Jim Downey's picture

The Amazing Randi

When I was a kid, I just loved the idea of psychic abilities - just about any variety that I came across in the science fiction I read made me jealous, wanting that power, wondering whether or not there wasn't some such latent skill in all of us, waiting to be tapped. That's one of the reasons that I construct a plausible explanation for psychic abilities (and why they haven't been reliably manifest) in Communion of Dreams - it's just such a great idea, and so deeply embedded in most human societies, that it almost seems like there has to be something to it.

Jim Downey's picture

Tossing out the junk.

I remember, when I was a kid back in the 60s, that it was still fairly common for people to routinely and without much thought to just toss junk out of their cars onto the side of the road. I'm not talking about the occasional idiot with no care for the environment - I'm talking about your typical American. The roadsides, as a result, were awful. This was also still the era of private and informal 'dumps' all through the countryside where people would just literally fill up a small creek valley with their trash and unwanted junk. It wasn't really until the nascent environmental movement got going that people started to think of the world a bit differently, and within a decade or so it was no longer culturally acceptable to just toss junk out of your car or dump your trash.

So, when I see this kind of news item, I am taken back to those days:

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A spacewalking astronaut tossed two large chunks of junk off the international space station Monday, hurling the old equipment into orbit.

Jim Downey's picture

Not quite sure what to make of this...

From those wonderful folks who brought you Exit Mundi about end of the world scenarios, comes The Other Bible:

‘Bible mysteries’ are hot. What really happened in biblical times?

Did Jesus have children? Was there really a flood? What were those strange plagues Moses brought about in Egypt? What about the star of Bethlehem, the walls of Jericho, John’s Apocalypse?

On this site, we aim to share with you what scientists think, say and write about the bible. We present the evidence historians, archeologists and theologists offer.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this site, to be honest. The writer claims to respect religion, and not to be out to change anyone's beliefs, but then generally shows that things in the Bible are either flat out wrong, or just reflect religious beliefs which were appropriated from other religions in order to promote Judaism/Christianity.

Anyway, looks like a moderately interesting resource, though somewhat basic. Be curious to hear what you folks think of it.

Jim Downey

Jim Downey's picture

Fox and Squirrel.

Standing there, looking out the window to the driveway just below, I saw the fox take the unwitting squirrel. One quick, quiet leap from behind a tree, a snap, pause to snap again at the struggling grey mass, and it had breakfast. A pretty, lethal thing, yellow-red short fur, characteristic long legs and bushy tail, eyes sharp as it looked around. Probably weighed twelve to fifteen pounds, lean and long. Made me consider keeping the cats inside.


Jim Downey's picture

David Blaine as the modern Jesus.

An interesting project: the face of David Blaine substituted for that of Jesus in a number of classic paintings. From the artist, Ben Bloch:

Jim Downey's picture

I performed a religious rite this morning...

...I trimmed my fingernails.

OK, let me explain.


20 years ago, as I was working on a MA in Lit, I had to fulfill some language requirements. I already had a BA in German, so decided to branch out a bit, and did a couple of semesters of Old Norse. I never really was very good with the language, but did develop an appreciation of a whole world-view and literature with which I had been previously completely ignorant.

Now, if you've ever read any of the Viking sagas (there are plenty of good translations available), or the Eddas, there is a whole lot of Norse mythology in there. If you're not familiar with this literature, except by reference from modern culture, it is worth looking up a couple for some reading - the level of violence in the culture as seen in something like Njal's Saga is most impressive. But even more interesting is the complete difference in mythology and mindset in the pre-Christian era: it is surprisingly bleak.

Jim Downey's picture

You can't make this stuff up...

Via Pandagon, a nice little news story tied to our friends at the Creation Museum:

Columbus, Ohio (AP) --
The man who plays Adam in a video aired at a Bible-based creationist museum has led a different life outside the Garden of Eden, flaunting his sexual exploits online and modeling for a clothing line that promotes free love.

After learning about his activities Thursday, the Creation Museum in Kentucky pulled the 40-second video in which he appears.

Yup, because you know, he can't have had a life at all prior to being Adam. But here's the best, and funniest, bit:

"For the Creation Museum, I did what I did as an actor. It doesn't necessarily mean I believe in evolution or a believe in creation," Linden said. "I'm hired to get a point across. On the flip side, if I was hired to play a murderer, that doesn't mean I'd go out and kill somebody. It's make-believe."

Jim Downey's picture

Still dead.

BHEJAPADAR, India (Reuters) - The corpse of an Indian man was exhumed by his family in a remote eastern village in the belief that a witch doctor could bring him back to life, three days after he died.

Arun Majhi, 21, died after he was bitten by a snake while scouring the jungle near his home for firewood last Thursday and his grieving family buried him the same day.

But two days later, Majhi's mother dreamt that her son could come back to life.

You gotta feel sorry for their loss of their son at such a young age, and how that sense of loss would lead to such a false hope. But still, I found this closing line from the article fairly insightful:

Superstitions are widespread in India, especially in rural areas where an ineffectual schooling system has left millions illiterate and uneducated.

I guess the problem was that they buried him rather than putting him into a cave and rolling a big rock in front of it...

Jim Downey

Jim Downey's picture

A matter of principle.

When I was still new to being in business as a bookbinder, I had someone call me one morning about doing some conservation work to a musical instrument. After I carefully explained that I was a book conservator, not an artifact conservator, they said that what they needed was the replacement of a small piece of leather which had been pared down to suitable thickness and then mounted, and that there wasn't anyone in 100 miles who could do this for him. The guy practically begged me to help him out. Finally, I relented, and told him to bring the instrument in so that I could see what exactly he was talking about, but I made no promise that I would do the work.

Jim Downey's picture

It's all about image.

This week I had cause to travel to a nearby city for business, responding to a query I'd received about my conservation services. A small private educational institution had recently acquired a large collection of books of historical interest, and they wanted me to take a look at the collection and give them some kind of estimate on what the costs might involve. This is a fairly typical request, and I'm used to discussing these matters with the appropriate staff and administrators.

However, when I got to the appointed meeting, it quickly became clear that in the mind of the administrators, "conservation care" meant exactly one thing: rebinding all the books to look new. To make the collection all nice and pretty, like one of those fake bookshelf sets in some office or as a movie prop.

Jim Downey's picture

Bible deemed "not obscene" in Hong Kong.

From Reuters:

Hong Kong's media regulator has rejected calls to reclassify the Bible as an indecent publication following more than 2,000 complaints about its sexual and violent content, including rape and incest.


The regulator received 2,041 complaints against the Bible this week, following an uproar over a sex column in a student magazine that was classified as "indecent" by authorities for asking if readers had ever fantasized about incest or bestiality.

Well, from reading additional background on the Blogger News Network, it seems that this was as much about the cultural & governmental relationships between Hong Kong and mainland China as anything else. But still, you have to chuckle over the idea that holding the Bible up to the same standards as applied to other publications could well have lead to requiring it to be treated as "indecent" material, and only sold to adults...

Jim Downey

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Varghese And The Traitorous Bees

Roy Abraham Varghese, theistic apologist and god-bothering author from the "Institute of Metascientific Research", was recently interviewed by the Dallas Observer. Varghese is widely credited as "the man who won over Anthony Flew", and is now currently working on a book called "There Is A God" with Flew.

Varghese is an interesting character because his contention is that without a meta-intelligence, all science devolves into incoherence if you drill-down deep enough, or pull back far enough.

It's a lot of pseudo-scientific nonsense of course, a philosophically slick update to the theistic evolutionist's mantra.

More below the fold...

Jim Downey's picture

Straight-A student completes assignment, is arrested.

From the Chicago Tribune last week:

High school senior Allen Lee sat down with his creative writing class on Monday and penned an essay that so disturbed his teacher, school administrators and police that he was charged with disorderly conduct.

"I understand what happened recently at Virginia Tech," said the teen's father, Albert Lee, referring to last week's massacre of 32 students by gunman Seung-Hui Cho. "I understand the situation."

But he added: "I don't see how somebody can get charged by writing in their homework. The teacher asked them to express themselves, and he followed instructions."

Allen Lee, an 18-year-old straight-A student at Cary-Grove High School, was arrested Tuesday near his home and charged with disorderly conduct for an essay police described as violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location.

Jim Downey's picture


Let's see if we can start a meme (which I didn't realize was a term coined by Dawkins - all the better)...

I tried something on a limited basis last year at Christmas: giving small, high-quality flashlights (such as these). Why? Because I liked the subtle symbolism of the gift. A good, small flashlight can stay on your key ring and always be there to help you out when you need it. It isn't the only tool you need, but can help you find your way in the dark, relieve fear, locate lost items, figure out what you need to. Not unlike the ability to actually think rationally, reason your way through the darkness.

Jim Downey's picture

Um, no.

You may have already seen this. Since I pretty much ignore Time magazine, and don't get out much, I hadn't been aware of it until a dKos diary this morning. But the cover of the current issue is:

Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public School

The text reads as a more nuanced argument, but still the implication is clearly that this Sky Daddy crap should be taught in public schools. Granted, the article argues that it should be done under the auspices of 'literature' and 'cultural history', but anyone who has seen the fundies at work will soon realize that this is just a foot in the door for every teacher out there to push their particular mysticism.

Gah - that we have one of the major 'news' publications pushing this crap is disheartening, in the extreme.

Jim Downey

Jim Downey's picture

Yeah, I'm *sure* that he was just trying to get them to think critically.

From CNN:

SISTERS, Oregon (AP) -- During his eight days as a part-time high school biology teacher, Kris Helphinstine included Biblical references in material he provided to students and gave a PowerPoint presentation that made links between evolution, Nazi Germany and Planned Parenthood.

That was enough for the Sisters School Board, which fired the teacher Monday night for deviating from the curriculum on the theory of evolution.

"I think his performance was not just a little bit over the line," board member Jeff Smith said. "It was a severe contradiction of what we trust teachers to do in our classrooms."

Helphinstine, 27, said in a phone interview with The Bulletin newspaper of Bend that he included the supplemental material to teach students about bias in sources, and his only agenda was to teach critical thinking.

Eric Lorson's picture


First of all, I apologize for my (second) long absence. In addition to finding out I had to move and then actually having to move within the course of 30 days, I had two family members die - one before and one after Christmas, so this has been a pretty hectic and emotional time for me these few months.

One of the first things I noticed (other than the fact that when you reach the age of 35 your friends and family will no longer help you move) was how death brings people from all religions together, but tends to exclude atheists. If death is the end, then what does it matter? Why even bother attending a funeral if you don't believe in God? It can be very upsetting and sometimes depressing to realize that one day it will be me that dies. It is a very hard reality to face.

But I also spent a good bit of time watching astronomy shows with my son (thank you Science Channel), who wants to be an astronomer when he grows up. (It is amazing to hear a 10-year-old boy tell me that he wants to invent a telescope that will allow humans to see ‘dark matter’). One scientist made a particularly astounding comment, and I paraphrase; ‘every molecule of matter on this planet and in our bodies was forged in the center of a star somewhere. So when we study the universe, we are actually studying ourselves.’

Jim Downey's picture

Technological advancement is always painful.

In addition to being a brilliant novelist, I am a rare book conservator. And as a rare book conservator, I deal with artifacts of technological change which undoubtably presented problems for early adopters:

Thank Thor it's Friday!

Jim Downey

Jim Downey's picture

Two-minute warning.

So, today the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Society is moving the "Doomsday Clock" two minutes closer to midnight, to just five minute before 'Doomsday'. From their website:

We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.

Jim Downey's picture

A skeptical conservative.

Via James Wolcott, comes news of Heather Mac Donald's battle to reclaim conservatism from the Religious Right's dominance. At Gene Expression, you can find an interesting 10-point Q & A that includes this gem:

I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?

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