You Can't Pray Angst Away


I get increasingly annoyed when I see people using prayer as an excuse to do nothing.

Recently, a high school friend had a death in the family, reported on Facebook and asking for funeral fund donations.

Naturally, I responded with a donation and something along the lines of, "I am so sorry...please let me know if there is anything I can addition to donating money."

99% of the other responses were along the lines of, "You are in my thoughts and prayers." Translation: "I know it sucks, but don't expect me to do anything for you besides say I am going to think about it and pray...and chances are I won't even remember to pray. Now @#$& off."

I call bullshit on that. I know some people may say I am being too harsh. The thinking praying folks might very well be donating money or helping the family out.

But prayer and thought are useless, and saying you are going to do it means it is the primary way you are going to "help out." And if it is the only contribution you are going to make, you are useless to the grieving family. If you really care, ask what you can DO to help. Forget prayer. Prayer does not do shit and that's been proven by science.


Sunday Assembly of Madison Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics


Yesterday (Sunday October 26), my friend Sherry and I went to the Madison Sunday Assembly, a church like gathering of local atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and similarly minded folks. It was like church without God or religion.

They had music and presentations (about astronomy). They had greet thy neighbor and called for donations to help fund the next gathering. There were coffee and snacks afterwards.

It was at a Unitarian church, probably the only kind of church open minded enough to allow such a group to meet there. It was also at a very respectable 3 PM. Although this was probably by necessity so as not to compete with the morning assembly of the Unitarians, it was a good time of day for such a thing.

I spoke with a few people afterwards about contributing music or giving a short talk at a future event. Might be fun. My only issue is my availability. It meets the fourth Sunday of every month (also cool). I will be in Australia when the next one happens and the December one will be too close to Christmas for me to predict my whereabouts right now.

I am curious to know what holiday music they will do. I would guess it would be more secular selections like FROSTY THE SNOWMAN, RUDOLPH THE RNR, and JINGLE BELLS. But maybe someone will cleverly re-write the lyrics to a more religious tune to be more irreverent and fun.

Could that person be me?


Who Killed God?

It's kind of ironic...nay, very ironic...that empirical science originated as an honest attempt by devout Christian thinkers to understand God's plan for the universe.

The first scientists were not atheists...they were quite religious. They believed wholeheartedly that God's plan for the universe was written in nature, and they set out to explore it vigorously.

Much of the foundation of modern science was built in the 17th century by empiricists like Isaac Newton (gravity and calculus) and Johannes Kepler (early empiricism, movement of planets). They developed the scientific method of hypothesis testing and observation (trial and error).

Eventually, though, science became so good at exploring nature that it revealed there was no "man behind the curtain" working the controls. The very science that began as a search for God's "clockwork" that controlled nature and the cosmos eventually killed God entirely.

Today, religious people hate science because they think science killed their God and made moot their divine "book." Most don't realize that science began as a religious movement to uncover God's plan. Perhaps they might argue that God did not want his plan uncovered and so he has "deceived" scientists and led them astray. This is ludicrous for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the obvious stability of natural laws whenever they are examined and the pesky fact that all life is based on DNA and genetic inheritance that proves evolution. If God wanted to hide that fact, he would have made these discoveries "invisible" to science. He did not.

In any case, God is not a deceiver. Deception is left to the Devil. So the only conclusion a Christian can logically come to is that science is the Devil's work. If that is so, they should reject all science. This includes mathematics (don't balance your checkbook!) and technology (don't use a smart phone!) and transportation (no trips for you!). Indeed, Christians should probably not even want to live any longer, since life is given by scientifically verifiable biological processes. However, I guess one can bury his or her head in the sand and just imagine that we are all...puppets. Yeah, hand puppets.

But if there is free will...who controls the puppets? And aren't scientists also just free willed puppets?


"The Clockwork Universe," by Ed Dolnick tells the tale of Isaac Newton and the Royal Society's bold scientific experiments (like transfusing blood from sheep to humans and putting animals into vaccuum chambers) quite wonderfully.

Check it out.


Thoughts and Prayers? Meh.


I know someone on Facebook whose dad was diagnosed with cancer. I noticed that 99% of the comments on his wall after he announced it were all from people offering "thoughts and prayers."

That's nice. Also useless.

I offered instead to help out, if there was any way I could. No praying. Just action.

I don't expect this person to request my help, although I will extend it if they do. But I can tell you that my offer to DO rather than to think or pray is a lot more meaningful to this person.

Thought and prayer is a cop out from people who can't or won't extend a helping hand, or from those who actually believe prayer works.

Is that too cynical?

Your comments below, please.


Mother Nature vs. Jesus

I like Jesus. He had some good messages. The one I like best is not to judge the sins of others, because you are a sinner too, so focus on your own issues and leave other people well enough alone.

I realize I am putting a lot of interpretation into that, but everyone interprets the Biblical Jesus in different ways. I have a higher comfort level with the historical Jesus, actually, not the mythical one. The historical Jesus was a teacher and had some good messages.

The query, “What would Jesus do?” is a good one, but only if you are talking about the historical Jesus. The mythical Jesus could do a pantload of stuff that no mortal could do, so that makes the question somewhat moot to your own mortal life.

Mythical Jesus could cure sick people and walk on water. He could snap his fingers and smite a douchebag if he wanted. You can't.

I think historical Jesus would drive a hybrid car and recycle and be vegetarian and probably bike commute to his carpentry job. Those are values I can adhere to and get behind.

However, I still gravitate more to Mother Nature than I do to Jesus, historical or otherwise. Mother Nature is a moody beeotch a lot of the time, even unpredictable if you are not tuned in. But you can always understand her, at least in retrospect, because she works within the boundaries of science and the Laws of Nature.

So, I may not like Mother Nature sometimes, when she harshes my gig with inclement weather, for example, but I respect her none the less. The last couple of days, the weather forecast has been for rain, a deterrent to my penchant for bike commuting to work. But Mother Nature had other ideas, and decided to shame the meteorologists of southeast Wisconsin by withholding the waters from the sky. It didn’t rain when it was supposed to.

I did not bike to work yesterday, because the meteorologists said it was going to rain all day. It didn’t rain at all. Mother Nature was playing tricks, albeit scientifically explainable ones.

So today, even though the forecast is for rain all day, I decided to risk a bike commute to work. The commute in was fine. It was partly sunny/cloudy, but no sign of precipitation. I looked at the weather radar before I started my 35 minute ride to work and the Doppler showed no precipitation anywhere near Madison WI, where I live and work. Mother Nature has all day to change her mind, but I hope she doesn’t. I want to bike home without rain as well. I have other options though, if she decides to throw a fit. I can try taking the bus home, something I have been meaning to explore anyway. I could also bum a ride from my friend Danielle who works not far from where I do, assuming she is leaving work at a mutually convenient time. But I hope that Mother Nature continues her obstinacy with the meteorologists so I can bike home. I don’t even care if it is raining a little bit. It is the lightning that deters me.

The problem with weather forecasts these days is that they are based on weather modeling software programs that assume there is no climate change and global warming. Thus, as global warming continues unabated, the weather models become less reliable.

This is because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. So when weather models predict rain, it is based on an assumed atmosphere that is not as warm and holds less water. But the real atmosphere is warmer than that. Thus, these models underestimate the amount of water the atmosphere can hold, and predict rain before the atmosphere is fully saturated with water vapor. Mother Nature doesn’t obey the meteorologists and their erroneous weather models. She follows the Laws of Nature, religiously. It won’t rain until the atmosphere is gravid with moisture and ready to blow.

Of course, when it does rain nowadays, it rains BIG. This is for the same reason, that the atmosphere can hold more water vapor, so when the dew point is eventually reached, a lot more water falls from the sky.

This ability of the atmosphere to hold more water explains droughts (no rain when rain is predicted) and floods (excessive rain when it eventually comes). A warmer atmosphere holds onto its water longer and that means drier conditions on the ground for longer periods of time. When the water is eventually released, there is a lot more of it dumped on the ground. On top of that, drought scorched land does not absorb water very well, so when the rains come, a lot of the water stays on the surface of the ground and causes flash flooding as it seeks lower ground, because of gravity. To see this in action, take two sponges, one moist and wringed out, the other bone dry. Angle the two sponges at 45 degrees against a wall (preferably outside). Then take a tablespoon of water and pour it on the moist, wrung sponge. The water will absorb into it quickly and almost none will roll off onto the ground. When you repeat this with a tablespoon of water on the dry sponge, the water rolls off with most of it going onto the ground below the sponge. That is what happens in a flash flood.

Dry conditions also leads to wildfires and these fires can sometimes burn so hot that they “glaze” the top of the soil, essentially turning it into glass. This makes the soil even less able to absorb water and the risk of flash floods gets even greater. This happened in Manitou Springs where my sister lives when they had wildfires a couple of years ago. The whole side of the mountain near her house was glazed in the huge fire and every rainy season she has to avoid certain roads if there is any risk of precipitation because they will flood at the drop of a hat.

Mother Nature is actually quite predictable, if you understand the Laws of Nature and use the proper meteorological models to predict weather.

A lot of people pray to Biblical Jesus to protect them from natural disasters and to bless them after they occur and destroy their lives. It doesn't seem to do much good though. If you run the numbers, there is no significant difference in the probability of natural disasters in areas with more Christians. The risk is, in fact, the same everywhere. That's science, and that is why Mother Nature is a better guide to weather phenomena and related natural disasters. You can pray to Jesus all you want, but the rain is still going to come. So don't pray for help from Biblical Jesus...instead, do what historical Jesus would do, understand nature and try to live a life in harmony with it.


The Creepy Conundrums of Time Travel


Time travel is possible, according to physicists. The math of relativity allows it.

However, time travel is impractical and unfeasible due to the very relativity that makes it possible. Feasible and possible are not the same thing in this case.

Let's reason it through.

Let's say you invent and manufacture a fully functional time machine. Inebriated by your own awesomeness at accomplishing this formidible feat and compelled to action by hubris, you get in and with a surprising lack of your usual forethought, you turn some dials and send yourself one year into the past. A moment later you find yourself in the cold vaccuum of interstellar space and promptly die as the bubble of air that time traveled with you rapidly dissipates.

You see, your machine worked perfectly. The problem is, a year prior to your ill fated leap through time, the space occupied by you and your time machine was occupied Empty space.

In remarkable, albeit short-lived, 20/20 hindsight, you realize that your choice to go one year in the past had a certain very narrowly defined logic to it. It takes the earth just about a year to go around the sun and all else in the universe held constant, you might have arrived only about six hours before the arrival of the prior year's Earth in that vicinity of its orbital plane around the Sun, give or take a few thousand miles. When the earth finally arrived, you frozen dessicated corpse would hit the atmosphere and incinerate.

Even if you had designed your time machine to compensate for the Earth's roughly 365.25 day transit around the Sun (derp!), your cosmic provincialism would still likely have been your undoing. In a year's local time, the entire solar system would have moved a fair piece due to the rotation of the Milky Way galaxy, never mind the exponential expansion of the universe itself.

Now let's reset the clock, if you will pardon the expression. Assume you thought of all these technical obstacles in advance and gave your time machine the computing power to extrapolate the movement of space across past and future time (let's set aside the increasing margins of error the farther in time you decide to go...think 10 day weather forecasts). You still have another issue.

After years of R&D, prototype testing, and countless deaths of lab rats and rhesus monkeys (you can't say you miss the monkeys...ornery little buggers), you finally turn on your fully functional time machine. Depending on your ultimate design, one of two things is possible.

The most probable design is that your time machine transports through time whatever is placed WITHIN it, but does not transport the time machine itself. This is the safest time machine design (though not for rats and monkeys). If you could transport the machine itself, there would be no need for all those years of writing grants and toiling over your PhD thesis in quantum physics. You could just transport back in time to visit your penniless graduate student self and hand over all the research, schematics, and calculations so he or she could make short work of it. Your past self would seem overjoyed and promptly take you out for celebratory beers. At some point in the evening, your past self drugs and murders your future self and then hides your machine in a secure storage facility while pretending to have a highly successful career as a research physicist, eventually bringing forth the time machine you worked so hard on and winning the Nobel Prize you should have won. Was it homicide? Or suicide?

Now let's return from that alternate universe where the diabolically evil you resides. The present good you, seeking to avoid ethical conundrums, goes with prototype A, the one that only transports whatever is within its transportation field. You design in some quantum computing so that anything transported through time can only reappear within the time field of another time machine similar or identical in design to your own. Using quantum communication, your machine can identify accessible points in spacetime, which gives you kind of a weird creepy feeling.

If you identify accessible points in spacetime prior to the first functional activation of your machine, prepare for trouble and give up any notion of free will.

Another option is to transport a smaller time machine using the first time machine. This second time machine is programmed with only one destination, to return you to the inside of the first time machine. Dangers here include malfunctions of the first or second time machine. Watch the show "Sliders" for a crude representation of the dangers inherent in this design. If the second smaller machine always returns you to the exact point in spacetime when you left, you probably don't have to worry about time machine #1 malfunctioning before your return. You'll want time machine 2 to be very well manufactured and preferably airtight and well stocked with food, water, and oxygen.


Heaven and Hell

James opened the laptop and started Skype. Just as the Devil had said, Rebecca's name showed up on the list of available contacts. James double-clicked it and waited for it to connect. The laptop speakers played the digitized sound of a phone dialing and then ringing. A moment later, there was a click and Rebecca's face appeared on the screen.

It was her usual neutral look with a hint of surprise.

"Amazing," she said. "It worked!"

"I know," James replied. "Isn't that crazy?"

"Crazy," Rebecca agreed, now smiling.

"So, how is Heaven?" James asked.

"Oh, it's OK," Rebecca replied. "Peaceful. How is where you are?"

"You mean Hell?" James asked. Rebecca didn't reply and the smile faded slightly. "Sorry," he continued. "I know you don't like to say it."

"I haven't changed much since I got here," Rebecca said.

"Me neither," James said. "Except that now I know you were mostly right about the afterlife."

"Mostly?" Rebecca queried.

"Well, you were right that religious people go to Heaven and sinners go to Hell," James explained. "But atheists also go to Hell."

"I was right about that too," Rebecca said.

"Not exactly right though," James said. "Atheists don't burn for all eternity down here."

"Obviously not," Rebecca taunted, sticking out her tongue. "But what is it like?"

"We are really free. It is kind of like a big party," James said. "I even play in a rock-n-roll band here, just like in life. The Devil has hired my band for a few parties and special events."

"What kind of events?" Rebecca asked.

"You don't want to know," James replied. "It's not pretty. The sinners get their due."

"Oh, you're right, I don't want to know," Rebecca said.

"I am sorry we can't be together," James said, changing the subject. Rebecca's smile faded and her brow furrowed.

"I told you so," Rebecca said. "I tried to get you to convert to my religion."

"Heaven is pretty exclusive, eh?" James asked, rhetorically. "I was surprised by that. Before I died, I always thought that God would have some kind of policy for the significant others of religious folks, kind of like a Green Card for non-believers. So when the Devil told me you had died, I wondered why I didn't get a call from Upstairs."

"Maybe if we had been married," Rebecca said. "I almost didn't get in here because we did things that were, strictly speaking, not allowed in the Bible. It was actually good that you were an atheist, because I was only judged on what I did and God thought my hardcore religiousness saved me."

"And that's another thing," James said. "Being Christian isn't the only way into Heaven apparently. So you weren't exactly right about the Jesus thing either."

"You're nitpicking."

"I know. But I can totally understand why God let you in," James said. "You are the nicest person I ever knew."

Then he changed the subject again. "There is a lot of stuff to do here," James said. "The Devil is really into science and nature and exploring the cosmos. The scientists here, at least the atheist ones, get whatever scientific equipment they want and do a lot of cutting edge stuff."

"Funny," Rebecca said, smiling again. "The scientists were all wrong about God and Heaven."

"Let's not have that debate again, Becks," James said. "Life…er, death…is too short."

"Actually, it's an eternity," Rebecca laughed.

"It's great to see you're so happy, Becks."

"I really am," Rebecca said. "You were right about one thing too."

"Oh yeah? What's that?"

"God gives you your own tropical island when you get to Heaven and you can decide who can visit it."

"Genius," James said. "I knew it."

"But most people here are really nice," Rebecca said. "Like you said, being Christian alone doesn't get you in here, so a lot of not so nice Christians didn't get in. They are down there..."

"Believe me, I know," James said. "My band has played some events where some not so nice Christians were being sent off to various eternal damnations."

"Ugh, don't tell me about that," Rebecca said, scrunching up her face in that cute way James found so endearing.

"I have a gig tonight, Becks, so I need to get going."

"OK, James, let's talk again soon."

"Sounds good. Before we go, can you do that cool click sound with your voice?"

Rebecca made the vocal clicking sound that was characteristic of the native language spoken in South Africa, where she had spent part of her life on Earth.

"I love it," James said. "And I love you."

"I love you too," Rebecca said, and she blew James a kiss over the CosmoNet. He pretended to catch it and touch it to his lips. Then he quit Skype and headed off for his gig.