Monday, October 8, 2012

Conversation from Ask An Atheist Day 2012

I received a request recently to post this so others could read it. The following conversation took place on my facebook page on Ask An Atheist Day, April 19, 2012. I have removed comments that were not related to the conversation that follows, but otherwise have left everything as it was, typos and lack of paragraphs included.

David Zartman: hmm, for me the key question for any belief system is "why do you believe what you believe?" -always tends to generate relevant, personal and interesting answers. :)


Me: For me it came down to causality. Every effect has a cause, and they are traceable, physical things. Even thoughts are traceable, physical things, even if we don't yet know enough about them to trace them as easily as we track momentum in collisions. Since everything has such a cause, and every cause has such a cause, all the way back to the big bang... I see no room for god. I see no place where a god would have stepped in, no place where that chain of causality was altered. That was the first thing, anyway. There are plenty of other reasons now, but that was what first made me stop believng.


David: thank you diana, that is a very good answer. I myself used similar logic, but ended up elsewhere. Examples - I cannot convince myself of the veracity of evolution as an explanation for the formation of species - it can cause adaptation, but the second law of thermodynamics would indicate evolution should go from complex to simple rather than the other way around. As for causality, my reasoning was thus - every cause must have its own cause all the way back to the beginning, which must itself be uncaused. How can something be uncaused and yet cause something else to happen? this would indicate a basic nature outside of time - how would that be possible? The only way I could explain it is using special relativity - ie something moving fast enough will reduce its mass to zero and travel at the speed of light, effectively being everywhere at once and independent of time. There is thus a dependence between mass and time, thus being able to exist without mass which would indicate onmipresence...etc this fits the description of an infinite God. Thus for me the difficulty is the question: what caused the Big Bang? in addition, random processes can only generate random results by definition - yet we see order in the universe. Natural selection is cited as the cause of this order, yet is not only unverified in modern science, but modern life has many areas where the strong are required to protect the weak at cost to themselves, which directly contradicts it. I think you would agree that it is good for a soldier to save a defenseless orphan - this is consistent with the Christian definition of sacrificial love, how is it consistent with an atheistic viewpoint? (sorry to throw tough questions at you - these are my struggles with atheism - thank you for being willing to stand up for your faith, uh, non-faith? uh, belief system, that fits. It's not an easy thing to do, but it is very valuable to know what you believe such that you can defend it - otherwise why believe it? I thus applaud your courage - bravo!)


Me: Here's hoping I don't get too many more replies while I'm typing this!

Rather than typing it all out here, I'm just going to link to this: ... because it answers the second law objection and has a link to cited sources of observed speciation. I will state simply that life is not a closed system; it has energy being put into it from outside sources, and therefore it is not subject to the second law.

I watched an interesting documentary with Stephen Hawking where he brought up the fact that the universe, at the moment of the big bang, would have been a quantum-sized particle, and it is known that quantum mechanics allows such particles to pop in and out of existence seemingly at random, so it is not inconceivable that the universe did so. When we understand what happens with the quantum particles, perhaps we will have a better understanding of whether that is what happened. In any case, I do not believe any god is necessary to have caused it, and I am perfectly comfortable saying simply that I do not have an answer.

As for random processes creating random results, and observed order in the universe... that's an interesting one, and I'm not going to claim that my answer here is based on science. For one, only at the quantum level is there what seems to be true randomness. The macro-universe, no matter how chaotic it seems, is governed by the laws of physics. Every effect, as I said before, has a cause. If we had enough data, and knew all the factors, we could calculate all of the seeming randomness. It is ordered, it is just extremely complex. Even at the quantum level, those things that we observe as statistical because they seem to be random may have an underlying order. What seemingly random things make you doubt that order could exist? The more we learn about the universe, the more we are able to describe it mathematically, forging order out of seeming chaos.

Then you get into the troublesome questions of morality. That will take longer to address, but I will attempt to do so.

First of all, I do not believe that behaving morally because you either fear hell or hope for heaven is itself moral. If you have two children, one of which shares his toys and behaves well without being told, and another who does so only when you give him candy, which is the better child? What of a third who only behaves well because he will get a spanking at home if he does not? But that is only a problem with certain religions, not with the concept of god, so I will add more.

Altruism and "moral" behavior are observed in many places in the animal kingdom. Symbiotic relationships abound, and in species where animals live in communities, they help each other for various observable reasons. Reputation is one; if an animal is known to the community to be generous, others will share with it when it is in need. Then there's potlach altruism, which I find fascinating--giving ostentatiously to prove that one is prosperous. There's also the direct 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' sort, and the mother sacrificing herself for her offspring sort-- which ensures the continuation of the genes, of course. That's the source of it all, really. A successful species will continue, and an individual member of a successful species is better off. Animals do it by instinct; only humans feel the need to rationalize it.

But let's talk about humans for a moment. Why should atheists behave morally? Because this is the only life we have, the only world we have. We don't have an eternity of bliss waiting for us; if we want 'heaven' we have to create it here. So I will happily give to charity, and volunteer to clean up my community, and do what I can to make the world a better place. It's the only one I've got, after all. And that soldier saving that orphan? For one thing, it is consistent with the instinctual drive to ensure the survival of the species. For another, why would it not be considered moral? The atheist viewpoint is simply that there is no reason to believe in god; other than that, they run the gamut of beliefs in other areas. Some are die-hard, Ayn-Rand reading objectivists. Others are tree-hugging hippies. But there is no reason that morality has to be inconsistent with a lack of a belief in god.


David: interesting - not my perspective obviously, but decently well-answered none-the-less. It still seems though that natural selection is not observed. Let me approach the difficulty from another viewpoint. Say that evolution is the source, gradual change would leave species in vulnerable states - ie a fish with half a leg or even one leg is not going to be a good mutation, thus the idea of punctuated equilibrium (only breaking physics periodically rather than gradually in my mind). Simultaneous spontaneous evolution of both sexes is then improbable, but lets continue anyway. At that point there is only the micro scale, thus the individual must act selfishly to defend himself above all else. His society is not like him in any way and there can be no altruism or evolution is symied. Later on though, for the new species to survive, altruism must be present. Eg deer must be hunted as too many deer will eat the food supply up too quickly over winter and all will die. Thus ignoring morality as morality and speaking only functionally, how does this change occur and at what point? It would seem that the individual must be totally self-centered in the beginning of the species, yet somehow by a bit later totally flip to altruism. I gues the other side of the argument would be, where does morality come from? We cannot be simultaneously self-centered and species centered, yet in the evolutionary picture of time it seems both are needed.

I guess a bit more on the second law of thermodynamics too, explain my issue with their explanation. Thermodynamics is in general actually the rules for statistical mechanics, or the laws governing random systems. The argument in my mind is thus that if evolution is fully random, it must follow the second law of thermo, meaning it must go from a complex design and entropically break down into simpler components - things break, they don't improve themselves with time. If thermo doesn't apply, then evolution itself must not be a random process, which indicates design and thus a designer. Thus I find myself in a catch-22 of if evolution is random, the second law says that it should have started complex, which needs God, or if it isn't random, it contradicts itself and the source of non-randomness must also be God as nothing else existed back then. I guess let me put it this way - if quantum mechanics caused the big bang, what caused quantum mechanics? - or in my mind, who established the laws of physics? They require order out of chaos, thus are not random, thus require a non-random source, which I can't explain any other way. Thank you for being open for discussion, you have been giving good and thoughtful replies and I really appreciate that.

I guess I also have issues with the proposed age of the universe. Current metrics for the 13.5 billion years proposed are not verified -eg an alternate explaination for redshift was given by Jaio Magueijo as a decreasing speed of light - which does have some experimental data backing it up. There is also the comparative distances to the moon and the sun. For life to exist, the earth, sun and moon have to be in precisely their current locations, with very little wiggle room. Closer to the sun is burning up, farther away freezing, closer moon is drowning tides twice a day, farther moon is stagnant oceans. The scary thing is that the earth is moving farther away from the sun, and the moon is moving farther away from the earth. A few thousand years is not a problem, but even a few million years and the dinosaurs are being drowned twice a day, a bit more and the earth starts being inside the radius of the sun...which is not healthy. (the sun is also burning up, thus its radius was bigger) - thus you see my issue in trying to believe anything but a young earth creation. To me, that is the only thing that science allows.


Jim: As for the sun-moon-earth orbit thingy... If the universe is 13.x billion years old, it does not mean the sun and earth are. Other items in your paragraph imply a lack of clarity in celestial mechanics. I'm looking forward to Diane's response. (And - Diane - you may have noticed I'm playing devil's advocate again, for the other side this time. Still get a chuckle out of using that term in an atheist-centric discussion.)


David: as a physicist, I find their argument dissatisfying. Their argument is basically that we see order coming out of disorder through many mechanisms in nature, so it must be possible without life - I still raise the argument that it takes a non-random process to create a non-random result, thus their whole argument indicates design inherent in all of nature, thus all of nature must have been designed and thus created. It also says that life doesn't have to obey the second law. Again I raise the issue that that indicates life is not random. Maybe I am misunderstanding things, but it seems to me a basic tenant of atheism is that everything must have come about through fully random processes. Arguing that everything came about through random processes, yet the results aren't random, therefor random processes can create non-random results - doesn't follow. They are saying that the system isn't closed therefore the second law doesn't apply - I cite conservation of energy and claim the universe and a closed system, therefore the second law should apply to everything in it. They say its wrong, but I don't get their grounding - if entropy is a measure of unusable energy and it must increase, isn't usable energy some form of order and unusable energy some form of disorder? they also misconstrue macro and micro evolution. Yes adaptation happens, but their argument for gradual change even other evolutionists have issue with. There are clear delineations between species that have yet to be filled in despite direct searches towards that end. Additionally, something half-mutated would actually be weaker and thus natural selection would prevent the gradual evolution. I believe fish are supposed to have developed legs and crawled onto land - but fish with extra stubbs are going to be slower and have trouble maneuvering, thus unable to catch food or avoid predators - thus they would be the weak link to be destroyed first. In essense I find the argument to be that physics doesn't hold because the results necessitate that - which I take issue with. The hypothesis needs to predict the outcome, not answer via solution. And anyway, as a physicist, being told that physics doesn't apply to any aspect of reality bothers me. Physics is the laws of reality, thus if those laws don't apply, what laws do - and can you prove it? otherwise the argument is counter to the laws of nature and thus false. So again I state, by definition random 'operators' as it were give random results, if the observed results aren't random, then there must be a non-random component to their formation - and non-random components speak of order. For anything to exhibit order, it must have been acted on by some force to create that order, that force itself being non-random. All of these must then have been created by an intelligent designer as by definition randomness can only beget randomness - chaos cannot create order on its own. Whenever you see order coming from chaos, you see something designed thus nature itself must have been designed. How else could it be explained? I should stop now as I am talking in circles - but do this for me. Give me an explanation that doesn't require laws of physics to be ignored. If they are ignored, there must be a legitimate reason, not just that the theory doesn't hold if they do. Otherwise we need new laws of physics that do apply to reality as it were - thus what are they and are they consistent with the rest of reality that we observe.

So you say the sun and the earth weren't created via the big bang then? what then caused them? either way it puts severe restrictions on the timeframe allowed for evolution which is already and average probability of ~0. Also take into account the number of generations possible in all those years. If evolution were true, we have already had at least half that many generations of bacteria in the lab and haven't seen anything new evolve - this should be disturbing for macro-evolution. I thus stick with physics not being consistent with evolution, yet being consistent with the Bible. I will refrain from getting into subject areas that I cannot address as intelligently. Thank you for your input though, science is about discovering truth, and we can't get anywhere without all the cards on the table.


Me: Okay, David, I'm going to go through chronologically and address the points you raised. Hopefully it will make some sense. I will also repeat, I am not a biologist, so I may not be able to make my points about evolution clearly. I'll leave details to those who know more.

To begin with, you said that evolution would leave animals in vulnerable states-- not at all. Evolution is an extremely gradual process. Every generation has within it a certain amount of variation-- slightly larger, or have slightly longer legs, or slightly smaller leaves, that sort of thing. No population is totally homogenous. And some of those variations will be more beneficial for survival than others-- or, at least, will be present in those with a greater tendency to survive. Over time, that variation will be passed on with more success, and eventually the makeup of the population will shift so that most of them have that variation. Over an even greater length of time, greater changes can occur. But none of them will ever be one that leaves the organism LESS likely to survive. Every variation that gets passed on is one that is present in an organism with a greater tendency to survive. I am not going to address your point about punctuated equilibrium or attempt to explain how different sexes might arise; I have not studied enough to say anything about it with any confidence. Nor do I know how to answer your point about altruism. Like I said, I do not study biology. My boyfriend tells me he is going to address those points I do not feel confident about, so fear not, there will be answers.

The second law of thermodynamics... has absolutely nothing to say about life. It states that in a closed system, entropy always increases. Okay, if you want to define "order" as the ability to do work, then yes, you could say that it says that in a closed system, "order" cannot develop from "chaos." But life is not a closed system. Oganisms must gain energy, and the system is nowhere near perfect, much of that energy is lost. No problem there. An organism can continue existing because it is always adding more energy to its system. The Earth is not a closed system. It has a giant fusion reactor powering it, introducing the energy that then becomes nourishment for life. It also loses a lot of heat back out into space-- it is far from a perfect system. So, again, most of the energy in the world is converted to heat. No problem there. The only truly closed system in the universe is the universe, and at the universal level, the second law applies.

Also, evolution is not random. The variations that arise in a population might be-- or, at least, they seem so. I doubt that they are, but we do not know enough yet to predict them. Even so, the process by which variation becomes a change to a population as a whole is far from random. So even if you try to say that the second law of thermodynamics applies because it speaks of randomness, well, evolution is not random. To be honest, the only thing that I would call "random" at this point are quantum-level events, and I have my doubts about those-- at some point, we may figure out the mathematics to describe them, too, and then we will no longer think of them as random.

I do not see why there must be a designer if a process is not random. We say that the universe "obeys" physical laws, and therefore you think that someone must have written them. I say that the universe operates in a manner we have been able to describe mathematically-- people 'wrote' those laws, using them to describe what they observed. If there is any room for god, in my mind, it would be as the source of those laws... but even then, that god would only have created the universe, and then stepped away. The Deists believed in such a god. Such a god does not answer prayers or touch the universe at all, so I really don't see the point of it. In any case, I see no reason the laws need an author-- they are merely observations people have made about how the universe works.

As to your questions about the age of the universe, I am surprised to see them coming from a physicist, I'll be honest. I had not heard of the variable speed of light idea except in vague terms, but I've done a bit of reading on it this evening. For one, it seems to me like Occam's Razor would suggest that it doesn't work; it is a simpler, consistent explanation that the speed of light has always been constant. In addition to that, it seems that the rotation rates of pulsars disproved it years ago. If it were true that the speed of light had changed, then looking further "back" (i.e., further away), we should see pulsars rotating at a different rate in the past than they do today. We do not observe this; instead, they are observed at a consistent rotation rate in every place-- and, it follows, every time-- we can see.

Secondly, the "Goldilocks zone," where it is possible for life to exist, extends so far that Venus is just barely outside, and Mars is just barely inside. The distance Earth is currently at might be best suited for the kind of life that exists here, but it is not the ONLY distance at which life could occur. And yes, those distances vary... but not that much. The earth has always been in the "goldilocks zone;" that is how life managed to appear here in the first place. (Of course, the "goldilocks zone" speaks only of the orbits where liquid water is possible; life could conceivably arise outside of it. And while an Earth orbit that was different than the one we have might have given rise to a different kind of life, it most certainly COULD sutain it.)

I can find no evidence that the orbit of the Earth around the sun has changed since the formation of the solar system-- which, by the way, happened more like 5 billion years ago, not 14, which is the point Jim was trying to make. As for the orbital decay of the moon, yes, it is getting further away, and this link is far more eloquent about why that is not an argument for a young Earth far better than I can: . The sun's radius-- based on what we know of stellar evolution and what type of star the sun is-- has been increasing for most of its existence, and will continue to do so. I'm not sure where you got the idea that it would have been larger in the past.

As a student of physics, I find the fact that you do not understand these things somewhat baffling, given that it is also your field of study.

I think you ARE misunderstanding some things. There are no "basic tenets" of atheism. Atheism is not a belief system. It is merely a lack of belief in any gods. Many atheists have a lot of things in common, in terms of their beliefs about the universe, but nothing is required. Also, no, I personally would not say that I believe that the universe had to arise from fully random processes. I'm not even really sure what you mean by random, to be honest. I believe in a universe that operates in an ordered fashion, for which we have devised mathematical descriptions we call laws. So I am going to stop talking to you about the second law of thermodynamics until I understand what you mean by it. As far as I can tell, it is a mathematical description of a physical phenomenon, which has nothing to do with nebulous, human-made ideas like order.

As far as "misunderstanding" macro and micro evolution, no, there is no misunderstanding, because only people who don't believe evolution happens make that distinction. They are nonsense terms.

You say that, as a physicist, you have a problem being told that the laws of physics do not apply. You have cited nothing that in my understanding breaks the laws of physics, yet you claim to believe in a deity that could break them at will? It is my understanding of the universe as governed by physical laws that makes it impossible for me to believe in god! But I digress.

You speak again at great length of randomness, and again, I have no idea what you mean by it. I see no conflict with the laws of physics, so I am going to have trouble giving you an explanation I have not already given. As for order arising from chaos, what would you call crystalization? An unordered substance, usually liquid, solidifies, and it comes together in a neatly ordered system. Does that violate the laws of physics? No. The formation of solar systems is similar. What begins as a large cloud of matter settles, via the force of gravity, into neat, nearly spherical masses orbiting one another in neat, eliptical orbits. Does that violate the laws of physics? No. There are plenty of examples of chaotic systems becoming ordered one, all according to the laws of physics. So I do not understand why you think it cannot happen.

As far as physics being consistent with the bible, I could cite at great length things which were claimed to have happened that would have violated the laws of physics-- the sun standing still in the sky, for example, though I don't have chapter and verse handy-- but then, I imagine you believe that god can break all the laws of physics he wants, so those would not be a problem.

I think I am going to stop now, I fear I've been rambling. I hope I've been clear, at least somewhat.


David: Thank you, you have given a whole lot of good points, some of which I hadn't heard before. I don't think that I can coherently state my thoughts better at the moment, I guess to me randomness would be the opposite of predictability - if something is ordered it requires something to give it that order - which in my mind the only possible original source for which is God. Thus without God how are things given order? I know general theories of evolution started with extremely gradual mutations, yet the fossil record does not indicate this, and there isn't time for those mutations to have developed the variety of life we currently see. I know I don't have the generic physicists stance on these subjects, current educational policies have done no one good in restricting what teachers can expose students to so that they can make up their own minds. The data is the data, yet it can be interpreted in widely different ways depending on worldview. It thus seems that we disagree as I think we have both stated our views and countered efffectively. I am glad that you can defend your view effectively and intelligently. I wish to seek truth, and I have had too many personal experiences with God to discount Him - but all I can do is express that, it does no good to force the issue. Thus I thank you, congratulate you and bid you a good night - you have stood up for your beliefs well today and that is a good thing.


Further responses can be found here; it seemed silly to re-post the entirety, as it was 17 pages long. Be sure to read the comments there as well.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Community Service

It's finals week, which normally means people are extremely busy and stressed, studying for exams. I've never been the type to stress over exams, and while I'll do a bit of studying, I'm not particularly worried. But I am stressing and busy with something else-- the Tyson Project, as I have started thinking of it.

$40,000 is a lot of money, and expenses add a couple thousand to the total-- $50,000 is a very high guess, but a good number to start with. Always estimate high, and then not have to worry when things are more expensive than planned. And since I do not plan to count on ticket sales (even though I know I could), it's a very, very daunting number.

I talked with the Colorado regional coordinator for the SSA. He was initially optimistic, offering ideas of people to talk to about getting money, but then he talked with someone higher up and told me that he didn't think it was possible. He mentioned that the largest speaking fee his group had ever raised was $1,000, and that they had trouble with that. I am not going to let that stop me... but it does put it into perspective a bit.

Fortunately, I talked with my sister, and while she says that she finds the price offensive, she also offered some good advice about getting money. It's kind of her job, so I really appreciate the advice. The big thing that she mentioned today that is occupying my thoughts is this: people are more likely to give money to a group they have seen doing good for the community. Which makes a lot of sense-- get attention for and from the school, and we're more likely to get help from them (and others) with raising money.

The problem is, I'm not sure what big things we can do over the summer to get such attention. There are several things I can think of for service. The first is raising money to donate to a charity-- a worthy thing, but since we are going to be trying to get a lot of money for Tyson, I don't want to tap too much into people's funds before then. The second is to volunteer for an existing organization-- again, a worthy thing, but it won't get a lot of attention for our group. The third is what I am looking for-- something we can do on our own that will be good but not cost a lot of money, since we don't have a lot.

Ideally, I'd like to get a lot of people together for something big, something where we can get media attention. If a local news station-- or even a paper, or news website, but something official-- covers a service project of ours, we can point to it to show potential donors what we are about. But I don't know what.

I'd love to organize a small-scale version of Camp Quest, since starting one of those in the Denver area is one of our long-term goals. I don't know that we have the resources, and I can't be there during the day during the week, so I really doubt we could do it. But if we could it would be great.

Ugh. Need to have a brainstorming session, but getting people together for such a thing turns out to be fairly difficult.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


As I said, last night I sent an email to Dr. Tyson's people inquiring about what it would take to get him here. 

This morning, I had a reply.

Not from Dr. Tyson-- I didn't expect he would see the message anyway-- but from the person who books his speaking engagements. He gave me his phone number and said I ought to call, he could answer my questions. I freaked out about that for a while-- I hate phones, and when it comes to contacting important people, I much prefer to have the time to compose my thoughts and agonize over my phrasing that email allows. But I did so.

It costs $40,000 to get Dr. Tyson to speak. 

Plus first class travel and expenses, of course. 

And the scary thing? We're actually going to try to make it happen.

Dr. Tyson is booked until next year, what with filming the new Cosmos series. In general, it's best to try to book him very far in advance anyway, I am told, because he gets hundreds of requests a year and can only do so many of them. So the fact that we had said spring at the earliest is actually fairly convenient. In fact, Dr. Tyson has an engagement in California on May 1, so if we wanted to book him the day before or after, it would cut down on travel costs. 

A couple of things make the very large number slightly less scary. Only half of it is due at the time the contract is signed, and even that might not be set in stone-- some schools, I am told, have a policy against paying advances. Mines is one such school, but they make exceptions for cases where it is industry standard to do so, so I'm not sure whether we will have to or not. The rest of the money-- or all of it, possibly-- is due the day after the event.

That's where the other one comes in: ticket sales. Our largest venue on campus seats 1100. I wish we had a larger-- it will be no trouble to sell that out completely. But if I set the ticket price at $20, that will cover more than half. And if I set it at $25... I don't want to set them that high, but I think I could. (Yes, $40 tickets would probably cover everything. I don't want to set the price that high-- I want students to be able to afford to go.)

However, as confident as I am of selling out our auditorium, I know I should not count on that money. Besides, it would be much better to have the ticket sale money to use for the future-- so I'm left with trying to raise $40,000. 

But like I said, the scary thing is that we're going to try. How amazing would that be? Not only being able to meet one of my idols, more personally because I'm an organizer for the event, but also the message it would send. A brand new group, able to raise that kind of money and get one of the most recognized scientists alive to come to our campus-- I wonder how much the Campus Crusade for Christ has ever raised for one thing? And if we can get the full amount before, we'd have $22,000 (or more!) to use for charitable donations and service. How much has the Fellowship of Catholic University Students ever donated in one big chunk? It's a petty, selfish sort of glee to think about being able to top those two-- among others-- in our first year of existence. 

By the way, if you have fundraising suggestions-- preferably ones that bring in a lot of money-- please offer them in the comments... we're going to need all the help we can get!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Yay, productivity!

Today was an awesome day.

I met with my officers today, and we discussed at great length the feedback we got from the brainstorming session last week. We made a lot of decisions, in terms of what we need to be doing before fall. In mostly chronological order:

We are going to have my VP talk to Phil Plait about speaking for us this fall. He has already offered to come speak to the astronomy club (that my VP is president of) for free, so we think this will not be too hard a sell. He will, we hope, be our big name speaker for the fall. We also decided there was no harm in trying to find out about getting Neil DeGrasse Tyson for the spring. I wrote an email to the "Request a Speaking Engagement" address on his website this evening, asking for information about bringing him in in the spring. Here's hoping!

The first big event we are concerned with is the Celebration of Mines, our fall club fair. I've ordered tabling supplies from the SSA, found a link about buying Darwin fish and other things in bulk, emailed the RDF about buying Out Campaign stuff in bulk, and my treasurer is going to talk to the person in charge of such things tomorrow to be sure we have a booth space reserved. We decided that instead of having people write their name and email on a list, we'll have them type it into a spreadsheet on my tablet-- no handwriting issues, and my tablet has enough battery to last through the day with no problems. We'd like to have event cards to give out-- that is, an index card or smaller sized thing that has information for the next event we are doing. We also talked about having people fill out surveys so we can get a better feel for the campus's attitudes, and about having some sort of game for giving away swag. We're not yet sure what we will do to attract attention, but we'll put some thought into it.

We talked for a while about other events-- debates we could host, movie nights, getting a group together to go to the Reason Rally next year-- and then moved onto service. We love the idea of helping with Jeffco's Outdoor Lab program, and reaching out to the Girl Scouts (but NOT the Boy Scouts-- they allow neither gays nor atheists). In the nearer future, we'd like to help clean the campus-- pick up trash, mostly-- and donate to the food bank, or a similar organization. Those are simple things to get started in, and if we're going to reach Tier 3, we have to do at least 3 service events a year.

Then we moved onto education, and started talking about my VP's pet project. He wants to collect videos of people talking about how they came to be atheist/agnostic/humanist/whatever label they wear, and put them online somehow. It's rather nebulous at this point, but this does make it very convenient that our faculty adviser is also in charge of the AV Club. I decided to find out about what it might cost to get a more professional website set up; a friend is researching that for me now.

Fundraising is always a challenge; we have decided that our big event is going to be an annual Flying Spaghetti Monster Dinner. Buy a plate, get spaghetti and a raffle ticket (more raffle tickets can be purchased at an additional cost) and some kind of entertainment. Servers will dress as pirates, naturally. We're thinking this should happen in November; we've already decided that there will be a committee for it.

Finally we talked about other groups we could cooperate with. Sigma Lambda (the local GLBT group) came up again, as well as APO-- I am told they do a lot of philanthropy, and would be happy to work with us. We also talked about gradually taking over the newspaper-- apparently a few years ago they were all super conservative and Christian. This has improved, but it's about time we got another voice in the paper.

As the meeting wound down and we talked about committees, we got a little silly. The committees would all have excessive names:
- Fundraising: There's Always Money in the Banana Stand Committee
- FSM Dinner: The Committee Touched By His Noodly Appendage
- Outreach: Really, We Don't Eat Babies
- Events: Cool People Doing Cool Things
- Planning: Hindsight Is 20/20, Foresight Should Be 20/20
- Executive (officers): Committee for Investigation of Recursive Committees

Then we made a to-do list, which I have already made a good start on. All in all, a very productive day.

Monday, April 30, 2012


I've been sick the last couple of days, and so I've been playing a lot of Dwarf Fortress, which explains the lack of blogging (oops...). I mentioned the entertainment value of the RNG (random number generator-- it's what decides the random factors in video games) in Dwarf Fortress; today, I thought I would give you some more examples, in my current fortress.

I finally downloaded the Lazy Newb Pack (LNP), a very useful thing that allows me to turn off aquifers and invaders and contains tools like DFHack, which allows me to designate whole veins to mine and see what my moody dwarves need. It also comes with several graphics packs, which are neat, although I was fine with the ASCII art of the base game. So, having gotten these useful things, I started a new fortress (my last one, Splashbronze, fell to invaders). This is the saga (so far) of Swordtreaty.

First things first, I turned off aquifers and invaders. I wanted to get some practice with long term things without having to worry about a siege of 97 goblins, battle toads (that the goblins were riding), and trolls, like I had in my last game. Also, I don't yet know how to deal with aquifers. I also set my world to be a bit smaller and have less history and savagery, but more minerals-- really, I wanted a fairly easy game. I found a site that had everything I wanted-- deep soil, a river, shallow metals, deep metals, lots of trees-- and picked one of the ready-made embark teams that came with the LNP. It was a good site, nice cliffs so I could have a protected entrance (even without invaders I wanted to practice building a better defense system), easy access to the river so I could build a well easily, lots of trees, and when I started excavating for my fortress, I almost immediately hit copper and aluminum.

Then things started getting annoying. As I am excavating the very first part of my fortress, I get a notification that my hunter cancelled hunt: dangerous terrain. A little while later I get a notification that he has been missing for a week. Sure enough, he fell into the river and died. When a dwarf dies, if his body is not properly buried, he will haunt the fortress. I knew it would be some time before I could get coffins made and a burial chamber built, so I expected that I would end up with a ghost. What I should have expected is that no one-- not my hunters, not my fishers, not my woodcutters, not any of the dwarves out collecting materials from outside-- would be able to find the body. The Ghostly Hunter claimed the first coffin I set up, but since I can't retrieve his partial skeleton (the only part of him I can find), I'm stuck with a ghost. He's not being too troublesome-- since he was one of the first seven, not many of the dwarves in the fortress know who he is, so he doesn't torment them much. At this point I kind of like him.

So I get my fortress mined out, and I've struck huge veins of native gold, as well. I'm excited-- I have a lot of trees, so once I get a wood furnace and a smelter, I can start making things out of these valuable metals! ... and then I find out that none of my dwarves can operate the wood furnace. I appoint a manager and look at the workshop-- a dwarf must have at least novice level furnace operation to use the workshop. That means that I can't just toggle the ability on in a bored dwarf. I don't know why that one workshop has that issue; all of the others I can just give a random dwarf the ability to use it and they will. Apparently not so with the wood furnace. So I resign myself to waiting. Surely one of my migrants, at some point, will have the proper skill.

My fortress now has a population of 225-- with a population cap in the game of 200, so I get 2 or 3 migrants a year-- and not a SINGLE dwarf can use my wood furnace. And I have found a huge amount of copper, gold, and galena, which can be smelted down into lead and silver. So I am mining the depths in the hopes of either finding a magma vein (and then maybe figuring out how to make a magma forge), or breaching the underground cavern and having a few of my dwarves die off from various beasties, so I can get more migrants. At this point I would mine out adamantine just for the demons to come and kill off some of my population. Damned useless dwarves.

One thing I tend to forget about is making clothing. I've rarely had a fortress last long enough for this to be a problem-- clothing will eventually degrade and rot, but I've not had this problem because I tend to fall to invaders fairly quickly-- but I forgot about babies growing into children. Babies don't need clothing, but children do. And I wasn't paying attention to the children-- they can't be assigned any sort of work, so I don't really notice them. Until they start throwing tantrums, that is.

Dwarves have moods. Good things, like eating a fine meal or dining in a nice dining room or admiring their own bed, will give them a happy moodlet, while bad things, like being caught in the rain or being annoyed by flies or the death of a loved one, will give them a bad moodlet. So will being unclothed, it turns out. So when one of my children threw a tantrum I went and looked at their mood-- they had been embarrassed by being uncovered lately, and were upset at having no shirt. Oops! So I built a whole bunch of clothier's workshops and started making clothing. Only there is no option to make shirts! I cannot find a way to make shirts! So I made some dresses and robes and trousers and socks and shoes... and my children are still tantruming, running around naked as far as I can tell. The best part is that I have had two go stark raving mad, which means they strip off all their clothes (...) and then eventually die of dehydration or starve to death. And it seems that my adult dwarves are stockpiling clothing now, keeping it in their rooms. Dammit, dwarves! Won't somebody please think of the children?!

I do rather like that I have invasions turned off, because I've got a pretty strong military anyway, so when there is a thief, I send like twenty dwarves after him. I had an ambush once-- six goblins, and then another six. Oh no! What ever will I do? So I sent four squads out-- thats forty dwarves. The ambush didn't last very long. I'd have sent all of my squads, but there were merchants at the depot so I left two squads there to defend, in case a goblin got away.

The other fun thing I've got that I've never had to deal with before is nobles. The dwarven civilization decided to make Swordtreaty a barony, so I appointed a dwarf to baron. This meant that he needed a much bigger and nicer bedroom, some armor stands and weapon racks and cabinets and chests, and his own office and dining room, and a tomb. Recently he has been promoted to count, which meant he needed even nicer things, but fortunately the stuff I gave him was already good enough. Unfortunately, he and my mayor have the option of making mandates and demands. And both are demanding, you guessed it, things made of metal! Dammit, dwarves, I need to have a furnace operator before I can make shit out of metal! Their mandates, however, are always entertaining. Make three crutches! Make two more crutches! Don't export any crutches! Make three more crutches! Apparently my mayor is really worries about inuries. My baron, on the other hand, was obsessed with slabs. I didn't even know what a slab was before he demanded that I not export any; he apparently realized that there were not any slabs to not sell, so he then demanded that I make some. I think I may put them in his room, since he is so fond of them. The mayor, having gotten eight or nine crutches for himself, moved onto demanding bucklers, and then moved onto large cut gems... at which point a different dwarf got elected mayor. I wonder if the dwarves saw that as corruption?

I can easily see, having played a bit more, how games like Boatmurdered and Bravemule have been woven into the hilarious stories they are. I think I might have to, on my next go round, chronicle the whole thing with a bit more accuracy. I might even try to go back and chronicle this one. I rather like Swordtreaty, with its ghostly hunter, useless ores, naked children, and demanding nobles.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Another week, another SSA event...

Today we had another SSA meeting, and this time we asked Dr. Shorey to speak. Dr. Shorey is probably my favorite professor I have had thus far at Mines. He teaches one of the core classes, Earth and Environmental systems, and so most students have had him at one point or another. Apparently they had another professor do it one year, and there was enough of a public outcry that Shorey returned. His class is extremely easy-- not because of the subject matter, but because of the way he teaches. He has pre-written objectives, from which all the test questions will be pulled, so you know what you need to take notes on and what you need to study. And he has a podcast of every subject he covers in the class, in case you have to miss for some reason. But mostly, he's awesome because he is very, very enthusiastic.

When we started talking about this group, someone mentioned that they had been talking to him about being a faculty advisor, and I was a little surprised-- in one of his podcasts (specifically the one on evolution) he states that he is a christian. Apparently that is out of date; he was very keen to help us get started, and he has connections and all kinds of useful things to offer.

Today he spoke about religion. He began by declaring himself an agnostic secular humanist, which he then defined: agnostic because he doesn't know about afterlife or the supernatural, secular because if he doesn't know, he's not going to make decisions based upon those things, and humanist because to him, the most important thing is the survival and well-being of the human race. I rather like that definition, as well as that label. He then spoke about what he called the elephant in the room-- religion. Apparently the word comes from two cells, "re," meaning back, and "ligio," meaning tied to. So religion, based on this, is something that ties us back. To what? Dr. Shorey stated that he believes it ties us back to each other, to a belief that we are all connected and important in some way.

He spoke then about myths-- he is fond of the hindu myth regarding the face of glory, and fond of myths in general, and in that, I agree. He says that he certainly does not believe them to be true, but that there is worth in them anyway. Then he talked about the anthropic principle a bit, and I think he was a little too soft on the idea of the strong anthropic principle. (The weak anthropic principle states that of course the universe is "fine-tuned" for life; if it wasn't, we wouldn't be here to wonder about it. The strong anthropic principle involves the idea that we are necessary for the universe to exist or continue existing, which I find rather silly.)

Then he talked about whether science and religion were compatible, and here is where I disagree with him. He didn't come out and say it, but he appeared to support the idea of Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA. What NOMA states is that science answers one kind of quesiton, and religion another, and they therefore can coexist as long as they don't try to deal with the other's subject matter. I disagree. For one, religion seems to step into science's domain, if you want to think of them as separate, all the time. Fundamentalists especially want to step in and say that science is wrong, but really, all of them do it. They believe prayer can heal, and they believe miracles can break the laws of physics, and they want to define where life begins for their own morality's sake. And yet when science tries to step into their domain-- that's intolerance!

It goes deeper than that-- what IS the domain of religion, exactly? It used to be that it spoke on everything from the causes of the weather to dietary restrictions. Now we know better-- that's science's domain now. Religion can talk about an afterlife... sure. Science cannot yet say whether there is any point to that. I think the presence of a soul-- a non-physical, animating thing which makes us who we are-- is absolutely a scientific question, and that it doesn't look terribly good for the supernatural claims at this point. Does religion dictate morality? HELL no. As they say, it takes religion to make a good man do evil things. Should science dictate morality? It's got a much better angle on it, as far as I am concerned.

But at the core, the problem is that the very basis of all science and the basis of all religion are at odds, as far as I can tell. Religion asks that you believe, without proof-- the more you believe, the "better" you are. Science asks that you put every hypothesis to the test. The less you believe, without evidence, the better a scientist you are. And the religious reliance on faith, on believing in spite of evidence, is, I think, harmful to the human race. It teaches people NOT to hold their ideas up to examination. It teaches people that "I don't know" means "god did it," rather than "let's find out."

In any case, I very strongly disagree with the idea of NOMA. Other than that, though, today's meeting went very well, and Dr. Shorey filmed his talk, so hopefully I'll be able to share it soon. For the moment, I need to head to bed, it's been a long day and I've a long weekend ahead of me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Off Their Rockers

Old people are awesome.

I've been saying it for years-- I love old people. I think they're adorable, and they get to have a lot of fun I couldn't get away with, because no one's going to say anything about it to a little old lady. And Betty White's new show, Off Their Rockers, is a celebration of that fact.

When I was young, my mom had this poem hanging in our downstairs bathroom:

With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

I always liked that. It's the basis for the Red Hat Society, if you've ever seen any of the groups of Red Hat Ladies out and about. I don't like them quite as much as the poem-- I don't think they really get into the spirit of it. But Betty White? Yeah, she gets it. She just turned 90 years old and she poses in pictures with young men in speedos. And now she has this show, where a bunch of old people do crazy stuff and prank young people.

The first thing that happens in the show is a great example. An old man stops a young woman in a mall, and asks if she can take his picture. She agrees, and he tells her that he wants a running shot, so he's going to go around the corner and get some momentum. He disappears, and when he comes running back around... he's naked. He's smiling ear to ear and she actually does take his picture before he is tackled by security, at which point the girl is giggling to herself, not sure what she ought to be doing but extremely amused.

The whole show is like that. Most everything they do gets the same reaction-- a slow-dawning realization of "what the hell just happened?" followed by giggles. A little old man asks for help sending a text message to a lady friend. A young woman agrees. He asks her to send "You bring the wine, I'll bring the whips and handcuffs! Tonight's the night!" and when he leaves, she gets on her phone and tells her friend about the most incredible thing that just happened to her. An old man hobbles up with a cane, pulls a skateboard out of his bag, and proceeds to show up the little teens messing around in the area. Then he puts it away and hobbles off. I'm surprised no one got their phones out to take pictures, but all the spectators were grinning from ear to ear, unsure what they just saw, but delighted by it all the same.

It reminds me of Improv Everywhere, which you should look up if you've not heard of them. They're absolutely delightful. They do things like choreographed musical numbers in mall food courts, with everyone from the janitor to a girl working behind the counter in on it. Sometimes they'll even get spectators involved, like the time a guy got everyone on the subway to help him propose to his girlfriend. It leaves people delighted, because it's fun, and because it's totally unexpected.

So it is with the little old man coming into the grocery store and bowling with produce, or the guy whose motorized wheelchair tried to run away, or the little old ladies dressed as nuns who invite people to a party with a wet t-shirt contest, or, really, most everything that I have seen on Betty White's show. It's delightful. And it's on hulu-- go watch it!