Blogs

16
Aug

The Future That Is Now

Image of Supercar, from the Wikipedia entry on the kids' show by that name.This is the future, and we're living it now. But . . . 

What you are about to read is a follow up to my earlier post surrounding Neil deGrass Tyson's "How much would you pay for the Universe?" video. Many of us really do live in what, as a child, I would have imagined as a pretty cool world, even if I didn't have a flying car. Speaking of flying cars, as a private pilot, I can honestly say that until self-driving cars (self-flying?) are mandated by law, I'm really kind of glad that flying cars aren't everywhere.

However, as cool as my world of computers and gadgets and Higgs bosons and deciphered genomes and etc, etc, etc is, I miss our collective thirst for adventure. We're more about gadgets than discovery. I had my first computer back in the late 70s and progressed through the school's IBM mainframe to my Commodore Pet, TRS-80, Vic20, Commodore 64, IBM PC, and PCs of many incarnations to my current collection of notebooks, tablets, ebook readers, and smartphones, scattered about my house and car so I can look something up from whatever room I happen to be in.

I love all that stuff. I have a Wii, a PS3, and I had an Atari 2600 as well as one of the original Pong consoles.

But it's all just faster, shinier, and (lucky for me) progressively cheaper tech incarnations of the same old ideas. We, as a species, seem to be pushing inwards and using up what we have here rather than reaching out. Space exploration takes a kind of wild thirst for adventure that we collectively seem to be missing. We're stagnant, waiting to see how much thinner or faster the next iWhatever will be.  And we're not just stagnant, we've become timid and insular as a species, looking to the next financial quarter rather than the next quarter century.

There's a very real anti-science movement out there, fueled by fundamentalists of all stripes. Stupidity and ignorance expressed in 15 second sound-bites is rewarded while scientists and secularists are viewed with disdain and distrust. You can say, "This [ insert project here ] is an affront to God. What we need is more people in pews and less wasted dollars on science." in 15 seconds. Explaining the benefits of space exploration takes a little more time.

I want to see us break through all that, forging ahead despite these negative pressures, but research and exploration on a grand scale requires a massive buy-in from the public. Sure, these may just be the "Dim Ages" (as opposed to the Dark Ages) and we may come out of this in another hundred or two-hundred years, but I don't want to wait that long. I want to know we can do it again (walk on other worlds) and I want my children to experience that sense of wonder and excitement, just as I did.

On July 20, 1969, when I was only nine years old, humans landed on the moon. Human beings boarded a rocket and flew more than 340,000 kilometers to another world! We were pushing the boundaries of our tiny planet and reaching out, however tentatively, to the stars. Right now, in 2012, my oldest son in 8 years old and NASA doesn't even have its own reusable spacecraft. The moon seems as far away as it ever did, and as excited as I am about Curiosity's landing on Mars, we haven't progressed beyond simple rovers. 

We used to be a people poised on the edge of space and now we're Earthbound, tied down by our petty wars and small imaginations. I want a world where my sons can share in the wonder of exploring worlds beyond this one, of reaching out into the universe . . . just a little father than the generation before mine did, more than 40 years ago. 
 
Back then, we stretched our wings and tugged at starlight. How did our dreams become so small?

I've never stopped dreaming.

13
Aug

Working on the Sabbath is a Deadly Mistake

When the weekend comes, I like to avoid work as much as possible. And that's probably a good thing because working on either Saturday or Sunday could get you killed by friends, neighbors, and possibly your loved ones, assuming they are devout Christians. Or Jews. You see, in the Bible, it specifically states that working on the Sabbath is a no-no punishable by death. Death by stoning no less. 

Harken to the word;

Numbers 15:32-35
King James Version (KJV)

32 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day.

33 And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.

34 And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.

35 And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.

36 And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.

According to the Bible, the perfect and unchanging word of God, it's okay to kill someone for working on the Sabbath because God says so.

Now I have to say that I find this just a wee bit harsh. The guy was collecting sticks. I grant you that not being a Christian, I may be a little more forgiving about these sorts of transgressions, but killing someone for gathering sticks on a Saturday just seems over the top and maybe even uncalled for. There could have plenty of good reasons for this guy to be collecting sticks. Maybe the meat had gone off and rather than throw it out, he wanted to cook it, perhaps to feed his wife and eight kids (who were then fatherless).

Of course, back then Saturday was the Sabbath.These days, if you're a Christian, you probably want to avoid any kind of labour on Sunday because that's what the Catholic church changed the Sabbath to; Sunday.  

If you're curious about this change, follow this link to the Catholic Mirror, "official organ of Cardinal Gibbons, Sept. 23, 1893".  Interestingly enough, most Protestant Christian groups just went along with the Catholic renaming of the Sabbath, or at least didn't kick up much of a fuss. Sunday as the Sabbath wasn't made official until January of 1910 when Pope Pius X gave it his 'apostolic blessing'.  About the only Protestants who really don't like this whole Sabbath on a Sunday thing are the Seventh Day Adventists. 

So whether you are looking to do a little work around the yard on Saturday or Sunday, just make sure you do it out of sight of your Christian (or Jewish) friends, family, or neighbours. In 2012, they probably won't stone you in the public square, but you sure as heck wouldn't want to be wrong on this one, even if they can no longer attend church because Jesus said it was a bad idea.

13
Aug

Spiritual Experience for the Non-Religious

As an atheist, I am occasionally presented with the question of spirituality. Many will point out that spirituality is the hallmark of the religious experience. It follows then, that if I can claim to have experienced what might be called a spiritual experience, then I must allow for religion. Conversely, if someone is a non-believer, the spiritual experience must be alien to them; something they can't possibly understand. 

Not so. The spiritual experience is part of being human and one can feel it without the slightest nod to a god or that god's peculiar collection of rules and rituals. Awe and wonder are not shut out to me because I choose to eat whatever the heck I damn well please on Friday. Transcendent joy isn't locked away where I can never feel it because I choose to play with my children on Sunday mornings rather than taking them to a shaman who will do his best to close off their minds and chain them with the fear of a non-existent deity. 

I have had, and continue to have, real and powerful spiritual experiences. These include, in no particular order, and at various times in my life :

  • holding my wife in my arms
  • seeing my children being born
  • hearing my oldest son (who has autism) say something new, without prompting
  • figuring out a complex problem I have been working on
  • reading a really great book
  • looking out into a clear, starlit night
  • sex (one of the most powerful spiritual experiences a human being can have)
  • having someone do something kind for me, without my asking
  • standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon
  • seeing protozoa through my microscope
  • seeing the Rocky Mountains looming high above me as we drive ever closer
  • my first solo flight in an airplane
  • a loving kiss
  • seeing the impact marks from comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in my backyard telescope
  • coming to grasp with some new learning (science books do this for me)
  • standing in front of the large tank at Marineland and watching the Orca swim by, inches away
  • catching the wispy ring of the Crab Nebula in my telescope
  • holding a copy of my first book, fresh from the box
  • getting hugs from my kids with an "I love you" thrown in for good measure

Without reservation or exaggeration, I can honestly say that some of these moments are spiritual, even transcendent.

All those things . . . love, friendship, the appreciation of nature, the feeling of being carried away by music, the exploration of the self . . . none of these things require religion. Nor do they require a holy book of any kind. The Bible, the Qur'an, or the Talmud are no better moral guides, nor divinely inspired, than "Horton Hears A Who" or "Harold and the Purple Crayon". And in terms of enriching the human experience, I'd go with Horton and Harold.

Religion and its associated holy books are the trappings. If anything, they take away from the spiritual experience by providing you with a ready-made set of guidelines and rules that you must follow. They chain your mind and restrict your spiritual growth by teaching that the only path to true spirituality is through its complex maze of justification and fear. 

I'll close this post by suggesting that the path to spritituality and personal growth actually opens up when you reject God.

Incidentally, in a recent post I responded to a related argument where a couple of friends argued that since I believed in love, I must (obviously) believe in God. You can read my reply to that by clicking here.

12
Aug

What "Our Menu Options Have Changed" Really Means

It seems that every time I call a company these days, the first thing I hear when the line is picked up are the following words.

"Thank you for calling Our Big Megacorporation. Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed."

Feel free to substitute "Our Big Megacorporation" for any business name you please. For the sake of this discussion, it's pretty much all the same.

I don't know about you, but I find it hard to believe that the menu options on the automated phone trees of every company on this planet has recently changed. In all likelihood, some companies are using the same menu they've been using for quite a while with few, if any, changes. This must be true unless, of course, there is only one automated response company in the world and they supply only one message for every company on the planet. Again, that seems unlikely. So why then, if it's impossible for every automated answering system's menu to have recently changed are we being told this over and over again. After a great deal of thought, maybe as much as five minutes, I think I've nailed it.

What the message actually means is, "Listen you stupid caller. We know that you think you're clever and that you remember every damned company's phone tree. You hitting the wrong number means that you're going to disturb one or our people with requests to be transferred to somebody who doesn't even work here and frankly, we'd rather than them not be disturbed by losers like you." That's one version. 

Here's the second. "Dear halfwit caller. We don't enjoy being bothered by people like you so we've created this complex menuing system which, while it hasn't been updated in years, claims it does because we're on the other end placing bets as to how long you're willing to continue pushing buttons before hanging up in frustration." And we hate your little dog, too.

A third scenario. "Hey moronic caller, don't you dare push zero to reach an operator.  Besides, the operator does pretty much all the work at this company, including answering the phone and we need her to fetch coffee right about now. If you listen to the menu, there's a 50/50 chance you can reach the answering machine of somebody who doesn't work nearly as hard as the receptionist."

And this forth, also highly plausible,scenerio. "Dear caller. We spent so much money on this phone system that we never bothered changing the default message that says our menu options may have changed. Since we don't know how, claiming that our menu options have changed makes us sound important and very much the company on the move while making sure we never have to learn this damned menu system."

There may be other meanings associated with the "our menu options have changed" message, but I think I've pretty much got it. 

What do you think?

10
Aug

The Last Separatist

The following bit of prose goes way back to the early 1990s. It's interesting to be able to look back on these things and reflect; partly to see how you've grown and where your opinions have changed. In the piece, there are many references to various political events here and around the world as they happened or were happening as the time (happy hunting). By and large, I still feel much as I did back then. The only change I would add has to do with the concept of countries. If you manage to read to the end of my piece, I'll tell you what that change is.

My original comments follow.

For this one, it helps to be a Canadian, I suppose. I don't know how exciting the whole Québec referendum thing is anywhere else in the world, however, the market watchers would have us believe that the world is VERY interested. This piece is unusal for me since I rarely write anything that resembles poetry, but right around the Charlottetown accord, (or was it the provincial election in which Parizeau rose to power?) I was so sick of the separatist talk that I sat down and composed The Last Separatist. You see, I am proud of my heritage and my country, but I honestly believe that the time for countries is past. The world I envision is a complex organism with numerous and diverse entities all working toward a common future. That we should still be seeking to create ever smaller states baffles me. But, that's just me.


The Last Separatist

Around the world, elated voices cried,

"Freedom!" as the spectre of red doom was
Exorcised in the birth of disparate states.

Untainted by the heralding gloom,
Of economic collapse and civil war,
Committees of individuals defined their uniqueness
And thereby several new nations sired.

The walls came tumbling down.
The two are one again.
But some are more equal and some are bad.
It's time to clean up.

"Here's to ethnic purging, and the birth of a nation!"

Dictators were devoured in the arena.
In dying colour. In your living room.

After much talk and fear of cultural death,
A united Europe was rejected as a bad idea.
"We are Europe's distinct society," the Major said.

These stories and more; news at eleven.

But that's all far away, so don't worry.
All we want is self government. Oh...
And our own country. No. This province will do nicely.
Thank you.
Oh, and veto over anything we don't like.
And use of your currency, armed forces and postage.
Oh, and...

Then the west cried "What about us?"
We want all those things too.

The states having already fallen, fell further.
"Too much individuality is bad," they said.
"Let's outlaw this and outlaw that. Can't have
these sick and depraved among us."

Those left behind created their own societies
since they could not share those who declared them
criminals.

Then came the cities who declared their individuality.
And the suburbs who felt their distinct flavour being
swallowed in low income housing.

Fences rose higher.
Borders grew more defined.
Better make it electric.
Can't trust anybody.
Look out for number one.

Each by each the distinct societies grew.
First Joe on Park Ave, then Horace on Main.
Ellen, Maria, Jacob, Pedro, and Ted grew walls,
But Gloria's were nicer. She used real brick.

Until there was only me.
I did not want to separate.
I believed in unity and freedom for all.
Yet I gazed at the fences that surrounded me
and by process of elimination, the last
separatist became himself distinct.

And alone.

At least I will be able to preserve my individuality.


And now we return to 2012 and where my views differ from my 1992 self. I still believe that no state should be allowed to act as though it can do whatever it damn well pleases. Much as I am sometimes unhappy with what goes on (or doesn't) at the United Nations, I believe that something like the United Nations does need to exist. But central control on a global scale is, I now feel, a naive concept at best. But just as no man is an island, no country stands alone and each nation must understand that what it does has consequences, not just for themselves, but for the world. And since what each nation does affects the rest of the world, the rest of the world does have a right to respond. It's messy, but as a species we're still young and we still have a lot to figure out. Growing up, however, will mean casting off some of the things of youth and those things that divide us. What that all means is going to take a lot more space to explore than my quick single-paragraph update. So stay tuned . . . 

-- Marcel Gagné (August 2012)

09
Aug

Too Many Sites?

Too many notes? How about too many sites?

I've always had trouble focusing, at least for long periods of time. Focusing long enough to get this job done or writing an article, is well within my capabilities. Perhaps it's more a question of too  many interests. When I fill out a questionnaire that asks for my 'Interests', I don't know where to start. You see, I'm interested in everything!

  • science fiction and fantasy
  • religion
  • Linux and open source software, including Android
  • space exploration
  • genetics and epigenetics
  • politics
  • sex
  • psychology and the theory of mind
  • ethics and morality
  • superstition and mythology (which could go under religion)
  • libraries, data storage, and archiving content
  • history
  • movies
  • physics . . . oh might as well add science as a general category
  • books
  • music, which includes rock, opera, classical, baroque, big band, blues, and pretty much everything else
  • silliness and various ephemera

I could go on and on and on . . . but as you can see, I really am interested in everything. I'm an information addict. Worse, my passions are equally widespread. How is a guy supposed to function under these crazy conditions? How are you, dear reader, supposed to follow my work if you happen to be interested in Linux and free software when only every tenth post is on that subject. Or religion, or politics, or science fiction.

To be honest, I find it hard to keep up with me and this does pose problems when it comes to organizing my thoughts, whatever that might mean. Since I run a company that does Website hosting, among other things, I tend to create new Websites. I have a general Website under the marcelgagne.com (you are likely here) banner and various others depending on where I think I should be concentrating certain types of content, like Linux and Open Source. Heck, I even have a Website for those things that interested me only briefly (Look! A Shiny Object!) before I move on to the next distraction.

And yes, all this means that I have a dozen or more domains registered that are basically all for my own writing.

What about you? Am I the only one who has decided to create Websites as he sees fit? Is this just plain crazy or a normal part of blogger/journalist evolution?

If you are part of the eternally distracted set with countless interests, tell me how you handle all this. I'm genuinely curious.

07
Aug

NASA Lands Car-Size Rover Beside Martian Mountain

Awe-inspiring . . . spectacular . . . glorious! Let's see where Curiosity will take us.

An amendment to the state constitution that says "no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs," may be coming to Missouri shortly. Does evolution violate your belief system? No worries. You can skip that class.

What if your religion teaches that members of other religions are inherently evil or not quite human? Or perhaps your religion teaches that women do not deserve equality and any course that shows them to be equal to men should be avoided. And what if the history curriculum promotes racial equality when your religion disagrees or paints your particular brand of faith in a bad light? Witch burnings, anyone? How far should this farce be allowed to progress?

For more on this nutty idea, read the USA Today story here.

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