Monday, June 27, 2011

I can be good without God... not.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently posted billboards that look like this,

I know... Dylan is such an ass-wipe.

Or he's religious.

At least, that seems to be the opinion of a nearby church in Columbus Ohio. The billboard is on their property (I suppose under lease), and they asked the advertising company to take the ad down.

But let's think about this. Can Dylan be good without God?

Since the church asked to have the billboard removed, then they must disagree with it. Technically speaking, the logical negative of the statement is

Either Dylans is not good, OR he believes in God.

And that's an inclusive OR, so it includes the case where Dylan is a jerk AND he believes in God. Maybe that's what they had in mind.

Do they know something about Dylan that we don't? Perhaps they have insider information that shows Dylan is actually a real butt-head. Or maybe they found out that he's a closet Christian.

In any case, it goes to show that being an atheist is not seen as an asset in today's society. But that's prejudice.

More likely, the church is hoping to keep its members from being enlightened.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Summer solstice: it's worth celebrating

Today is June 21. It's summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.

For my birthday last May, I asked for a globe. I wanted to be able to illustrate solar-system phenomena to my kids, as well as show them the true geometry of our world. For example, the shortest path from Vancouver to England passes through the arctic circle.

A couple days ago, I pulled the blinds over the window, grabbed a lamp and my globe, and showed my 3 kids what summer solstice means, why it happens, and how it's linked to the seasons. It's the day when the earth's spin axis is maximally inclined toward the sun. Here's another - more technical - way of putting it. Imagine a line connecting the sun and the earth, passing right through the centre of each. Now draw another line along the earth's spin axis, also through the centre of the earth. Those two lines form an imaginary plane. Another imaginary plane is formed by the earth's orbit around the sun. A solstice occurs when those two planes are perpendicular.

You might have heard of the arctic circle, equator, and the tropics. These earth zones are all defined by the earth's tilt and are related to the solstice.

(Taken from this video.)

The tropics are the range around the equator, from 23.5o north (Tropic of Cancer) to 23.5o south (Tropic of Capricorn), where the sun is directly above at some time of the year. We never get that in Canada... we're not in the tropics. The closest we get is today, summer solstice.

Finally, here is a picture of Tricia on our honeymoon.


What the hell does that have to do with summer solstice, you ask? Notice that her shadow is directly below her. This picture was taken in Mexico right around the time of the summer solstice, the only time I've seen the sun directly overhead.

(And Trish isn't too hard on the eyes either. :-)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Poor Gideons lose their unfair advantage

According to the KW Record, the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) voted 8-3 in favour of a motion to discontinue the tradition of allowing the Gideons to distribute the Bible to grade 5 students. It's about friggin' time.

Here's the interesting thing. It seems that it took the threat of a Muslim group distributing the Qu'ran to put the brakes on the entire practice. Because once the school board allows the Muslims, then they'll have to grant the same courtesy to the Anglicans, Jews, Hindus, Bhuddists, Baha'i, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

So, I'm glad that the school board put an end to all this nonsense. Don't worry about board trustee Cindy Watson's comment that the vote "sends a negative message that we are anti-Christian". Rather, the fact that they've allowed it for so many years suggest the exact opposite; the school board has historically been far too pro-Christian. This vote was a corrective adjustment to make it equal for all religions.

But Watson said something that I liked, "Banning the Bible is not the answer." Apart from the fact that the Bible is not being banned, I quite agree with her. I'd like to see ALL religions taught in grade school. Perhaps the grade 5 kids could spend a week learning about each of the major religions. Once these belief systems are compared head-to-head, it becomes patently clear how ridiculous they all are. Think of it as part of the childhood vaccination schedule.

I sure hope the Muslims are pressuring the government for a publicly-funded separate school board.

(Thanks to Chris Burke for pointing this out to me.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Homeopathic "doctors"

Here is a short video from a colleague of mine, Iain Martel. It seems that many homeopaths are illegally using the title "doctor" or "Dr.", even though these designations are protected by the government.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fairy Land 3D

We went camping last weekend and had lots of fun. Trish got the kids making "Fairy houses" and she blogged about it. Don't get me wrong... I'm not claiming that fairies exist; they're only slightly more probable than God.

We took a bunch of pictures of the fairy entrances, and I noticed that two of my pictures -- when shown in succession -- give the illusion of 3D.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Popoff makes me sick (that's irony)

Peter Popoff appeared in Toronto a couple weeks back. Some of my skeptical friends attended.

(The exposé letter they showed at the end... that was written by me.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Measles outbreak in Quebec

Instead of the usual "one or two cases of measles every year", Quebec has seen over 200 in the last month.

If only there was some way to prevent measles.

Oh yah, there is...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Geo Centre kicks ass!

I decided to go to the Johnson Geo Centre this morning to catch one of their sciencey movies called "Earth: The Power of the Planet". I know, I thought it sounded awesome too.

Unfortunately, a school group of 13-year-olds had the theatre booked to see a movie on volcanoes instead. Fortunately, it was actually a really amazing movie. After that, I watched the movie I planned on. It was also great.

Let me share with you some of the amazing things I learned.

The giant meteorite thought to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs is not visible directly. It's on the tip of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. However, the outer rim of the crater is marked by cenotes, or sink holes... holes in the ground leading to elaborate caves filled with water.

Another amazing meteorite crater can be seen in Arizona.

View Larger Map

The movie on volcanoes had an excellent demonstration of plate tectonics. It showed a time-lapse movie of a lava lake in the Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia, similar to this video,

I thought that was a really vivid illustration, especially since continents moving over millions of years is pretty hard to grasp intuitively.

Speaking of land moving, the movie also mentioned that some mountains grew about 5 metres after a single earthquake.

I was taken aback when "The Power of the Planet" movie went on and on about how special the earth is. Just the right distance from the sun, with just the right mass, and atmospheric CO2, etc. It was starting to sound like a privileged planet argument that you would get from Intelligent Design proponents. But in the end they were simply making the case that our (human) influence on the planet can disturb the balance and render earth unliveable. The take-home message: earth will survive a long time, but we might not. I think that's an important message.

Another interesting factoid I hadn't realized; about 700-million years ago, the earth was covered by ice and snow. They call it the "snowball earth".

I got to touch a rock that is about 3.8 billions years old. Newfoundland and Labrador is made up of multiple patches of earth plates, with dates of rocks ranging in age from 450 million years to 3.8 billion years. The rocks around St. John's are about 450 million years old... just babies. But that's old when you consider that the Rocky Mountains were formed a mere 100 to 200 millions years ago.

Iceland sits atop a huge plume of magma that protrudes up through the earth's mantle. It's right where two major plates meet. Iceland probably formed from an underwater volcano.

The centre also had a nice section on human evolution. I especially like their coverage of cultural evolution, "Speech and language gave rise to counting, writing, ... and much else that forms the foundation of culture, including art, music and religion."

Going for a jog... and calling 911

Finally got some nice weather here in St. John's, Newfoundland. So I went for a run to see downtown from the east side of the harbour. You can see the GPS track here.

I saw some quaint houses on the far shore, at the bottom of Signal Hill.

I also spotted what looks like fossilized ocean floor (something I saw earlier today in the Geo Centre).

I ran to the end of the road, to Cahill Point. While looking around, I heard a teenage boy yelling "Help..." I turned around and saw him standing on the top of a rocky hill, waving his arms. He was yelling, "HELP, my friend's dying!" Now, I was skeptical, but thought I'd better take some action. I waved back and called 9-1-1. I told the 911 operator what was going on, and that I wasn't sure if it was legit. He asked where I was, and I replied "Fort Amherst" (and he repeated "for-dammers"). There was another kid on the cliff who didn't seem too concerned, so I told the operator that I wasn't sure if it really was an emergency. He said he'd probably send someone anyway, and took my phone number (I run with my iPhone... spare me the geek comments).

As I was leaving, another kid came down the rocky hill slowly, and I asked him if he knew the kids up top. He said he did, and that they were joking. Turns out, the kid on top was just teasing his somewhat chubby friend who couldn't make it all the way up the hill. The chubby kid apologized for his friends, and I told him he should tell his buddies to look up the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". Just then, a fire rescue vehicle came around the corner, lights flashing.

After finding out what was up, the fireman radioed the station to ask the other vehicles enroute to "stand down". Except for one... I'm wondering if it was a police car on its way to set the kids straight.

Incidentally, a couple with two children also heard the boy's calls for help, and we briefly discussed whether or not to call 911. Turns out, they are also from Waterloo, and live about a 10 minute walk from me. Small world... when one attends math conferences, anyway.