18 December, 2009

'Probably' No God?

So, the Atheist Bus Campaign has come to New Zealand. Once again, the promoters are being asked why the 'probably' is in the phrase.

While it would be nice - and the promoters all 'probably' believe so - to say "There is definitely no God," this runs into two issues. The first is that the 'probably' softens the blow to those not so keen on blasphemy. While I personally think that, regardless of what you believe, it is everyone's moral imperative to blaspheme - if only because we're told not to - blasphemy isn't everyone's cup of tea, so it's probably best to avoid it (even if you're only technically avoiding it).

However, given that people are going to be offended by these adverts anyway, this is a relatively minor reason.

The real reason for its existence, is that to exclude the 'probably' would be to lose scientific integrity. The question of God's existence is one that is insoluble. There is no way that you can prove that He exists, but neither can you prove a negative. This might sound a little more agnostic than atheistic, but it's not - it's an appeal to the rigours of logic. An Agnostic Bus Campaign would read more like "There's no way of knowing if there is a God or not." It's more scientifically accurate, but less to the point. Agnostics might like it, but probably won't put it on a bus. (Well, after the success of the Atheist campaign, they might...)

The atheist, like the agnostic, prefers to use the term 'probably,' but unlike the agnostic makes a point of saying that for all intents and purposes, we might as well say there is no God - for the same reason that we say that there are no faeries, no zombies, no unicorns, vampires, Thor, Quezacotl, Wotan, Zeus, Reptiods or any other mythological things. Strictly speaking, we must be agnostic to all these things (for you can never prove they don't exist), but we don't. I'm as much an aunicornist as the next person. But, ask a scientist (when they are in scientist mode, that is - not when on their coffee break) and they will say "there are probably no vampires," but that doesn't mean we need to start funding vampire hunters.

Of course, that's just my opinion. The great thing about Atheism is that every individual atheist is welcome to make their own minds up about what the word means to them and how to interpret it. I personally feel that agnosticism is a weak form of atheism and doesn't really say what you believe while tempering the wrath of the religious (in some places in the world, this is an important thing to do). But Michael Shermer thinks otherwise, as he pointed out in his book How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. He proudly uses the term 'agnostic' and he's entirely at liberty to disagree with me. That's why I love the English language - it's so vague and malleable (many people see this as a hindrance, but I don't).

So that little three syllable word continues to cause a bit of discussion, but that is the whole point in the campaign - to open discussion about the nature of the question of God's existence and how we let that question rule our lives. We mustn't hide our ignorance behind the veiled charge of 'blasphemy.'

16 December, 2009

Rapture Imminent!

Found this here (don't go there: too much crazy, not enough layout).

Hmm, that's interesting. Just the other day it said:

Should I keep an eye on it to see if we all die on the 21st?


[UPDATE, 22nd Dec 2009 - 6:44 am CST: Unfortunately, we're still here...]

[UPDATE, 15th Jan 2010: I think they keep moving the goal posts...]

15 December, 2009

Why are people opposed to Wind Farms?

Personally I find them awesome. Meridian Energy is trying to build a farm in Central Otago, NZ, has been for years. Recently they managed to put a few up, but it took them a long time. There was a lot of pressure from local groups - mainly headed by artists - to prevent them from being built. Their arguments against wind farms fall into four categories:

They're noisy, They kill birds, they're not "green" and they look ugly.

Noisy? Well, to be truthful, yes, they are noisy. But they're also typically built, like most power-plants, away from residential zones. In Europe and the US, you can find them built close to homes, but this doesn't affect property prices, which suggests to me that the noise isn't that much of a factor.

Do you know what else is noisy? Roads, highways, railway lines. These things already exist and are far noisier than wind turbines. Also, modern turbines are designed to minimise noise.

The wind farms in New Zealand are being built and are planned to be built away from residential zones - in the middle of Central Otago. They are near large sheep stations and other farms, not near houses.

So noise isn't a problem.

As for killing birds, yes, wind turbines kill birds. But, do you know what? So do buildings. Birds die by flying into buildings. Read that a few more times to make sure it sinks in. Birds die by flying into buildings. Not thrown into buildings. The buildings don't jump out and get them. They fly into large, stationary, obvious buildings. Migrating birds have been shown to avoid turbines and there are other ways of making them safe for birds, such as putting coloured bars or lights on the blades or using high-pitched noise to scare the birds away. If birds are going to be killed by flying into things, then I expect evolution to provide us with smarter birds.

So, birds aren't a problem.

As for being "green," the argument is over the pollutants involved in manufacturing the turbines. I hardly think that this is an issue considering that wind turbine production is a minor part in a larger industrial climate. Car manufacturing, computers and a whole host of other things are far worse. These industrial techniques, materials and pollutants already exist. I don't think that "wind power–dominated countries will be left with millions of tons of scrap metal which cannot be recycled" - this is a massive overstatement and we already have millions of tons of scrap metal to deal with. And we do deal with it. The other methods of generating power - coal, gas, nuclear, etc., have far worse pollutants than anything wind turbines will ever put out.

So pollution is far from being a problem

The only remaining complaint is that they look ugly. This is not an argument. This is just stupid. When I'm a multi-billionaire, I'm going to buy all the property next to the artists and others who oppose wind farms, and I'm going to build coal plants with large smoke stacks on them - right next to where they live. Will they think that's a nicer alternative?

Wind farms look cool. I want one. As I made the point above, nobody lives there (in NZ at least) and the visual impact is minimal.

We need to generate more energy - our population is growing. There are a number of ways to do this. Coal, Gas, Nuclear, Solar, Wind, Hydro and Tidal. We are trying to get as far away form coal and gas as possible, solar takes too much space to be viable in a country like New Zealand (too low solar irradiance), tidal is still in it's infancy (and you'll get the same people arguing against that for the same reasons - except that tidal generators need to be closer to populated areas, so we have Nuclear and Wind as the green alternatives.

Nuclear is green only in the short term - at the moment, climate change is a big enough threat to justify the nuclear waste produced, but it's something we'll have to deal with in the future. Nuclear power is also something that New Zealand can never use. We fought so hard to get ban it.

Hydro uses a phenomenal amount of land and the rotting plants they cover produce methane - when they flood forests, they can release more effective carbon than an equivalent coal plant - kW for kW.

So the only option left is wind. It's clean, there's plenty of it in NZ and it looks awesome. And if Graham Sydney doesn't like it, he can just paint over them. Seriously, you're an artist, not an expert on energy and the environment. Being a successful artist doesn't mean your opinion warrants any merit.

OK, so I've glossed over a few things and cherry-picked my data a little, but wind turbines are just great. They're awesome machines and they look cool. I think we should build heaps of them - Mt Sunday (where they filmed 'Edoras' in the Lord of the Rings) would be the perfect place for a farm; the wind there apparently averages about 150 km/h.

11 December, 2009

Is it just me, or is Christmas coming up?

Apparently it's Christmas. I can tell by the carols and songs blaring like sugary Muzak in the malls along with all the hideous decorations throughout town and all through the shops. If rate-payers are going to pay for civic Christmas decorations, they should at least get new ones every year, not pull out the same, dirty, 20 year old baubles and tinsely crap and hang them over our streets.

Now I may be a bit of a humbug - a few years working at Burger King (even part-time) is enough to make anyone a cynic, but add to that the fact that the BK I worked at is in a mall with the same 10 Christmas songs on infinite loop blaring inescapably in all corners of the mall throughout all of December and half of November and the season quickly starts to grate.

I refuse to listen to the radio during the Christmas season in order to maintain my daily dose of not listening to Snoopy's Christmas - which I would sooner be water-boarded than listen to again.

Yes, I hate Christmas. The annoying decorations, the music - especially how everyone has to put out a Christmas album - the sales, advertising and shopping rush, the TV shows telling you how to make the lunch easier to cook, American sitcoms that have some horrible accident happen on Christmas Eve but everything comes right by midnight then the church-bells ring and it starts snowing as if it's a miracle that Christmas actually happens and that it's even more miraculous for it to snow in winter and so on and so on (that might be more indicative of my disdain for sitcoms). Don't get me wrong: I love giving and receiving presents - it's just annoying to have to do it for everyone, all at once.

Now, I'm not saying that we should stop celebrating Christmas and I'm certainly not saying that it shouldn't be a holiday, I'd just like a nice, quiet Christmas, free from all the carols, decorations and TV specials. No hassles like complicated dinners and making sure the Tree looks right. (Seriously, the Tree is the tradition I am equally most puzzled about and most annoyed by - "Let's stick a tree inside and vomit baubles and tinsel on it and cover it in lights!" Utter nonsense.)

I'm an atheist, so I don't believe in all the Jesus stuff, but I don't want to cancel Christmas - we need statutory holidays - both so we can get a day off or can get paid time-and-a-half if we choose to work - and we might as well stick with the holidays that already exist - they're arbitrary anyway. Christmas, Easter, Labour day, Waitangi day or the equivalent in whatever country you're from and others. Christmas was the celebration of Midwinter - celebrating that the sun was now moving north in the sky (relative to pagans, not the solar system) and spring was on it's way. We have summer in New Zealand over Christmas, but by the time the colonists came to the Antipodes, it had become synonymous with the birth of Christ, so we were stuck with December 25th.

So, it's a nice excuse to take a day off, spend time with your family (or your cat if you're alone) and exchange gifts. But do we really need a special day for Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Men (and, I suppose, Women too)? Why do we need to be told to be nice to everyone? I like to think I'm nice to everyone regardless of what day it is. If we set one day aside for being nice, does that mean we get to be arseholes for the rest of the year? Do we hate our family for the whole year? And if we do, why must we pretend to like each other on Christmas?

Maybe I'd like it more if it was balanced. I propose another holiday on June 25th. Anti-Christmas. Where we're all rude to each other, we don't have fancy dinners, prices go up, all radio stations play death metal, and we make sure not to give any presents to anyone, but instead tell everyone what we truly thought of their presents at Christmas. There will be a moratorium on wrapping paper. We can't kill the baby Jesus, because Easter already takes care of that, but we can at least be bitter.

So a merry arbitrary holiday and a happy new Gregorian cycle.

01 December, 2009

I don't like TV Psychics

Once a week, on New Zealand magazine TV program Good Morning, psychic Sue Nicholson appears with a handful of emails to perform 'readings' for various viewers. 'Perform' is the key word here, because it is my opinion that she is merely performing and it is my opinion on her performance that I give here

Yesterday morning, she annoyed me. It doesn't take much for a charlatan to annoy me, but she was particularly annoying in this instance.

One caller (they're actually called by the station after they email in all their details) was told that her late niece was born just so that she could make the family happy for 16 years then die. In her defense she was trying to say that the family should celebrate the time they had with her, instead of mourning her passing, but it seemed quite insulting to the dead girl that she should be regarded as a thing for the enjoyment of the family, to die once her usefulness was fulfilled.

Maybe I'm reading between the lines here. It's something I like to think I avoid, but always end up doing, so I'll be a bit more careful.

A later caller had a relative who had committed suicide and was desperate to contact her. In what was an (I'm sure in the psychic's mind, a noble) attempt at stopping the bereaved woman from blaming herself, Nicholson told her that there was nothing she could do and, after telling her that it's harder for suicide victims (I use the term 'victim' very deliberately) to "cross over," but it's OK, because she has.

But what might seem an innocuous attempt at convincing a grieving lady to not blame herself, Nicholson actually told her that when someone is suicidal, they are in a very dark place and you cannot reach them. This set off my bullshit alarm.

She reiterated this about 2 times: When someone is suicidal, there is nothing you can do about it. That's not reading between the lines; that's effectively what she said.

As someone who has been suicidal and knows several others who are, this is the last thing that people need to be told. New Zealand is a country with high suicide rates. We've been dropping since the late 1990s, when major public health campaigns to remove the stigma and myth surrounding mental illness began. Statements like Nicholsons are false and damaging. Suicidal people can be reached and need to be reached. And to spout on about them being cloaked in some sort of impenetrable cloak of dark spirits is archaic and dangerous. It flys in the face of the last century of psychiatry and earlier forms of care tracing back to medieval Islamic states. Depressed people are not possessed by demons and they can be helped.

That's not to say that I'm blaming the family for not acting; far from it. Suicidal depression often goes undetected by family and many people feel powerless against it. Even psychiatrists struggle to help those with the illness - without hospitalization, it's next to impossible to make sure people are taking their medication. The reality is that without educating the wider public about the symptoms and realities of living with and treating depression, it is very hard to do anything. The families affected by suicide - and I've seen it rip families apart - would be better off told this, than by saying that suicidal people can't be helped. If we blame the disease, we'll be more active in trying to combat it, than fighting intangible spirits.

This is where psychic mediums move from being sideshow curiosities to being dangerous. When charlatans are given authority to speak on things they know nothing about and are propping up their own careers on the memories of the dead they become dangerous.

If she has some insights into how depression works, maybe she should write a paper and submit for peer review, but I don't think that she'll be doing that. She knows full well that it won't stand up to scrutiny. She knows full well that she'll be laughed out of every university and every scientific journal. She knows full well, that she's talking out of her arse to float her career on the pillaged memories of deceased loved ones - she might as well urinate on their graves.

I said before that it's a performance. I sincerely believe that it is. Otherwise, instead of giving 'readings' on television, she would be in the psychiatric hospitals, chasing away all those dark spirits.

... Do you get the impression that I don't like TV Psychics?