Archive for July, 2010

Decrepit is NOT impressed with them newfangled contraptions.

July 26, 2010 6 comments

This morning I was pushing my bike out of the garage, backwards as usual having pushed it in forward the night before.  Usually this procedure proceeds without perfidy but I accidentally bumped the trigger shifter, causing the dérailleur to shift over a couple chainwheels.  Under normal circumstances in a backwards-traveling bike, it makes a ker-blunkity sound as the chain spools awkwardly off the freewheel into the dérailleur. 

It isn’t harmful and the chain thla-blunks itself right back in line with the first forward circumvolution of the chain wheel.  But not this time; unbeknownst to me, the march of progress had planted a little technological booby-trap on my bicycle chain: a new type of removable link.  It holds just fine when under tension but under compression, it releases.  Clever!

(When did that happen?  How long have I been riding around on one of those kind of chains and not noticed, using my chain tool to remove them for cleaning?)

While rolling my bike backwards my chain broke.  Or more accurately, the clever little link compressed between the freewheel and dérailleur and disconnected itself, its little pieces flying off to parts unknown.  I had to ride a different bike to work today.

Now I’m sure that nifty innovation is a big boost to the whippersnapper set who have not mastered the art of using a chain tool but to me it was a major inconvenience.  I’ve never seen a chain do that before, and I’ve been slightly bonkers about bicycling since the year of the first Earth Day.  Back then my main bike was an English 3-speed.

I fixed the chain this evening by eliminating the modernity.  It’s all strong links now. 

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The odd little things you see lying on the ground…

July 26, 2010 5 comments

I walk the two-block route between my workplace and McDonald’s pretty often.  Saw this strange object lying on the ground the other day.

I’m pretty good at spotting stuff on the ground when I’m out walking.  Found a 3/16” wrench once.  I never even bother to pick up Bic lighters anymore.  Once in a while, a dollar bill.  Found a nice pair of pliers that I use a lot.  This glass tube is somewhat mysterious, though;  I couldn’t think of a use for it, so I left it there.

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Carl Sagan on the anthropic conceit

July 26, 2010 2 comments

The universe is mostly empty space.  In school we saw models of the Earth and the Moon close together, but that is a convenience so the model would be both able to fit in the classroom and still be large enough to see.  In fact, the moon orbits our world at a distance of some thirty-five Earth diameters, and our sun is more than thirteen thousand Earth diameters away.  And then we get into some really big distances.

A beam of light, if it had emotions like ours, would go insane from loneliness before it reached the nearest star.  For practical purposes it might as well be infinity, but the scale of distance has hardly come into view. 

Evolution did more than define the morphology and chemistry of our beings; it also adapted our senses and sensibilities to the scales and durations that most affect our immediate survival and ability to reproduce.  We are thus equipped with poor tools to grasp our place in the universe, and must invent new tools, mathematical ones.  Once these are applied, though, our sense of importance, of meaning and purpose, finds itself alone in boundless darkness.  If we “back up” enough to get any hint of the full universe, we can no longer see ourselves in it.

This is not necessarily bad news.  At some point we can stop wishing the universe would give us meaning and, on a scale appropriate to the reality of our existence, give meaning to the universe.  It is true that we are small, and that the universe is incomprehensibly remote.  It is true that our existence is, as compared to the passage of billions of years, incomprehensibly brief.  But our ability to think about it, however briefly, is something to celebrate.  We are here!  We can act kindly toward others, and we can protect and value the beautiful planet we leave to our children.  Even if we are the only ones who ever know about it, that legacy is better than any phantom. 

h/t PZ, who is off strike, thank goodness.

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A lesson in graph design

July 25, 2010 1 comment

With the baseline so far off-screen, the story is told by the apparent angle of a line through the data points, rather than their proportion to the whole.  Compress the scale horizontally and Bam!  I’m wasting away to nothing.  Why, at this rate by next week, I’ll hardly be here at all.

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The telling interest in Cary Grant…

July 24, 2010 Comments off

So this evening MrsDoF and I saw To Catch A Thief at the historic Normal theater.  Nice, but here’s the interesting part.  To me, it’s an Alfred Hitchcock film.  To her, a Cary Grant movie.  Repeated testing showed that this difference of perception is quite firmly set.

Thief was OK but not one of Hitchcock’s better efforts.  I liked North By Northwest, Rear Window, Psycho, The Birds, and Vertigo better.  However on checking his filmography, I find that, while I have seen most of his British silent and sound films, (some of which were wonderful, but a few of the earliest ones had me hitting the fast-forward button), there are a number of his American films that I have not seen.  I should look them up.

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The life of a stranger

July 24, 2010 5 comments

Years ago my dad told me that most people who hit a motorcycle later tell the police; “I never even saw him”.

This poster is on the side of a garage along US highway 51 in Normal, Illinois.  It’s been there for years, and is pretty self-explanatory, I think.  But I also think that when many people see a motorcycle, they are inclined to forget that it carries a human life, a person, with loved ones who would miss them if they were gone.  Instead, they may see the motorcycle as just an annoyance.  The bike is smaller than their cars, so it isn’t important.  They’ll crowd the bike, they’ll tailgate, they’ll just fail to see them at all

In my lifetime, I’ve seen attitudes towards drunk driving change.  It was always deadly, but there was once a time when, inexplicably, it was considered funny.  People would say; “Man, I don’t remember driving home last night at all!” and their friends would laugh.

Not anymore; if you tell your friend that you drove home drunk last night, you’re likely to get a richly deserved rebuke, and they won’t go anywhere with you.  They may take your keys, or even report you to the cops.  And they’d be doing you, and some stranger, a favor.

Some of this change came about from earnest Public Service Announcements on television, but much of it happened because of MADD and because of individuals who just decided it was worth getting up in their friends’ faces about.

I’m suggesting now that distracted driving is in the same category. People just don’t multitask behind the wheel as well as they think they do, and we should get up in their faces about it.  If you’re talking to a friend and you realize they are driving a car, say; “Are you driving?  Good bye” and hang up.  And if you know someone who texts and drives, refuse to text them at any time until they stop doing it. 

Clearly it isn’t just for motorcycles either: it could save a pedestrian, another driver, a bicyclist.  Or of course, you.  But it also saves the people who love you, or who love those strangers, from the suffering that follows the phone call no one should ever have to receive.

(This is for Justice Day, who heard the knock on the door that no one should ever have to hear, on July 04 this year.  I don’t know if cell phones or texting or tuning the radio was the reason, but clearly someone just wasn’t seeing motorcycles that day.  I couldn’t read what she wrote and not weep, or not write this post afterward.  Visit her blog and offer a kind word.  Or at least remember her when you drive.)

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Notes on “A Friendly Conversation with an Atheist and a Christian”

July 22, 2010 5 comments

Three denizens of Casa Decrepit went to the Evangelical Free Church in Bloomington, IL on Sunday night to hear “A Friendly Conversation with an Atheist and a Christian”.  The participants were Hemant Mehta and a professor named Todd Daly from the Urbana Theological Seminary. The format was all question-and-answer; I took notes best I could.  I’ll mostly focus on Daly’s comments here, because you can read (and respond to) Mehta on his website.

I’m used to rhetorical contact sports:  some of the online discussions I’ve taken part in amount to a cage-match between atheism and Christianity.  But this was a Friendly conversation so Mehta and Daly worked really hard on being nice to each other.  They’re both very nice guys going in, so that’s their style, but I kept wanting them to “turn it up to 11”.  I guess what works online doesn’t work when comfy chairs are involved.

Remember these are recollections, not quotes.  I’ve only used blockquote lines for clarity:

Question: why believe in God when there’s no evidence? 

Daly: Because just like in your marriage, you need trust to make a relationship work.  There’s a dynamic tension between belief and unbelief.  A life of risk is a life worth living.

About this time I’m thinking; does Daly supplement his income writing inspirational posters for “Successories?  “A ship in the harbor is safe, but it’s also a great place to throw a party”  But then…

Question: What is your vision for the Church? 

Daly: I would like the Church to explore what it would mean if we acted as if we believed Jesus was always, always on the side of the poor, the downtrodden, and the vulnerable. 

OK, I liked that, and so did Mehta.  If the most politically powerful Christians in my country took that approach, it is no exaggeration to say we’d have a better world.  Score one for the theologian.  But then…

Daly: Jesus took a bunch of outcast losers and spent time with them, molding them into a group of historical leaders.

Oh no! back to the Successories.  And it got worse; much worse.  Question: “How can you tell what parts of the Bible to take literally, and which are metaphor?”

Daly: By what we know today about how the world works. We’ve learned so much from carbon-14 and science and so on that parts of the bible that don’t fit can be taken metaphorically.

It was about then that my predatory, reptilian atheist mind wanted to simply lunge forward and devour the theologian in two or three gulps.

Really, I thought?  If it contradicts modern science, it’s a metaphor?  Are you implying that the biblical authors understood correct physics, cosmology, and biology, chose not to share it, and “spoke in metaphor” with a story about talking snakes, burning bushes, and a watery apocalypse, so the less revelatory fortunate would follow the story? 

Oh, and carbon 14 is a relatively short-lived isotope; it isn’t very useful to determining the age of the world.  It has a long enough half-life to determine that the Shroud of Turin is a fake, though.

(See, that was snarky of me, to think that.  Not Friendly at all.)

Daly: Were there really miracles, or was that something that the early church propagated to help spread the gospel in terms that would be understood at the time?  But of course, some parts of the story are not negotiable.

In other words, are the New Testament miracle stories lies?  Well they might be, but it was OK because the church told them to popularize the narrative.  At least, I don’t know how else to take it. Surely he couldn’t get any more incoherent, could he? Oh, me of little faith; you bet he could.

Daly told the story of how he was pondering whether to go to Scotland, and he felt God’s guidance because he asked for a sign, and the car in front of him at the stop sign had a bumper sticker that said; “Scotland” on it, and there was a bobblehead dog.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Mehta responded much more calmly than I would have, saying it was an example of confirmation bias.  “Nail him!”, I thought.  “Could he possibly be any more vapid and shallow?”

The question was posed: what could make Mehta believe in god? 

Mehta: An unequivocal miracle would be a good start, such as an amputee re-growing a limb.  If the scriptures were correct in their science.  If unambiguous and non- self-fulfilling prophecies written before the fact unambiguously came true.

I believe we will see amputees re-growing limbs, and in our lifetime.  Miraculous, in a way, but not supernatural.

The question was posed: what could possibly make Daly lose faith?  Maybe if he lost his family in a car wreck, he said.  (I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s wretched movie; Signs).

He said that secularists make a mistake, always thinking of Christianity in terms of the end game – heaven and hell as motivation and doctrine.  OK, fine; be sure to inform the rest of Christianity of that on your way out of the building, Daly.

Had enough?  How’s this:

Daly: Science has a bigger problem with “we don’t know” than Christians do.  Christians accept that some things are mysteries.

OK Todd, you’re a nice guy, but this is me taking off the gloves.  I don’t think you understand science, and maybe not Christianity either.  It’s Believers who have a problem with mysteries.

When Believers don’t understand something, they can just say; “Wow!  A mystery!  God must have done it!”  To me, it sounds like you could substitute “magic spells” or “aliens” and it would make just as much logical sense.  That attitude basically brought scientific progress to a standstill for more than a thousand years.  People starved, died of preventable diseases, and thought the Earth was the center of the Universe.  Even the ancient Greeks knew better than that.

When scientists don’t understand something, they say; “Hmm, that doesn’t fit our current understanding.  Maybe our theory is wrong.  Let’s see if we can design an experiment or some other way to study the subject in a meaningful way and get a better theory.”

By that rubric, a “theory” in science is something that’s stood the test and explains the facts.  And it gets tossed out the window if a better theory can be shown to fit.

At the end, Daly praised the Friendly™ tone of the evening, saying that most such discussions ended with the Christians thinking; “Wow, we sure beat that guy!” and the atheists thinking; “The Christian didn’t say a single coherent thing all evening!”

It’s as if, for a brief moment, he reached out into the audience and read my mind.


  • Hemant Mehta is the host of the website; The Friendly Atheist and author of the popular book I Sold My Soul on eBay; viewing faith through an atheist’s eyes.

  • In the picture, left to right, Hemant Mehta, the church’s moderator (whose name I missed and it wasn’t in the program) and Todd Daly.
  • I’ve been asked before why I’m so irritated with Christianity.  The short answer is that the most politically powerful Christians in our country are so intent on making life miserable for, well, basically anyone who isn’t a Straight Conservative Christian Male.  It has to be their flavor of Christianity, even.  You have to, you know, stand up for our country’s latest pointless war, and be against social spending that might help the poor.  There are Christians – lots of them – who aren’t like that but they don’t have their own television network(s) and Senators.
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In which our former governor finally takes a lesson from the talkative turtle

July 21, 2010 3 comments

Just because I love a delicious history lesson, here’s one from the Chicago Tribune:

“The governor of Illinois “is so unscrupulous that his lack of principle gives him the appearance of audacity,” wrote the Tribune editorial board in a high dudgeon. “He is not guided by courage, shrewdness or strength, but by his lack of principles. He is stupid, and his stupidity plus his indifference to public decency allows him to do the outrageous things for which any governor ought to be impeached.”

No, the subject wasn’t Rod Blagojevich. Nor any of the former state chief executives who have preceded him in the dock in recent decades…”

The worst Illinois governor?  Sorry, but the title’s already been claimed

Read it and chuckle.  And it has an almost spooky relevance to events of this morning: the Rod Blagojevich trial took an interesting turn as governor BigHair did what we have all fervently wished all these months, and firmly shut his pie hole.  He has refused to testify in his own defense, perhaps because of a tranquilizer dart surreptitiously fired from his attorney’s briefcase.  Whatever the reason, silence is golden.

The verdict in the Len Small trial (read the ChiTrib story) does worry me, though.


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Is YOUR life “worth living”?

July 18, 2010 5 comments

Everybody has their own idea as to what makes life worth living.  Here’s one we saw this evening while driving home from the talk we attended with Hemant Mehta and Todd Daly:

From my photo album; Religion

And they think we atheists are the arrogant ones.

I’ll write about the Mehta/Daly discussion tomorrow, probably.  It was interesting. 

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My Winter bike frame

July 17, 2010 Comments off

I’ve ridden through many Winters; it’s fun and really not as difficult as it looks.  But I’m getting soft in my old age; a special-purpose Winter bike will make it easier.  So I’ve been keeping an eye out for components to build one.

From my album; Muscle-powered transportation

I just got the frame this week.  It’s a Specialized “HardRock” frame in my size, in good condition. My everyday bike has this same frame and I love it.  I’m thinking about maybe bright red or highway-safety orange, because it’s dark a lot during the Winter.  Of course it’ll have all my usual reflectorization and lighting, but maybe some additional lighting as well. 

A good pair of shock forks, disc brakes, single-speed, with sealed bearings in the pedals and silicone plugs in the frame holes to keep salt slush out.  Oversize hand grips, non-absorbent seat.  And oh yeah, tungsten-carbide studded tires.  To Hell with conditions, I’m riding.

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