Archive for July, 2005

A fun movie tomorrow night

July 29, 2005 4 comments

This evening MrsDoF and I watched “Pete’s Meteor,” starring Mike Meyers (Wayne’s World, and Shrek).  Something tells me he was trying to “show his range” because the funnyman was playing a former addict whose life was catching up to him.  The movie takes one down turn after another (in the context of a goofy but tragic Irish plot).  Despite an attempt at a happy ending, it’s not a particularly happy (or good) movie.  But tomorrow we can fix all that…

I once knew a fellow who was so devoted to Star Trek that he fashioned his own movie-prop quality Klingon uniforms and makeup.  He knew every line from every episode and movie, and could dispense amazing high-resolution trivia.  Occasionally, he also held a job for months at a time. 

Compared to him, I’m a complete failure as a Star Trek fan, but I did enjoy the movie; “Wrath of Kahn” where Ricardo Montalban (sp?) wreaks terrible vengance on Captain Kirk.  And it’s at the Normal Theater this weekend.  Cheesy fun!

“Vengance is a dish best served cold.  And Kirk,
it is very cold… in space!

The other movie this weekend was “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” which I have been meaning to rent.  But my favorite old ‘50’s SF movie would have to be “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”  I love this scene:

“The aliens have achieved much longer lifespan through their superior medical science.”  (offers pack to other doctor) “Cigarette?”
“Thank you, don’t mind if I do.”

Saw that one at the Historic Normal Theater a few years ago.  Lots of audience participation there – movies are more like a party.

UPDATE: Movie was a lot of fun, lots of hootin’ & Hollerin’ from the audience and we sat with a friend from work.  I got the bit of dialogue quoted above wrong – oh well. 

The Normal Theater hands out movie reviews when you buy your ticket, which is really keen.  You can read up on the history and making of the movie while getting your popcorn.  It seems that Wrath of Kahn was made for only $10m, due in large part to Roddenberry handing production chores over to TV producer Glen Larson.  The result was a movie regarded by fans as the best Trek movie, even though the special effects are, well, not-so-special.

The first Trek movie, Star Trek, The Motion Picture is regarded by fans as the worst one – and it cost $40m in 1979 to make.  The moral of the story (in case George Lucas is reading this) is: your special-effects budget is only tangentially related to how much your fans will like the movie.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

An overly literal mind

July 27, 2005 2 comments

Last night MrsDoF was upstairs doing her algebra with a PBS broadcast of the Boston Pops in the next room.  Vanessa Williams was singing her famous songs and I stopped to listen for a moment.  There was something about “The Colors Of The Wind” and another in which she she sang;

Sometimes the snow comes down in June
Sometimes the sun goes ‘round the moon…

Then there was some romantic stuff from which she concludes;

And now we’re standing face to face,
Isn’t this world a crazy place?

Everytime I hear that song I am reminded of my poetic limitations.  I find myself in an imaginary conversation with a pop star, in which I say; “Vanessa, it is true that weather patterns are variable enough for snow to come down in summertime, but one thing you can depend on is that the sun will never, ever, orbit the moon.  Massively larger objects do not orbit smaller objects.”

…At which point she’d be justified in saying; “What are you, some kind of idiot?  It’s a song!  Moon rhymes with June.  Jeez, some people just got no imagination.”  (Shakes head and steps into limo with entourage of bodyguards and rich friends)

Categories: Humor

Edison, Tesla, and a really stupid woman in Iowa

July 24, 2005 15 comments

Everyone remembers Thomas Edison as the man who invented the light bulb (at least, the first commercially successful one) but few know about his fight with Westinghouse over direct current.  It all started when he hired a young scientist named Nikola Tesla.  But what does that have to do with a stupid woman in Iowa?  Read on…

Edison set Tesla on the task of fixing the electrical generator on a ship.  He told Tesla; “Fix that really fast and I’ll give you a thousand dollars,” or something of the kind.  And Tesla did, saving the shipping company from defaulting on a contract.  But Edison reneged, saying “Can’t you take a joke, Nikola?”

Not smart, Tom.  Nikola may have been an unhealthy neurotic with a thick foreign accent but he had the kind of mind Edison’s company needed.  Tesla and his mind went over to Westinghouse, where George Westinghouse put him to work on research projects.

Tesla knew, for instance, that alternating current (AC) would travel much farther than direct current (DC), so he invented a rotating-field motor that could use AC.  Edison preferred DC, no doubt because it galled him to pay licensing for the rotating-phase motor. 

For a time the two companies were locked in a technological battle similar to VHS vs Beta, or Windows vs Macintosh; complete with ad campaigns, public stunts, and dirty tricks.  As we all know, alternating current won – not that it ultimately held back Edison’s company much.

But how fast should alternating current… alternate?  60 cycles seemed logical, since there are sixty minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute.  It simplified the making of electric clocks, but by unhappy coincidence, 60 cycles is just about right to trigger heart fibrillation in a person who is electrocuted.  Yet, it became the standard for the US electrical system.

Fast-forward to Little Sioux, Iowa, in 2005. 

“A woman in this western Iowa town died Friday, apparently while trying to drive worms out of the ground with a homemade shocking device, officials said.

Harrison County Sheriff Terry Baxter said the woman, who was in her late 40’s, had a 2-foot metal shaft that was wired to an extension cord and secured with tape.  Such rods are used to send electricity into moist soil, which forces night crawlers out of the ground.

“It’s not uncommon in our area,” Baxter said.

Baxter said the woman apparently was standing in water on saturated ground and was electrocuted.”
Tribune News Services

Y’know, hon, most people use a car battery for worm harvesting.  It brings the worms up just fine, and as Tom Edison demonstrated in his anti-AC smear campaigns… it’s a heck of a lot safer.

Categories: Stupidity

Ten Commandments letter to the editor

July 24, 2005 8 comments

I live in a mid-sized MidWestern community with a good newspaper, The Pantagraph, which does a good job of publishing editorials from community leaders.  A local pastor wrote one of those “We’re a Christian nation, the Ten Commandments are the basis of our law, etc.” editorials.  This is my response:

Dear Editor,

I just read Rev. Knight Wells’ 16 July ‘From The Pulpit’ editorial; “Commandments basis of our legal traditions.”  He writes: “The Ten Commandments have been the basis of our legal and constitutional traditions since this nation began.”  Then he quotes Andy Rooney’s list of biblical engravings on buildings all over Washington.

If Rev. Wells’ point is that our country would do well to embrace Christianity, he has every right to make it.  But he’s flat wrong about American legal tradition.

The United States Constitution, not the Ten Comandments, is the foundation of our legal system and traditions.  Other than a reference to the date, our Constitution mentions God exactly zero times, while deriving the right of governance from the people. 

Some (not all) of the founding fathers were men of faith, but their recent experience had convinced them that the government should not be in the religion business.  They wrote this insight into the FIRST Amendment. 

The Ten Commandments may be a fine thing, but the first four are plainly sectarian.  Also, the popular version derives from a movie promotion campaign some years ago.  Read the unvarnished King James Version in Exodus 34 – that would be the version our founding fathers knew best.  Then ask yourself; “Is it the basis of constitutional law?”

If we have heard enough quotes from Andy Rooney, let me quote James Madison: “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.” (1803)

The Constitution does protect religious displays on private property, at private expense. 

Thank you, – GW
(Of course, I couldn’t sign it, “Decrepit Old Fool.”  Such are the differences between blogging and editorializing on dead trees.)

Categories: Religion

The sex post

July 21, 2005 1 comment

The blurb for this blog says something about sex, but the truth is, I have never done a post about sex before.  I’m not a prude or anything; it’s just as C. S. Lewis said; “The moderns have managed to accomplish what I should have thought impossible, that of making the whole subject a bore.”  It is safe to say no one comes here for titillation.

Well if you wanted something sexy, here you go: a link to actual pictures over on Pharyngula, of two people having sex.  No gimmick, they’re not covered by blankets or clothes.  The pictures are quite graphic; in fact somewhat more revealing than is customary. 

Despite the fact that, (ahem) I’ve been around a bit, I found the post (with its accompanying text) quite educational. 

A new way to fail

July 20, 2005 4 comments

Why didn’t we think of this before?  Instead of telling school kids they’ve “failed” a course, let’s just say instead that they’ve deferred success” so they won’t feel bad.

Really!  As John Hoke said;  “I am not making this [stuff] up.” 

Luckily someone has the sense to call a halt to it.

(I don’t know whether to file this under “Education” or “Stupidity.”  No wonder John uses “Folksonomies” instead of “Categories.”)

Categories: Education

Mr. President, it’s Bill O’Reilly on the phone

July 19, 2005 Comments off

OK, simple minds are easily amused…

On Saturday:

“Well, he meant those Harvard pinheads… not the real people of Boston, the working people.”
- “Fair ‘n Balanced” Bill O’Reilley, putting some positive spin on Sen. Rick Santorum’s Boston-bashing; 16 July 2005

Then on Tuesday:

“He is an honors graduate of both Harvard college and the Harvard Law School.”
- George W. Bush, describing the qualifications of his new Supreme Court nominee on 19 July, 2005

I don’t know anything about the new Supreme Court nominee but Faux News loves him.  I guess Harvard pinheads can score a point once in a while.

Categories: Politics

Erase your old hard drives

July 18, 2005 1 comment

Information Week reports that Seven out of ten used hard drives have recoverable data on them.  This is no joke if you are selling or discarding an old computer.

I always grab used computers from trash piles.  Not only is it a good source of usable parts, but I’ve built quite a few working computers for friends that way.  I always use a disk wiping utility to clean out the hard drive, though. 

The most recent example had a bad power supply – easily fixed – and when it booted up it plainly showed their kids’ Disney software, their Quicken financial data, and quite a bit of porn.  Glad to wipe that disk out!

Take care of your data, folks.  If necessary, pay to have it erased.

Categories: Stupidity

The atheist closet

July 17, 2005 3 comments

Imagination is an important tool for understanding others.

Ever consider what it would be like to live in the closet?  Suppose you were gay (some won’t have to suppose) and a majority of people around you thought that because of that you were immoral or evil.  Just to get along, you disguise any hint in your actions or words that might tip anyone off.  You’re conscious of every word and gesture, hiding even from people in the same house.  At work you have to be careful.  In your heart, you know you’re a good person but you hear talk…

All around you people are relaxed and at-ease with their heterosexuality.  They crack jokes, kiss in public, hold hands, talk about their kids.  Pictures of their partners adorn their desks and wallets.  You can’t have any of that.  You wish you could just relax and be yourself.

A few years ago I wrote an essay comparing the gay closet and the atheist closet.  It rattled my mother so badly she stopped reading my website!  She was actually afraid I’d be fired for being an atheist and said I should take the essay off my website.  (In fact I am lucky to work for very fair-minded people).  But occasionally I do read of atheists hitting reprisals in the workplace.

Then last week I found a new blog, Atheist Exposed, about a woman who lives in the South (!) and has come out of the atheist closet in her workplace.  She inspired me to dig up the essay and re-post it here on my blog. 

It’s time atheists came out of the closet

Living in the closet is a lot harder than it sounds.

I guess I knew all along, but ten years ago, I admitted it to myself. There’s something about me that I have basically hidden from some of my closest friends, some family members, and my co-workers for over a decade. I guess I’m afraid people just wouldn’t react to me the same way if they knew. It’s sort of a taboo topic, though in recent years, more people are living openly.

Even after I “became a Christian” in high school, I knew something was wrong. But I was determined to overcome my doubts; I studied for the ministry in college.  After graduating, I got married and “moved to Normal” (Normal, Illinois, that is.)

I struggled inside, trying to fit in. I studied hard, attending church and taking part in committees and worship services. I wrote articles and letters. I felt like it was all on borrowed time. No one knew! Occasionally, my wife would suspect.

And oh, yes, I prayed.

Finally I admitted it to myself, and came out to one of my best friends from college. It didn’t go well. He was grieved and distressed, and so was I. But there was no turning back. It felt like an amputation, to cut off an assumption about myself that had always been there: I no longer believed in God.

The preceding paragraphs sound as if I were gay, but I’m not. Gays and atheists have a lot in common, though – we’re often lumped together by conservative elements, blamed for every kind of problem in society, even discriminated against. People in both groups learn not to ask, not to tell, and feel the burden of constant pretending. And just like a gay person, I have no choice in the way I am.

How I got this way:

Back in the ‘70’s, I went to a good Christian liberal-arts college in East Tennessee, receiving a strong general undergraduate education with a major in Bible and a double minor in history and psychology. My goal was to enter the ministry and eventually to enroll in divinity school.

I was popular in church. I’m good at public speaking. People found me inspirational. But faith was a struggle for me back then, and it only became more difficult until I eventually realized I didn’t believe in God at all. This admission was an “agonizing reappraisal” because I’d invested so much in the Christian faith.

In the following years I stopped going to church, and simply kept quiet about it.  In other words, I was “in the closet.”  At first this seemed like a perfectly acceptable solution.  I have nothing against anyone for having religious beliefs, and there’s nothing to be gained by arguing with them over it. 

Why come out of the closet?

But a lie of omission is still a lie.  Coming out to my friends from college (of whom two are working ministers) was extremely difficult.  I could tell they were hurt and they are worried about me.  To their pain, I have no answer except that I wish I were not the cause.

Leaving Christianity was excruciating for me because I had invested so much in it – a college major, 20+ years of my life, and my own credibility. But now I am an atheist, or more specifically, a humanist who simply does not believe in God.  This poses a different set of challenges from pretending to be Christian.

In the larger context of a society where atheists feel compelled to silence, it’s important to speak out.  An atheist is not less of a human being, is not a priori an evil person, and should not have to live with discrimination.

Remaining in the closet allows other people’s misconceptions and prejudices to exist unchallenged, and that hurts everyone.  Once the truth becomes widely known, there will still be people who will hate or fear atheists (or gays, or any other minority) but at least let them do so honestly and not from misinformation.

Life in a religious society

In our society you are assumed religious until proved otherwise, and religion is everywhere.  Not just “In God We Trust” on our money, or the ever-present “God bless you” when you sneeze, but prayers before Congressional sessions, judges defending old Cecil B. De-Mille 10-commandments’ monuments, tax-subsidized churches (exemption=subsidy), bumper stickers, jewelry, screen-savers, religion-based science policy, and so on.

Recently I was in another person’s office and saw a printed homily about the 9-11 attacks, which concluded at the end; “Without God, life would be hopeless.”  The person certainly had a right to express themselves in their own office but it says something about their perspective to dismiss the lives of so many people as “hopeless.”  At minimum it’s a poor way to begin any dialog.

Prejudice may change its object, but not its character. Many very nice people believe some quite vicious stereotypes about atheists. Politicians who wrap themselves in a religion-soaked flag can always score points by blaming society’s ills on atheists, and some of the rhetoric is frightening. 

Because of prejudice, being an atheist practically closes the option of high public office.  It’s getting more problematic to discriminate against gays but apparently atheists are still fair game: Bush Sr. even said atheists could not be patriots and should not be citizens.

Many atheists are angry because of attitudes they have encountered.  You can find any number of websites hotly denouncing religion. I’m not too fond of the religion scenario myself, because it has held the human race back from solving some of its worst problems. But anger isn’t usually very constructive.

Mutual respect

Does that mean I have an obligation to try to “convert” my Christian friends? I don’t think so. Evangelism is a Christian imperative, not an atheist one.  I’m not forcing my atheism on them, nor asking them to keep silent about their Christianity.  We need not respect each other’s beliefs, but let us respect each other.

Respect in this context does not mean agreement or assent, but disavowal of stereotype.  For discrimination on the basis of stereotype says; “you are not a person.”  It is the ugly equivalent of black-face statuary or vicious ethnic jokes.

What is atheism?

Atheism is the lack of any belief in god.  There are atheists who are sure there is no god, others who are sure it is not possible to be sure.  But there are hundreds of things that atheism is not.


One person “congratulated” me for “not leading the little ones astray,” but I have to answer, “Don’t get too comfortable, there.” Religion has been the proximate cause of centuries of bloodshed and the convenient excuse for untold volumes in the story of injustice. Maybe I should be making religion work a little harder for its converts.

One dear woman told me, “You ought to be thinking about where you will spend eternity!” There’s material for a long article in that statement alone – about volitional versus nonvolitional belief, about good intentions, etc.  Briefly,  deciding what to believe based on some personal benefit of that belief is dishonest, and requires a dishonest god.  As C.S. Lewis said (in the malevolent voice of Screwtape), “You see the little rift?  Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.”

Of course, the nice woman didn’t stop to think, that as a former minister who became an atheist, I had probably thought about eternity a lot more than she has. I have read the Bible closely, several times in different versions, underlining passages and writing comments in the margins. I have studied commentaries and histories.  I tutored biblical Greek in college, and I have translated parts of the New Testament from the original language. (So lay off on the Bible quotes, OK?)

If it turns out the theists are right, and there is a God, I hope she is truly merciful, because it would be cruel to condemn someone for failure to believe, when belief is impossible. And if God is cruel, then she isn’t the god portrayed in the Bible, at all. Or come to think of it, maybe she is.

George Wiman, July 2005


Categories: Religion

OK, government regulation isn’t ALL bad…

July 16, 2005 3 comments

Last Friday evening I saw the movie; ENRON, The smartest guys in the room at the Historic Normal Theater, and I’m just getting around to writing about it now.

Why the delay?  Because I was trying to figure out what to say.

On the one hand, the movie was immensely entertaining.  The story (based on a book by Fortune magazine writer Bethany McLean) tells how an energy-futures trading company charmed financial institutions around the world, promoted a new business model and a new type of accounting, coerced financial analysts, manipulated energy markets at home and abroad, and finally collapsed in a huge steaming pile of fraud.  That the movie was fun could be seen in the ample audience participation – laughter, groans, and animated conversation afterward.

On the other hand, the story drills a number of painful holes in my libertarian/conservative teeth. 

I like to believe that government regulation of markets (in the form of subsidies, limits, and controls) are the reason that marketplaces don’t perform better than they do.  Why, if gub’mint would only git out of the way, the marketplace would find the best solution every time!

But that’s plainly not true.  One area where it does not work is in necessary services that can’t be assigned to individual consumers.  NOAA comes to mind, and the CDC, the Army Corps of Engineers, or for that matter even the whole national defense enterprise.  If we depended on the market to do these things, they wouldn’t get done – and they need to be done.

The other major area of market failure is where corporations become large enough to manipulate the markets out of sheer greed or the ego of their leaders.  That seems to be what happened with Enron.  The less regulation on that company, the worse it played out for consumers.  The wreckage caused by the wishful thinking of deregulation landed on literally millions of people’s lives.

Ego played a large role in Enron.  The lead guys were “colorful”, to say the least.  And they obviously thought very, very highly of themselves.

I was fascinated by how financial institutions could look at Enron’s business and accounting models and not back away and go wash their hands.  There really is something in human nature that wants to believe things will turn out great, I guess.  We want to believe the promises of the huckster.

This does not bode well as larger forces are at the disposal of corporations, and it isn’t that reassuring in the hands of governments either.  The unfortunate lesson is that sometimes, only government regulations can prevent disaster.  I find it a scary thought because there are so many examples of government incompetence.

The movie did play into one of my pet intersts, though.  History is full of examples where disaster loomed, a few people said “this will cause a disaster!” and were brushed aside with “Pshaw!  That’s crazy talk!  You just be quiet now!”  Some of my favorite examples are the Johnstown flood, the Gimli glider, the Kansas City Hilton walkway, and the Challenger shuttle.  I’d never thought of adding a financial collapse to the list, until now. 

ENRON: the smartest guys in the room is definitely recommended!

Categories: Movies, Reviews