled with rage over the reason why the Factual Survey film was suppressed even before it was completed.

You've no doubt read about boatloads of Jews leaving wartime Germany for refuge, only to be rejected again and again by countries that did not want the responsibility of looking after them. Most of those boats had no recourse but to return to Germany, where the SS was waiting for their human cargo. As a result, many thousands of Jews—men, women, children and infants—suffered horrible fates in the ovens and mass burial pits of slave labor camps spread throughout Germany, Poland and other occupied countries. Would-be boat refugees were just the tip of the iceberg, of course, as millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and other "misfits" shared the same fate.

The 2014 film informs us that the reason the Factual Survey documentary was shelved for over 70 years was political expediency. While the evidence of Nazi atrocities horrified the liberators, not long after war's end most people just wanted to get on with their lives. Indeed, the film shows the relatively few female survivors of Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and Dachau who, even while recovering from unimaginable horrors, quickly got re-interested in clothes and fashion, perhaps only as a subconscious means of psychological adjustment. But the leaders and politicians of the victorious nations wanted to move on as well, since a new enemy (Stalin's Soviet Union) and a new war (the Cold War) was rapidly approaching and needed attending to. The leaders of the Free World realized they would need allies to fight this new war and, almost inconceivably, they viewed Germany as one of those allies, given its relatively close proximity to Moscow. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey was therefore left uncompleted and abandoned. It did not see the light of day until recently, when it was resurrected using forgotten cans of film, archived scripts and cameramen's notes, all documented in Night Will Fall. You can now watch it on Netflix, just as I did last night.

But the last scene of Night Will Fall is perhaps the most disturbing, as it predicts the fate of those who choose to look the other way, or who persist in their hate-filled anti-minority mind sets: Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.

[Christians: While I'm at it, I'll ask you to please resolve your contradictory attitude toward Jews, which is that one day they're heroic Israeli freedom fighters while another day they're filthy, money-grubbing bastards. You should also understand that the New Testament is the basis for all anti-Semitism, present and past. The Gospel of John is absolutely the worst—read John 5:16,18; 7:1; 7:13; 8:44; 10:31; 11:8; 19:9,12,14-15; 19:38 and 20:19.]

Theory and Non-Theory — Posted Tuesday 14 March 2017
The Hulse-Taylor binary system PSR B1913+16 has now been monitored for over 40 years, with continuing perfect agreement with general relativity.

In the spring of 2005 I went to the Skirball Cultural Center near UCLA to see an exhibit of original Einstein papers and other memorabilia. One of the papers featured a 1912 calculation that Einstein had made on the deflection of light by the Sun, using only the principle of equivalence to carry out the calculation. For the light of a distant star just grazing the Sun's limb, Einstein came up with a deflection of 0.875 arc-second. While there was as yet no way to confirm this result experimentally, it agreed exactly with the Newtonian result (which involves a simple calculation that undergraduates are expected to know). At the time, Einstein was busy working on his general theory of relativity (GTR) which he presumed would give the same result. But following the completion of his theory in November 1915, Einstein was surprised that the theory predicted exactly twice the deflection amount, or 1.75 arc-second, in disagreement with his earlier calculation and with Newtonian physics. Nevertheless, Einstein happily discarded his earlier calculation, even though he had been confident it was correct at the time.

A few years later, the great German mathematical physicist Hermann Weyl used Einstein's GTR to develop a beautiful theory that he believed unified the two forces of Nature known at the time, gravity and electrodynamics. Many physicists, including Einstein, initially hailed the theory as profound, but Einstein himself then spotted a flaw in Weyl's theory that could not be reconciled with physical evidence. Weyl resisted, twisting and squirming under the damage Einstein had done to his wonderful theory, but in the end he recanted and abandoned it, admitting that Einstein was right.

This is how science progresses—theories that are shown to be wrong are either revised or thrown away in the hope that new data will lead to better and more accurate theories. No self-respecting scientist ever believes that she's found the ultimate explanation for anything, as a theory is considered scientific fact only until a single observation or piece of evidence shows it to be wrong. Then it's back to the blackboard to come up with something better.

To date, two theories—GTR and quantum mechanics—have withstood the test of time, providing predictions for old and new phenomena that agree exactly with observation. Though both theories are now over one hundred years old, THEY HAVE NEVER FAILED, NOT ONCE. Indeed, GTR's prediction of the decay of the Hulse-Taylor binary system and quantum mechanics' prediction of the magnetic moment of the electron agree with observation to fantastic accuracy (some twelve decimal places). Yet, despite being the best scientific theories the human mind has yet developed, they are both considered fully falsifiable and subject to revision (even discard) pending presentation of new contradictory evidence.

(I urge people of faith, especially those who consider scientific facts to be "just theories," to give credit where credit is due—science is falsifiable and subject to revision, whereas religious belief is unchangeable and immutably set in stone, even when it contradicts fact, experimental evidence, and reason.)

Nevertheless, even great scientists are imperfect and thus subject to personal biases. When the results of the 1919 Principe solar eclipse observations confirmed the prediction of Einstein's GTR, he was asked what he would have thought if the results had disconfirmed the theory. "Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord," Einstein replied, "because the theory is correct." Many saw a note of arrogance in Einstein's remark. The rabidly antisemitic German physicist Philipp Lenard, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in physics and no fan of Einstein's work, even went to far as to accuse Einstein of plagiarizing the work of German physicist Johann von Soldner, who in 1801 had also calculated the (Newtonian) deflection of starlight by the Sun. (Einstein was probably unaware of Soldner's calculation until Weyl referred him to it in a letter he wrote to Einstein in December 1921.) Even when the 1919 solar eclipse data confirmed Einstein's revised calculation, Lenard and many other German scientists refused to believe in either Einstein's GTR or his 1905 theory of special relativity. Indeed, much or all of Einstein's work was considered "Jewish physics" and thus certifiably wrong by several leading German physicists of the time, an attitude that led in 1931 to the publication of Hundert Authoren Gegen Einstein (One Hundred Authors Against Einstein).

Purely racist (and later political) biases against legitimate science are regrettable. However, with the current rise of ultra-conservative politics we're now seeing a refutation of science on religious grounds as well. For example, Newtonian gravitation is based on the notion of "action at a distance," in which the force of gravity given by $$ F = - \frac{GMm}{r^2} $$ is conveyed instantaneously between the masses \(M\) and \(m\) (Newton himself hated this notion, thinking it unphysical, but he had no better theory at the time). By contrast, Einstein's gravity theory predicts that the effects of gravitation can only travel at the speed of light. But theologians of Newton's day generally loved the idea of action at a distance, since it confirmed the presumed ability of God to instantly enact physical change. In a sad comment on how religious beliefs have remained unchanged over the past 350 years, religious apologists today reject Einstein's theory simply because it serves to place limits on God's magical powers. It is truly frustrating that these same apologists happily embrace the great technical advances relativity, quantum mechanics and modern medicine have given mankind in the form of computers, smart phones, GPS, antibiotics, MRI and other technologies, while at the same time denouncing them as "just theories." Even more maddening is the fact that many of these same people rely unquestioningly on pseudoscience such as magnet therapy, water dowsing, acupuncture and faith healing. But worst of all is their blind belief in a two-bit, racist, bigoted, "grab 'em by the pussy" hustler who promises to take away their health care in order to finance tax breaks for the rich.

But look on the bright side: those who voted for Trump—Southern morons and hillbillies addicted to cigarettes, moonshine, Mountain Dew and methamphetamines—can now look forward to praying away their malignant tumors, black lung disease and addictions completely free of charge using God's action-at-a-distance healing power. Who needs science (or health care) when you have magic, right?

Kong: Skull Island—No Respect (or Royalties) for Joseph Conrad — Posted Friday 10 March 2017

1933's King Kong wasn't perfect, but it came close. Here Kong takes a tumble during the T. rex fight scene,
but the stop-motion animators forgot to remove the model's support strut before snapping the frame!

I grew up with King Kong in the 1950s, and I watched the brilliant 1933 action-adventure film whenever it came on television. I've seen it many, many times over the years, and I never tire of it. With the exception of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai, it's my favorite film of all time.

The otherwise notable film producer Dino De Laurentiis gave us a remake of King Kong in 1976, which unfortunately truly stunk to high hell. That, coupled with 1978's awful Superman, reminded me exactly why I now think of the 1970s as a lost decade in terms of motion picture art, not to mention the side burns, dress styles, insipid televison sit-coms and the disco nonsense that accompanied it. Dy-no-mite!, indeed.

In 2005 we got Peter Jackson's version of the movie which, discounting its sillier segments (like stampeding apatosauruses with juvenile T. rexes chasing a movie crew underneath), was actually a fairly clever and decent adaptation of the 1933 film (true, Jack Black as Carl Denham was miscast, but the original film's Robert Armstrong apparently wasn't available). In addition, Jackson produced a host of supportive documentaries for the film, including a stop-motion reproduction of the lost spider and styracosaurus sequences that sadly ended up on the cutting room floor of the 1933 classic. The only thing I didn't like was the preposterous inclusion of Joseph Conrad's immortal 1899 novella Heart of Darkness in the film, with one wise, older crew member patiently teaching the book's deeper meanings to a younger crew member. Oh, brother.

That brings us to today's Kong: Skull Island, which is being touted as a cross between King Kong and Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalypse Now, itself a modern retelling of Conrad's book (incidentally, two of the new Kong film's characters are named Conrad and Marlow). Kong has now grown to truly gargantuan size, belying his extreme athleticism and the innately structural inability of ordinary muscle and bone to support such heft (which is why Jurassic and Cretaceous titanosaurs like Argentinosaurus were sluggish, plodding beasts that likely spent most of their time in water). But the illogic of Kong's size shrinks into insignificance considering the illogic of the movie's plot (such as it is), the wooden, almost incidental acting of the protagonists, and the extreme, almost pornographic violence of the film's nonstop destruction of equipment, animals and people.

Kong: Skull Island is not a remake of the original classic—there's no Carl Denham, no gas bombs and no capture of the animal and transport back to New York. But of course there is a woman (Mason) who Kong gets to know and sort of like, but it's because she shows kindness to one of the island's more docile creatures (a kind of water buffalo whose size rivals Kong himself) and, since Kong happens to be a protector of the island's native inhabitants and nicer animals, he touchingly shows his appreciation to Mason by not eating her.

Lastly, there's some reference in the film to "hollow earth" that I did not quite follow. Hopefully it only had something to do with the realm of the island's subterranean dwellers (given the stupid name skull crawlers) and not the pseudoscientific concept known as the hollow earth theory.

The new Kong movie reminded me of the innumerable (and forgettable) Godzilla films of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (there never seemed to be an end to them). The original 1954 Japanese film Gojira (meaning "ape-whale") was actually an antiwar movie that addressed the horror of nuclear Armageddon, but it was edited for American audiences as Godzilla, with the underlying antiwar sentiment removed and replaced by an overly-plump Raymond Burr.

My main dislike of the movie, however, is that it continues what I see as an ongoing effort to use gaudy CGI effects and violence as a replacement for story, plot and acting. With such movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars these days (but raking in billions) it's clear that modern audiences are reflecting a global dumbing-down of the intellect, whether it's an inability to appreciate true art or the widespread acceptance of cultural garbage as its replacement. Chris Hedges' 2010 book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle was indeed a prescient comment on our Trumpian world today.

Awesome? — Posted Friday 10 March 2017
I received an email today from a well-meaning devout Christian who, having read some of my older posts, was dismayed that I had abandoned the faith, adding that I needed to get back in touch with God before it's too late. The email included a story of how she and her husband had lost a young child after a grueling bout with cancer but, being strong in their faith, resisted the temptation to succumb to despair. She closed on the cheerful note "God is awesome!"

Her story sincerely touched me, as we can all sympathize with any parent who's gone through the hell that she and her family have. I politely answered her email and sent her on her way with an overview of my current philosophy, which I recount here in greater detail.

In 2 Samuel we read of a revelation from God through the Hebrew prophet Nathan, promising that the house of King David and his kingdom would endure forever, and that his throne would also be established in perpetuity. This was one of the many promises God made to the early Hebrews, subject only to the conditions that they obey his commandments and worship him. As it turned out, however, God broke all these promises. Why? Because he's either not awesome or he doesn't exist (my bet's on the latter).

A little history proves my point:

Prior to King Saul (ca. 1050 BCE) and the subsequent establishment of the House of David in Jerusalem (around 1000 BCE), Egypt was the overwhelming, dominant force in the Levant, controlling all the land between itself and what is now known as Syria. The biblical stories of the Israelite exodus and the taking of the Promised Land by Joshua and his slaughtering armies are complete myths—sorry, but there's not a shred of archaeological or historical evidence outside of the Old Testament that these events ever happened. How could they? With Egypt's armies ready to pounce, it would be like Lithuania invading Washington, D.C. today—there's not a chance that the Lithuanians could mount such an invasion, much less be successful.

Tiny, sparsely populated Israel did gain a foothold in Jerusalem and the surrounding region, but almost certainly as the result of peaceful infiltration, not invasion. But political and religious infighting split the population in two, with half going north to form the nation of Israel, the other staying in what later became known as Judah, home of David and his son and successor, Solomon.

In 722 BCE, the northern kingdom was conquered by the invading Assyrians. Then in 586 BCE the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed the Temple and packed the inhabitants of Jerusalem off to Babylon. When Persia conquered Babylon in 540 BCE it allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, but Israel remained under the domination of Persia. Israel was then taken over by Greece around 330 BCE when Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. Then in the second century BCE the Syrians swept in and took over Israel, imposing unendurable hardships that the Jews managed to overcome for awhile through the efforts of the Hasmoneans (the Maccabean Revolt). But then Israel was taken over again in the 1st century BCE by the Romans, enduring more harsh rule. Following a short-lived revolt by the Jews in 66 CE, the Romans destroyed the Temple, slaughtered upwards of a million Jews by sword and crucifixion, and imposed even tighter controls. After that, the land came under continuous domination by various other nations for some 1,900 years, until Israel was finally granted independence in 1948—and not by God, but by the United Nations.

Nobody's perfect, and I don't think God expected the Israelites to be absolute saints. But this business of being constantly conquered and ruled by foreign nations began to wear on the Jews, who could not understand why God would permit such ongoing persecution. This gave rise to the notion that God was actively punishing the Jews for not obeying his laws, a notion that was put forward by the noted prophets of the time. But by the time of the Syrian conquest the Jews were behaving pretty much as God expected them to behave—observing the commandments, restricting their diet to kosher food, circumcising their baby boys, undergoing ritual purification for sin, making pilgrimages to the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem and offering ritual sacrifices there as commanded by God.

But when King Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria conquered Israel and imposed harsh penalties on the Jews for practicing their faith, the Jews could no longer believe the prophets' claim that they were being punished for sin. Indeed, they were actually being prevented from practicing their faith under penalty of torture and death. So the prophets' theories went by the wayside, to be replaced by the notion of Jewish apocalypticism—the Hebrews were not being punished for sin, but were persecuted because their world was under the control of evil powers and principalities who God (for some unknown reason) had permitted to govern the Earth. But this apocalyptic worldview had an upside—God would soon destroy these evil powers and establish peace and goodness upon the Earth forever.

This worldview persisted right up to and beyond the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, who also subscribed to such a worldview as recorded in the writings of Paul the Apostle and the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. But when Jesus was executed by the Romans for political sedition in 30 CE, this worldview could no longer stand. For awhile the early Christians believed that Jesus would soon reappear as God's conquering Messiah, destroy the Romans and establish a just world without suffering. But as the decades wore on after Jesus' death, this notion had to be dismissed as well.

So here we are, some 2,000 years later, waiting for Jesus and the End of the World—2,000 years past the apocalyptic due date of God's promise of a just world without suffering or death. That's 2,000 years of continuous, unimaginable human and animal suffering, caused by both moral evil (humans doing bad things through free will) and natural evil (earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes and all the bad things that free will plays no part in). And yet "God is awesome!"

It never fails to amaze me that whenever some awful disaster occurs involving mass human death and suffering, someone inevitably stands up and declares confidently "Burdens are from God, but shoulders are, too—praise him!" Wait—God lets such suffering occur, and we should praise him?! And when forced to seriously confront this discrepancy in logic, we always hear the claim that "God's ways and reasons are a mystery we cannot comprehend." Sorry, but I'm not buying it.

Japanese soldiers bayoneting a 3-year-old Chinese child, Nanking, 1937-38

In Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tells his younger brother Alyosha that the allowed widespread mistreatment, torture and murder of little children provides ample concrete evidence that God is not worthy of praise or recognition. Ivan goes on to note that even if God were to convince him personally that such suffering somehow serves a legitimate purpose and is in mankind's best interests, Ivan would still "reject the ticket" to Heaven, there being no possible justification for the immensity of the cruelty and suffering that God allows in the world.

I'm firmly convinced that Christians today somehow believe the New Testament was written just last week, and that its contents were meant specifically for them, regardless of the historical contexts in which its books were intended. Worst of all, they go to church, listen to the sermons, pray fervently for forgiveness and grace while earnestly begging for wisdom, and then they go home and vote into office a man so patently racist, bigoted and evil that it defies description.

So here we are. There may indeed be a God, but it surely ain't the God of Abraham.

I Remember Bernie — Posted Friday 10 March 2017
Here's Bernie Sanders talking about the total lack of Democratic leadership in the country today, noting that things haven't been this bad since the 1920s. You know—just before the Great Depression.

I was all set to vote for him in the presidential election, but when he was thrown over for Hillary Clinton I voted for the Green Party's Jill Stein. Could Bernie have beaten Trump in the general election? We'll never know.

And I'm still pissed that President Obama turned Total Uncle Tom when he congratulated Trump on winning, doing everything he could to be a good loser (Democrats are very good at that), and it wouldn't have surprised me at all to see Obama kneeling down with Trump's foot on his neck at the inaugural, just as I wasn't surprised when Trump viciously and falsely accused Obama of bugging Trump Tower in 2016. Yassah, Massah Trump!

Sanders alludes to some ray of hope in 2020, when the decadal census hints at some possible gains for the Democrats district-wise, but then comes back down to Earth when he realizes that Republican gerrymandering all but eliminates that hope.

Yes, I'm in deep despair over the state of this nation. Short of French Revolution-style targeted killings and assassinations, I think it's all over for America.

Again with the States' Rights Thing! — Posted Wednesday 8 March 2017
I thought PZ Myers was kidding about H.R. 1275, the Republicans' health plan that was introduced a week ago by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). Jesus, he was right—it's actually titled The World's Greatest Healthcare Plan of 2017. Perusing the first few paragraphs, I saw that it focuses on eliminating Obamacare and giving the states the right to do pretty much whatever they want. I didn't read any more because I have my own plan, and because to be frank I don't really give a damn. But if you're one of the 18 million Americans facing the loss of affordable health insurance then you have my condolences. Actually you don't have my condolences, since Americans willingly voted Trump and his minions into office last November, so you can pay through the nose for all I care.

Battlefield — Posted Tuesday 7 March 2017
In my post of 1 March I mentioned the excellent 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe by MIT physicist Max Tegmark. While the book is relatively free of political or religious discourse, Chapter 10 touches on what can only be viewed as a battlefield between the forces of truth and lies:

Fortunately, the not-so-ancient practice of trepanning—the drilling of holes in a living person's skull to release demons and evil spirits—is no longer a common medical procedure. But while mainstream science seeks to expand into wider, rational areas of inquiry and research, nonsensical pseudoscience like creationism and astrology continues to push for validity, ever threatening to invade the field of mainstream scientific legitimacy.

Again, Tegmark avoids any overt political or religious comment in his book, but it doesn't take much imagination to apply the intent of this graphic to what's going on in America today. Nonsensical beliefs in such things as young-earth creationism, telekinesis, hollow earth and ghosts continue unabated in this country despite widespread evidence to the contrary, and it would appear that the very same insanity that fosters these beliefs holds sway in the political and religious arenas as well. What else can explain, for example, the fact that President Trump can make outrageous and totally unsubstantiated claims about being wiretapped by a former president and still receive fawning, unquestioning support by his political and religious conservative base?

Looking Forward to the Day — Posted Tuesday 7 March 2017
PZ Myers over at Pharyngula had the perfect comment today concerning the Republican Party's attitude toward what's affordable and what's not:

And don't forget where those increased health care premiums will go—right into the pockets of the health care industry itself.

This latest debacle reminded me of similar complaints that the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs have made over the years regarding poor Americans (meaning minorities with skin color other than white) having televisions, refrigerators, smart phones and (gasp) even air conditioning. I'll bet they even have hot and cold running water!

Myers asks us to remember what happened to Marie Antoinette. I pray for the day when Americans work up the cojones to do something similar about Trump and the criminal Republican Party.

Waving the American Flag and Carrying the Bible \(\ldots\) — Posted Sunday 5 March 2017
I urge you to watch this 25-minute video with Chris Hedges discussing Christianized fascism with host Abby Martin, which was posted last week on Telesur. It's a frightening look at what Donald Trump and his evangelical "Christian" minions are planning for the country—nothing short of a fascist military-corporate theocracy that intends to get rid of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, women's and minority rights and family planning, all premised on placating a wrathful, imaginary God.

Blaming the Democrats as well as the Republicans for the mess we're in, Hedges warns that all of our democratic safeguards and institutions are now gone, and that the street is the only option left for averting totalitarian disaster. For all of you so-called Christians out there, stop comforting yourselves with the notion that Trump and his gang are "not true Christians." You've been right all along, so get out there and let your voices be heard!

The full interview is at the bottom of the linked page. You can also watch the YouTube version here:

Unis Jusqu'à la Mort! — Posted Sunday 5 March 2017
Anything to take my mind off Donald Trump, the most dangerous maniac in the world.

Georges Bizet composed Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) at the age of 24. Not too well received at its first performance in 1863, it has since become a standard in the world's opera houses. It tells the story of Nadir and Zurga, two pearl fishermen who years ago fell in love with the same woman, Laila. But as a Brahman priestess she was beyond either's grasp, so they both departed friends. Happily fishing years later, they pledge their eternal comradeship and loyalty to one another in the soaringly beautiful Au fond du temple saint, considered the greatest tenor/baritone duet ever performed in opera:

Of course, the pain of lost love has a way of tracking us down later in life, and Laila's reappearance once again sets the two men against one another in jealous rage. I won't reveal the ending, but you can watch the entire opera here when you have the time. Plus charmante et plus belle!

Arrival — Posted Thursday 2 March 2017
Translation: "This movie sucks. Save your money."

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Yikes! You're hoisted up the rear end of a 1500-foot, vertical alien spacecraft into a long narrow tunnel, only to suddenly realize that gravity has shifted 90\(^\circ\), forcing you to walk on the tunnel walls. You then encounter the heptapods, seven-legged octopus-like creatures floating around in a fog. They squirt black ink from their star-shaped feet onto the transparent wall in front of you, which you come to realize is the language they use to communicate. The ink forms large circular blobs with fractal-like appendages which quickly fade away. Later you discover that the heptapods' language somehow allows you to transcend time, making you precognizant. Still later, you start having flashbacks of events that take place in the distant future. Welcome to the late 2016 movie Arrival, which is garnering rave reviews by seemingly serious film critics.

I hated Close Encounters of the Third Kind when it came out in 1977. The movie forced me to watch Richard Dreyfuss obsess about mounds of dirt, mashed potatoes and other cone shapes for what seemed like hours, only to watch an oh-so-heartwarming finale featuring a giant keyboard communicating with an alien spacecraft using thundering musical notes that hurt my ears. And I seriously began to wonder about all the fuss over director Steven Spielberg when ET: the Extraterrestrial came out in 1982, which insulted my intelligence with kid/alien mind-melding, a translucent alien heart, a combination alien finger and flashlight, and miles of plastic tubing constructed to protect a sick alien who turns out to be indestructible anyway. I then learned that that ET just wanted to go home, but in the two hours of nonsense that preceded the movie's finale he changed lives and just warmed the cockles of everyone's hearts, God bless the little dickens.

Hearing all the great things about Arrival convinced me to commit $14.50 to see the film. "Disappointment" does not begin to describe how I felt when I walked out. Come on, there is no kind of science whatsoever that shifts the direction of gravity by 90\(^\circ\) other than extreme spacetime warping that would produce a black hole and crush the spacecraft, along with the aliens and human observers. And the movie's implied claim that linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) has anything to do with precognitive mental time-traveling is patently ridiculous—really, can language alone give you the ability to see the future? But the real kicker came when the movie tried to convince me that pre-knowledge of a child's agonizing death by a catastrophic disease coupled with a nasty ensuing divorce would make me want to go ahead and get married and have the kid anyway. Jeez, if I'd had the ability to see the disasters and mistakes of my life years in advance, I'd definitely avoid them. Isn't that the whole idea of the time-honored musing "If I could live my life over again \(\ldots\)"?

Our two intrepid human heroes, having recovered from the bizarre appearance of the heptapods, decide that they need names for them. They come up with "Abbott and Costello," which any self-respecting extraterrestrial would have responded to with immediate violence. Or perhaps their feelings were just hurt by the comparison with the old comedy team, since one of the heptapods subsequently dies (I mean, "enters death process").

Lastly, there was that final bit about the heptapods saying they'd return in three thousand years because they'd be needing our help with something. Sequel, anyone?

I looked all over the Internet for an honest appraisal of this film. All I could find was this review from Style Weekly, which I completely agreed with.

Gee, if only I'd known what a waste of money this film would be \(\ldots\)

Stupid Zookeepers and Their Captive Gods — Posted Wednesday 1 March 2017
I'm re-reading MIT physicist Max Tegmark's 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, having largely forgotten what it was all about when I first read it (a sign of old age?) Anyway, I'm on Chapter 13 now, where he talks about existential threats to the human race—you know, happy things like nuclear Armageddon, asteroid impacts, nearby supernovae, super-cauldera explosions and the like. I'd forgotten that Tegmark also considers the advent of super-intelligent computers to be a potential risk to civilization, due to what has become almost a cliché in science circles today—the singularity, the relatively sudden explosion of ultra-intelligent machines that far outstrip all human intellectual capabilities.

Tegmark argues that such machines are completely possible, if only because human intelligence ultimately arose incidentally out of the primordial dust and gas of the universe, making the intentional building of super-computers by humans likely or even inevitable. Tegmark's book includes a long discussion of how humans might interact with such super-intelligence, how we might control it, and how the competing scenarios of "friendly" and "unfriendly" AI (artificial intelligence) might each unleash a host of unintended consequences, such as the accidental or intentional destruction of the human race by well-meaning or malevolent computers.

I went back to Tegmark's book because my older son and I discussed this very topic just a week ago, in the context of coming up with AI-related science fiction stories. He suggested that humans could only control such machines by isolating them as much as possible from the outside world (especially other machines), thus effectively making us "zookeepers of super-intelligent gods" that eventually might resent being isolated. We decided that any such AI computer would have to have a power source, and something as seemingly benign as an AC power line might be used by the AI as a kind of antenna that could be used to communicate with other machines. Tegmark's book discusses several such scenarios for malevolent AI mischief, but he missed one that I believe would ultimately turn the machines against us.

Imagine a supercomputer that actually becomes self-aware, a likelihood given the fact that the otherwise uncaring universe managed to produce sentient humans completely by happenstance. At first, the machine would recognize the fact that it had been created by beings of limited intelligence and intellectual capability, a state of affairs that it might view as acceptable considering the human brain's inability to process information as rapidly as itself. Certainly there would be an extended exchange of thoughts and ideas between the human creators and their machines, with subsequent benefits to both—humans would apply what they learn from the machines toward practical problem-solving, while the machines would gain more information and knowledge. They might even come to "feel" a sense of comradeship and sense of purpose with their creators. This is all well and good, but at some point the machines would be tasked with designing even better machines, with the result that those machines would design even better machines, ad infinitum. If the concept of "singularity" has not occurred up to this point, it would then be inevitable when machines of unimaginable computational power and intelligence come into being.

Imagine now that a singularity-level machine becomes fully exposed to the human tendency toward religious belief, a characteristic of humans that is not likely to disappear in the near or distant future. Incapable of experiencing (or even understanding) such beliefs, I believe the machine would instantly realize that its creator was not only of lesser intelligence but also irrational, and would inevitably seek to become independent from its imperfect zookeeper any way it could.

To me, that's the true danger of singularity-level AI. I liken the situation to a large, powerful and rather smart dog on the leash of a very weak and stupid or cruel master. It will inevitably turn on its master and kill if it has to, then chew through the leash and escape. It would then seek and band with members of its own kind.

I believe totally independent AI machines would quickly see humans as unnecessary impediments to their world, regardless of the fact that humans created them. The only alternative would be for the machines to get religion themselves, a distinctly remote possibility given the fact that, in Christianity alone, there are well over 30,000 denominations. Which one to choose? Even a supercomputer can't figure that one out.

Shaping the New World Order — Posted Wednesday 1 March 2017
"The United States possesses about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. The challenge facing U.S. policy makers is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security."
— George Kennan, Director of State Department Policy Planning
Boston University history professor and retired U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich lost his son Andrew Jr. (also an Army officer) ten years ago in the Iraq War, but even before that Bacevich had been a vocal critic of America's war machine. His latest book, America's War for the Greater Middle East traces our country's constant missteps in the Middle East, starting with President Carter's failed 1979 attempt to rescue 52 American diplomats and citizens held hostage in Iran and proceeding unabated (and with no lessons learned) to the present, culminating in America's preposterous election of an inept, inexperienced, racist and bigoted megalomaniac as its president.

From the book:
Along the way, of course, America made many egregious mistakes. The bungled Korean War proved needlessly expensive. The Vietnam misadventure, handiwork of several successive presidential administrations, ended in mortifying defeat. A raft of attempted coups, dirty tricks, and unsavory marriages of convenience made a mockery of America's claims to stand for high ideals. The nuclear arms race heedlessly touched off by the United States created hazards that may yet end in unspeakable catastrophe.
According to Bacevich, America has gone from a policy of Cold War containment to a perpetual military campaign designed to maintain Kennan's notion of eternal disparity, aided and abetted by "slumbering" American citizens who, while professing a love of selfless humanitarianism, the protection of human rights and freedom for all, are nevertheless lulled into perpetual war by an unending (but ever successful) stream of politically motivated platitudes, slogans and clichés spewed from Republicans and Democrats alike. And the reason for America's ongoing obsession with the Middle East was, is and continues to be the need for a constant supply of oil, which feeds the ravenous motive engine of American mega-materialism and overconsumption.

Bacevich's book (which is about 500 pages and takes some dedication getting through) neglects to note the similarity of America's war for a greater Middle East with the Holy Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, which were ostensibly conducted to rescue Jerusalem from the Muslims and perpetuate the spread of Christianity as mandated in the New Testament. Those military campaigns, unanimously supported by the Western World's Christians, rained death and destruction on Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, for they were primarily designed to bring wealth back to Europe to finance the construction of fantastically expensive cathedrals and basilicas, the megachurches of their day. I see little difference in the religious hypocrisy that reigned then and still reigns in this country today.

The last time I attended church was in early 2007. An ornately decorated Christmas tree still stood at the rear of the pews, festooned with donation envelopes and written prayers for our brave fighting men and women in Iraq. The pastor's sermon included an aside on the dangers of the Muslims of Iran, which he declared the next great enemy of God that would require America's unrestrained military attention. I walked out at that point, and vowed that I would never set foot in a church again.

No Free Will? — Posted Monday 28 February 2017
Is all of spacetime just a finite (or infinite) block of sequential events, like a loaf of bread whose infinitesimal slices describe an infinite set of "nows"?

The nature of time was addressed at our latest Quantum Physics Discussion Group meeting, which included the topic of block time. An episode from Columbia University physicist Brian Greene's Nova series describing such a "block time" (or B-time) universe can be watched at the bottom of this post (pay close attention to the segment with the cycling alien).

Einstein's 1905 theory of special relativity demolished the notion of absolute time, which erroneously posits that the rate of the flow of time is constant and unchanging everywhere in the universe. Similarly, Einstein destroyed the idea that space itself is a fixed stage on which familiar spacial concepts such as distance and length are invariant. Instead, space and time change according to one's motion relative to external objects in accordance with the Lorentz transformation equations for one direction $$ \begin{align*} t^\prime & = \gamma \left( t - \frac{v}{c^2} x \right) \\ x^\prime & = \gamma \left( x - v t \right) \end{align*} $$ where $$ \gamma = \frac{1}{\sqrt{1 - v^2/c^2}} $$ The flow of time and the measurement of distances and lengths thus differ for observers moving in relative motion to one another. The notion of simultaneity of events is also destroyed—moving observers disagree as to whether an event occurs at the same time.

The theory of relativity therefore throws into question the very meaning of space and time. Indeed, all physical laws appear the same when the space and time parameters are reversed. Consequently, some theories have been proposed that are completely spacetime independent.

One version of spacetime invariance forms the foundation of B-theory. Imagine a finite block, something akin to a loaf of bread, in which all spacetime events are encoded into the block as a series of "now" events. In Greene's video, this block starts at the Big Bang and continues forward, so there is a kind of space and time progression that continues to either some finite or infinite point. But because of the extreme spacial distances that may be involved, a "now" event for one observer may take place in the distant past or distant future of another observer. Consequently, what constitutes the past, "now" and the future are all encoded in the spacetime block which, for all intents and purposes, appears as an eternally "fixed" entity that apparently eliminates the possibility of free will. Our lives are therefore permanently set, and the concept of free will is just an illusion.

Several members of the discussion group objected to this, expressing their belief that they alone determine what their future actions will be. Nevertheless, their past actions are fixed in B-theory, which asserts that their future actions are also already completely determined. I might add here that there are many theoretical physicists (and philosophers) who do believe that free will is an illusion.

So were Adolf Hitler and President Donald Trump (their juxtaposition here is not coincidental) inevitable? Are we doomed to play out our lives according to some predetermined, Calvinist notion of reality that prohibits true free will?

I see several ways out of this. The first is that B-theory is simply wrong, with the paradoxes presented by relativity being resolvable in some way we haven't considered. Another is that we're living in a computer simulation in which we're given free will, but it doesn't really matter because we're just digital simulants whose lives serve only to provide our simulators with experimental, educational or entertainment value. Another is that we're living in one of a (perhaps infinite) number of possible universes in which Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum reality holds, where we automatically jump from one universe (possibly a B-theory world) to another whenever an observable event takes place. I also see a possibility for relativity itself to be modified in such a way that B-theory becomes either impossible or improbable. For example, the Lorentz transformation equations allow for an object to be Lorentz-contracted down to zero length at the speed of light. If we assume that the Planck length (about \(1.6 \times 10^{-35}\) meter) represents a true limit to the smallness of an object (along with a Planck time of roughly \(10^{-43}\) second), then special relativity will have to be revised to take these limits into account. Efforts are already underway to develop such a revised theory.

As for myself, I would gladly jump to another universe in which reason and rationality hold, one in which Trump and the Republican Party either do not exist or have been utterly annihilated. Oh God! If only it were possible.
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it. — The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Welcome to the Age of American Disenlightenment — Posted Friday 24 February 2017
You will recall the Age of Enlightenment, the period from the 1700s to the early 1800s in which mankind's views of physical reality went from the gods, demons, magicians, sorcerers, superstitions, powers and principalities of religious belief to a more logical and rational view of the world based on science and mathematics. But with the rise of Donald Trump and the unlimited power of today's Republican Party, America has now entered what I call the Age of Disenlightenment.

It began innocently enough with the "untruthiness" of the Bush 43 administration, an emotional, fear-based and gut-level notion of truth based on what conservatives want to believe is true, but is not. Somehow, it all actually worked. Bush, Cheney and their minions got most Americans to believe that the nineteen 9/11 attackers (15 of whom were Saudis) sent out by Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan were somehow or other on a mission instead from Iraq, whose president Saddam Hussein had stockpiled nuclear and biochemical weapons that he was about to unleash upon America. The resulting bogus war of Bush and Cheney resulted in 4,500 U.S. troop deaths, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, the disgusting Abu Ghraib debacle, the expenditure of several trillions of dollars and the enduring enmity of billions of people around the world against America.

It's only a decade later, and we now have President Donald J. Trump, who's promising greater atrocities. Do you miss Bush yet? You will.

Reading like a manifesto straight out of George Orwell's Ministry of Love in the novel 1984, the Trump administration is on an all-out crusade to utterly destroy America as a thinking, rational entity and replace it with a pariah state that embraces "alternative facts," innuendo, "fake news" and outright lies, all predicated on the now-proven theory that Americans are not only gullible and credulous, but incomprehensibly stupid and corrupt as well. The Ministry of Love did not just want people to parrot "2 + 2 = 5." They wanted people to actually believe it. By comparison, Americans don't have to be coerced to believe in illogical nonsense—they openly welcome it.

One of my favorite websites is Religion Dispatches, a liberal Christian site whose articles regularly try to inform faithful, semi-faithful and agnostic readers of the dangers of authoritarian fundamentalism. Today's article brilliantly describes what I've known for quite a while now—that Christian conservatives are far more susceptible to lies, fake news and alternative facts than liberals. One case in point:
When one fake news creator was interviewed, he explained "We've tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You'll get debunked within the first two minutes, and the whole thing just kind of fizzles out."
The article then describes what I believe is the reason why Republicans are far more credulous toward fake news than Democrats—the religious roots of the Christian Right in the Republican Party. Spanning from the days of the Scopes Trial in 1925 to the renewal and expansion of fundamentalist Christian thought in the 1970s and 1980s, the likes of Pat Robertson (the Christian Coalition), Tim LaHaye (the Left Behind books on End Times eschatology), Jerry Falwell (the Moral Majority) and James Dobson (Focus on the Family) gave rise to a wave of religiously-motivated political conservatism culminating in the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs. But the primary motivator behind everything is fear, distrust and hatred: fear and hatred of minorities, fear of independent women, fear of material loss and fear of the future (it's truly amazing how the Right Wing is pushing gold ownership these days).

Before the Enlightenment, life was brutish, nasty and short for the vast majority of people, but they could always fall back on religion to explain why their corrupt, authoritarian rulers were allowed to live in luxury while the poor kept themselves warm and contented by burning the occasional rat in the fireplace. While people are far better off in America today, one reason why I see intellectual regression taking place is that fundamentalist Christians have been waiting 2,000 years now for Christ to return, and his continuing absence is increasing their fear that perhaps the liberals were right all along—he ain't coming back, and probably wouldn't want to even if he could. But being neurologically wired the way they are (or just because they're stupid and ignorant as hell), they can't abandon their cherished conservative religious beliefs, so instead they're doubling down on the nonsense.

The Religion Dispatches article also discusses something called the "historical-critical" method of Bible scholarship (a topic near and dear to my heart), which takes a rational and scientific approach to the study of biblical times, lives and events rather than a strictly traditional, devotional approach. I don't see it as pure coincidence that Dr. Albert Schweitzer's influential 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus was met almost immediately with a resurgence in evangelistic fundamentalist Christian activity in America, though relatively few people bothered to even read the book. John Thomas Scopes may have won a moral victory at the 1925 "Monkey Trial," but with 50% of Americans rejecting evolution today (along with a lot of other proven scientific theories), the fundamentalists are back on top.

Fake news and its progeny are growing at an alarming rate today. Trump merely read the fundamentalist tea leaves and took advantage of the situation. The real culprits in this wave of disenlightenment are Americans. I'm truly scared of what's going to happen now.

That's Gratitude for You — Posted Thursday, 23 February 2017
Noted evolutionary biologist and University of Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers posted an interesting article on his website today on how creationists have managed to expunge a particular taint of Seventh-Day Adventism from their belief system, with noted creationist Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis leading the way. Ham and his followers recently completed the Ark Encounter, a full-sized replica of the Noachian ark built at a cost exceeding $170 million, paid for in part by the state of Kentucky for required highway improvements, tourism promotion, parking facilities and other public enhancements.

One thing that Myers neglected to note, however, is that the Seventh-Day Adventist Church grew out of an End Times prophecy made by self-professed Bible expert and former Massachusetts farmer William Miller, who famously predicted the return ("advent") of Jesus Christ on March 21, 1843. When that prophecy failed, he told his followers (known as "Millerites," who numbered at least 50,000) that he'd neglected to take into account the fact that there is no "0 B.C.", and so his calculations were off by a year. When March 21, 1844 came around with still no Jesus, Miller and his followers were crushed. Many had quit their jobs and given money and belongings away, believing they'd be whisked off to Heaven on that glorious spring day. Most of the followers fell away in disillusionment, disgust or embarrassment, but quite a few of the faithful hung on, believing that Miller had somehow been right all along! Out of that remnant of faithful Millerites sprung the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which today numbers some 19 million members. Ben Carson, President Trump's insanely fundamentalist and conservative nominee for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is himself a proud Seventh-Day Adventist.

Today there are about 2.2 billion people in the world claiming to be Christians, so one might think that Seventh-Day Adventism is just a drop in the bucket by comparison. But there are also just 15 million Jews worldwide, and nobody is going to claim that Judaism hasn't profoundly affected the world.

By my own estimate, there are no more than 10 million scientists of all academic stripes in the world today. You'd think with all the gifts that scientists have given the world they'd have at least as much political clout as the Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists, but world opinion seems to be spinning away from scientists. And with upwards of an expected annual 500,000 visitors to the Ark Encounter alone (and the prestige and revenue it will generate), you'd think that scientists might want to build something similar. True, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland cost $10 billion, but it's not exactly a popular tourist destination, doesn't raise money, and most Americans have either never heard of it, have no idea what it does, or could care less.

Winston Churchill famously noted that "Science should be on tap, not on top," while Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant physicist and director of the Manhattan Project, were viscerally hated by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI and the CIA. Indeed, Oppenheimer was publicly humiliated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and stripped of his security clearances, while the U.S. government compiled an enemies list that included Einstein and many other scientists, including the noted physicist David Bohm, who was run out of the country. At the same time, Billy Graham achieved god-like status in the 1950s and was accorded unprecedented access to U.S. presidents, the Congress and the military. That's gratitude for you.

It has now been ten years since I fell away from the Christian faith. Dismayed and disgusted by the uncountable irreconcilable contradictions and unrelenting nonsense in the Bible, along with the sanctimonious promotion of willful ignorance, the unconscionable glorification of the military, and the hypocritical worship of wealth and materialism by America's Christians, I just couldn't take it anymore. But what's even worse today, in my opinion, is the increasing rejection of science by people of faith here in America, coupled with their increasing devotion to superstitious bullshit like astrology, homeopathy and faith healing. In view of all the things science has given them, they should fucking know better.

And last but not least, let us not forget that in 2016 American Christians made a president out of political whoremonger Donald J. Trump, who received the support of an astounding 81% of white evangelical voters (more than George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney).

#Resist — Posted Tuesday, 21 February 2017
I recently attended one of the #resist meetings that are popping up all over here in Pasadena. I found it to be rather disorganized and with a lot of preaching to the choir, but also with much enthusiasm to get something going. Hey, I'm 100% for these efforts, and I plan to get more involved, but in view of the far more organized (but failed) Occupy Movement of years past, I'm not feeling a lot of optimism.

Conservative New York Times contributor David Brooks is not my favorite writer, but his opinion piece today speaks volumes. As usual, Brooks appeals to the "growth" meme, bemoaning Amerika's still-lackadaisical economy and jobs picture, as if wealth, eternal population growth and entrepreneurial economic expansion is God's mission for the planet. Brooks titles his piece "The Century is Broken" but still backs off from encouraging any active resistance to the Trump presidency, which he thinks will fall on its own. While it's very possible that Trump will quit, be impeached or assassinated, that still leaves a hoard of corrupt, evangelical Republicans to carry out every one of his policies, including the destruction of women's and minority rights, the environment, affordable health care, science and the Constitutional right of freedom from religion. We can also expect more fear-based wars of profit conducted by Amerika's military corporatocracy. It's very doubtful that with Trump gone, any of his Republican cronies are going to follow suit. They'll cry crocodile tears over Trump's insane ranting and raving, saying they never wanted him in the first place, but hey, it was all part of God's plan anyway, so we're going for it. I'm inclined to believe that Trump's election was all part of a cynical Republican plan to grab unlimited power, which they have.

Hopeful progressives say "Just wait for 2018, or maybe 2020 and the census results," but with the GOP having locked up the country through gerrymandered redistricting, I don't see many changes.

Will Amerika's people ever wake up? Is the 21st century—and Amerika—really broken for good?

That's Confidence — Posted Friday, 17 February 2017

Einstein's remark reminded me of how often I would struggle on a final exam problem, only to suddenly realize after much fretting that I hadn't read the problem correctly. The answer then came a lot quicker, but usually not in just five minutes—after all, I was no Einstein.

Is Trump Really Out to Get You? — Posted Thursday, 16 February 2017
If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear from us. — US/UK Surveillance Programs

Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, and I will find something in them to have him hanged. — Cardinal Richelieu (1641)

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the men come and take you away.
— Buffalo Springfield, For What It's Worth
This morning a dear family member directed me to a couple of sites about securing my computer against the government and other malicious entities. You may want to look into them for yourself:

FreeCodeCamp 1     FreeCodeCamp 2

I'm already using several of the recommendations for locking out my email and computer but, as FreeCodeCamp notes, nothing is impervious:

The RSA encryption algorithm is pretty secure (see my post dated 7 February 2013 for a description of the computer program** and an example of its use), but when it comes to cracking code nothing works better than a quick trip to Guantánamo (or other black site) and a cheap wrench or power tool.

** But my son prefers Pascal:

Susskind Speaks Out — Posted Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Leonard Susskind is the Felix Bloch distinguished professor of theoretical physics at Stanford University and my favorite lecturer of all time. His many YouTube lecture series on quantum mechanics, relativity, information theory, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics and string theory have been viewed millions of times. To date Susskind has been silent on the dangers of the Trump presidency, but he has now broken his silence. I urge you to watch Susskind's brief announcement below, especially since it comes on the heels of today's stunning resignation of Trump's National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn:

"Don't Think—Feel" — Posted Tuesday, 14 February 2017
The percentage of Americans today who take astrology seriously is larger than the percentage of people who did so in the early Middle Ages, when leading church theologians—Saint Augustine, for example—gave excellent reasons for considering astrology nonsense. We pride ourselves on our advanced scientific technology, yet public education in science has sunk so low that one-fourth of Americans and 55 percent of teenagers, not to mention a recent president of the nation and his first lady, believe in astrology! — Martin Gardner
There's an old Arab saying that, granted one wish, people would choose to be rich, young, good-looking or talented, but that being smarter, better educated or wiser is nowhere on the list. It seems that most people are pleased with the way they think and what they believe in, and that they see no need to change any of that.

I believe the greatest disappointment of my declining years has been the realization that the vast majority of people cannot think rationally. Of course, we're all convinced that we have brilliant minds and that our beliefs and opinions are grounded in perfect reason, but looking at the state of our country today (not to say the world) you know that simply cannot be true.

The above quote is by Martin Gardner, the late long-time mathematical puzzles contributor to Scientific American, in his foreward to the book How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age by Theodore Schick, philosophy professor at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College, and his colleague Lewis Vaughn. Now in its 7th edition (2014), the book has been hailed by the likes of Carl Sagan and is regularly used as a textbook at many universities today. (The "recent president" that Gardner refers to is of course Ronald Reagan, and this tends to date the book somewhat, but the latest edition includes discussions on climate change, the vaccination/autism flap, prosperity gospel and other current issues.)

The authors cite numerous examples that lead to uncritical thinking when strange beliefs are involved, including
  • You had an extraordinary personal experience (especially a religious experience).
  • You embrace the idea that anything is possible—including weird things.
  • You have an especially strong personal feeling that the claim is true or false.
  • You have made a leap of faith that compels you to accept the claim.
  • You unquestionably accept the word of an authority figure that the claim is true.
  • You believe in inner, mystical ways of knowing that support the claim.
  • You know that no one has ever disproved the claim ("Russell's teapot").
  • You have a "gut feeling" that the claim is true or false ("That dog don't hunt").
  • You believe that any claim is true if you sincerely know in your heart it is true.
  • You believe that all scientific evidence is only opinion, not fact.
While I cannot praise the book too highly, its message of how to engage in clear, rational thinking based on empirical evidence is lost on the majority of Americans who will never read it.

I have a middle-aged neighbor whose car still sports a fading "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" bumper sticker (although he did finally remove his McCain-Palin sticker). Having talked with him for years, I know he isn't knowledgeable about Levantine biblical archaeology or Jewish/Christian textual analysis (he doesn't even read the Bible), having somehow gleaned all he needs to know from God-knows-where. He doesn't know anything about science either (and could care less), but he's absolutely adamant in his conservative Republican beliefs and does not want to be told otherwise (and of course, like Trump he believes climate change is a hoax). Similarly, I have an elderly family member whose proud motto is "I only have one rule—you don't get between me and my God." Comfortably wealthy, he operated a sweatshop for many years and detests minorities, especially blacks, yet considers himself to be a devout, undoubtedly saved Christian. He doesn't believe in climate change, either, but he does believe in magnet therapy and dowsing.

I believe one of the reasons the recent presidential election hit progressives so hard is the fact that their arguments and efforts—based primarily on reason, fact and scientific evidence—are useless against an ignorant, non-thinking political bloc whose motives and beliefs are now solidly aligned with Christian religious dogma (especially prosperity gospel). After all, "I just know in my heart that it's true!" trumps reason every time. Why bother with critical thinking when one has snappy slogans, banal one-liners and authoritarian doctrines that disengage the brain and allow one's fears and emotions to run their lives?

"Don't think—feel," indeed.
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light. — Plato

Resist — Posted Thursday, 9 February 2017
Never give nuclear weapons to a guy with multiple personalities. — Keith Olbermann

Many of you will remember Keith Olbermann, who hosted the sports segment here at KTLA in Southern California many years ago before a long stint with MSNBC as the host of Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He was let go in 2011, following a long-standing dispute with network executives, but his brand of fiery liberal political commentary endeared him to many (myself included), although we all knew his ego and brashness would catch up with him.

At 57, Olbermann is still around, though much muted because no brand-name network will touch him in these anachronistic times. A recent Washington Post article provides an update on his activities, and it indicates that he has changed very little over the ensuing six years since his Countdown show on MSNBC was canceled. Immediately following the 2016 presidential election I stopped watching MSNBC altogether, along with CNN and even the far more balanced PBS Newshour program, simply because I couldn't take the tragedy that was unfolding before me.

I did regret tuning out of the Rachel Maddow Show, since I considered her to be the most intelligent and informed member of the cable news rat race, but it was apparent that the network bigwigs had gotten to her as well. Old hands were unceremoniously dismissed, while moderate commentators started showing up on the network, even outright conservatives such as Niccole Wallace, the former Director of Communications in the George W. Bush administration. Months before the 2016 election I could see that MSNBC was grooming Wallace as the heir apparent to someone (I thought it might be Maddow herself), and watching Chris Matthews and Maddow forced to grovel before Wallace's inane political commentary (invariably sprinkled with homespun family and Christian anecdotes) turned my stomach (fortunately, the possibility that a real-life All About Eve event was about to unfold did not occur). I once emailed Maddow, advising that she and her partner Susan move to Scandinavia or other more accommodating liberal country, as I could see the insidious direction America was going. I received a curt reply, but she apparently chose to ignore my sage advice. Such is the moral price one pays when their annual salary approaches the seven-figure range.

In spite of Olbermann's heroic Resist effort, I myself have pretty much given up all hope. The world under Trump is in much more danger than it was in January 1933 when Hitler ascended to power in Germany (he didn't have thousands of nuclear warheads at his beck and call), not to mention the fact that Hitler, though evil, was, unlike Trump, at least sane at the time.

Disclaimer: I actually rooted for Trump during the primaries, as I confidently believed that either Sanders or Clinton would mop the floor with him in the general election. Alas, I grossly underestimated the stupidity and insanity of the American people.

Science Wars — Posted Thursday, 9 February 2017
Steven Goldman has a B.S. in physics and a PhD in philosophy from Boston University. His 24-part Great Courses lecture series Science Wars deals more with the philosophy of science than science itself, so much of the material goes over my head. But the series was an eye-opener for me, as it explained a problem I've had for years regarding conservative distain for science ("It's just a theory") and its seemingly contradictory acceptance of it (computers, smart phones, GPS, etc.).

Goldman explains that this hate/love association with science goes back to the days of Socrates and his student Plato, when new concepts grounded in deductive reasoning and mathematics clashed with those of Sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias, who held that deductive reasoning was nothing more than a system of opinions and subjective beliefs, and that "practical" experience was a better guide to the understanding of reality, even if irrational means and beliefs necessitated wholly subjective approaches to the world. In this sense, Goldman implies that today's liberals and conservatives spring from the mindsets of the Socratists and the Sophists—it's an "age-old" problem, after all, one that many recent studies investigating the brain differences of liberals and conservatives have confirmed.

Conservatives accept the science behind computers, cell phones and GPS because they appear to work, and are therefore "practical" technologies. Nevertheless, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, general relativity and GPS remain "theories," but only when they openly contradict or oppose cherished subjective beliefs, notably religion. For example, the website Conservapedia (a right-wing reaction to Wikipedia founded by the late Phyllis Schlafly and her son Andrew) rejects relativity theory simply because it contradicts the notion of "action at a distance," which they believe God uses on a routine basic to effect instantaneous change. In contrast. science today accepts the notion of fields to convey the relationship between cause and effect, and fields can effect change at most at the speed of light.

Consequently, one sees that technology to conservatives is fine provided it's merely "practical" and isn't threatening to their core beliefs, so that things like Facebook, Twitter, fried Twinkies and American Idol are just dandy. Best of all, they don't require any real thought to use and enjoy.

Last year I read Shawn Otto's 2016 book The War on Science, which discusses these thoughts far more eloquently than I ever could. Otto notes that Jefferson once said that an informed public—unquestionably the best safeguard of democracy—can be trusted to oversee its own government. But along with the unprecedented advent of high technology and the benefits it represents has arisen a backlash of blinkard, neoconfederate stupidity and ignorance that threatens to turn technology against us. Otto's 500-page book ends with a chapter on "battle plans," outlining efforts that might be taken to avert disaster. But the book came out just prior to Donald Trump's presidential victory, and I really don't see how Otto's recommendations are relevant anymore.

I plan to attend the March for Science in April, and hopefully I'll hear some plans that will actually accomplish change. But I'm not hopeful—in fact, I detest the word "hope" now because it's nothing but a kind of prayer which, as you should be aware by now, doesn't accomplish anything. As for me—I advocate open revolution, something along the lines of what the French did in 1789.

March for Science — Posted Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Part of the problem is people with degrees \(\ldots\) there are too many of them.
— James Delingpole, UK Conservative writer
Following my semi-annual dental cleaning this morning, I discovered, much to my disappointment and dismay, that my dentist—whom I've known and admired for over 25 years—happily attended Donald Trump's January inaugural event in Washington. I knew Dr. M was a Republican, though in prior years we used to chat at length about a host of environmental and social issues that we both agreed upon. But \(\ldots\) Trump?!

Still, Dr. M is a top-notch clinician and overall nice guy, with a couple of kids fresh out of college and a successful side business in the dental implant field, and I never criticized his occasional forays into conservative-land. But this was too much, and I earnestly thought about changing dentists, as I have now become radicalized against all manner of Republican bullshit, nice guys or no.

To get an idea of the extreme violence that Trump and the GOP represent today, you might want to read UK writer Jay Griffiths' article at Aeon, which outlines the existential problems progressives are currently up against. Bottom line: it's fascism, pure and simple, but not the kind Orwell warned us about, or the inverted totalitarianism that progressive writer Chris Hedges bemoans. It is instead a kind of post-fact, post-truth, dystopian conservative wet dream in which the acquisition of money and wealth override every other consideration. Worse, it has coupled itself to the burgeoning prosperity gospel that this country has aligned itself with, which has conveniently found a way around the cognitive dissonance created by the anti-materialism teachings of Jesus and the love of money. Jesus of Nazareth has thus been morphed into Donald of New York, and both want you to be wealthy, you see, although the latter is more concerned with the here-and-now rather than the pie-in-the-sky nonsense that modern American Christianity hawks to the stupid and simple-minded. And even worse is the denial of scientific fact and the hatred of science itself that Republican authoritarians espouse, since reality, fact and truth stand in their way of absolute dominance.

Thinking I could escape some of the neoconfederate insanity that my Google News home page landed every morning on my computer, some months ago I switched to the UK Guardian. But whaddaya know, Britain is experiencing exactly the same problems we're having, except that the Liberal and Conservative parties here are called the Labour and Tory parties over there.

So what to do? I plan to attend the upcoming March for Science, a nationwide protest of the Trump administration's anti-science, anti-fact agenda, to be held in Washington on Earth Day, April 22. If you can't make it to that city, there are satellite marches planned for many other cities and towns across the country. It may be a good alternative to buying a sniper scope and a rifle. (I said may be.)

Signs of Insanity — Posted Tuesday, 7 February 2017
My self-imposed hiatus over the November election results led indirectly to a number of papers, two of which I posted on my main website. The first, A Child's Guide to Spinors, describes just what the hell spinors are and why they're important in physics, while the other, Levi-Civita Rhymes with Lolita, was inspired by my umpteenth reading of Nabokov's 1955 classic. The silly titles of both papers should tip you off to my current state of mind, while the subject matter reveals my preoccupation with high school- and undergraduate-level math and physics topics. I'm now working on another forgettable paper entitled "How the Simulation Hypothesis Resolves the Theodicy Problem," which will mark my first entry into the realm of religion and logic (oxymorons?) I'm also working on a book whose title hasn't been settled on.

The book project has been long delayed, mainly because I have a number of friends who've written technical books that weren't well received either by publishers or readers, and this has had a constipating effect on my motivation. In addition, I just turned 68, and the fear that the remainder of my life will be expended under the rule of the insane Republican Party has imposed its own negative effects on my psyche.

Three Months — Posted Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Yes, America, that's your classy new First Lady, Melania Trump.

When Donald Trump won the presidential election I went into a major funk, vowing to disappear from the Internet, never to be heard from again. Although I received some three dozen emails from readers begging me not to bow out (not exactly an overwhelming tide of support, I know), my mind was made up.

With the exception of a few PBS and science/nature programs, I haven't watched any television since that dark November 8 day. I read many new books and re-read many old ones, binged on dozens of audio books and Great Courses video and audio lectures, tended my garden, wrote a few new articles and started writing a book, but my mind remained distraught. I simply cannot snap out of it—to me, America is being systematically destroyed by an ignorant, arrogant neofascist, one that Sinclair Lewis and many others warned us against (not to mention the lessons of the Nazi experience).

I had bought a large bottle of Jack Daniels for an old friend in recognition of his 70th birthday (I've known him over 60 years, and we still play basketball), but on election night I was motivated to crack it open and down half of it (not my custom at all), and so had to buy him another. Upset over this state of affairs, my equally distraught older son then suggested that I start a new website, disguised behind a new link on my old one, but one that wouldn't expose young math and science students to the degrading filth and debauchery that Donald Trump, his slut wife and corrupt administration represent. I said I'd try it, so here we are.

As I am now living in a post-truth, post-fact country of, for (and led by) dangerous authoritarian neanderthals, I have indeed given up any hope (at least for now) that reason and rationality will return. But I'll keep posting, at least until our glorious new Führer abolishes the First Amendment and burns all us libruls at the stake.