Noli Timere Messorem

On March 12th, 2015, the world lost a true master of the written word with the death of Sir Terrence Pratchett, known simply as Terry Pratchett, at the age of 66 after his battle with Alzheimer’s.  Britain’s best-selling author behind JK Rowling–and if Harry Potter is your only real competition, then you deserve all the fame you can get–Pratchett is best known for his Discworld series, a long-running series of comedic novels starring many different characters from beloved long-runners such as Commander Sam Vimes and the young witch Tiffany Aching, to one-off but no less well-written characters like the orc Mr. Nutt.

Pratchett was a risk taker, he wasted no time in utilizing computers for his writing as soon as they became available, and was one of the first authors to use the internet to actively communicate with his fans.  And unlike many other fantasy novelists, he was not afraid to shake up the status quo, as evidenced by his last novel, Raising Steam, which introduced the steam engine and locomotive to his swords-and-sorcery fantasy realm.

In 2007, Pratchett was misdiagnosed as having had a stroke, and was later properly diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, specifically posterior cortical atrophy, which causes areas in the back of the brain to shrink and shrivel.  This “embuggerance” as he called it did nothing to reduce his zest for life and he kept writing and playing video games, proclaiming he had time for “at least a few books yet” and asking his fans not to offer help, though he joked that he would accept offers from “very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”  In his final years, he dictated his words to his assistant, or to voice-recognition software, as he had found it too difficult to write himself.  In 2008, after learning that Alzheimer’s research earns about 3% of the funding received by cancer research, he donated $1,000,000 to help find a cure, and his loyal fans launched “Match It for Pratchett,” raising another $1,000,000.

Pratchett received knighthood and was appointed an Officer of the British Empire for services to literature, was the British Book Award’s “Fantasy and Science Fiction Author of the Year” for 1994, won the British Science Fiction Award for his novel Pyramids and a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel for Making Money.  He received nine honorary doctorates for his contribution to Public Service, a Carnegie Award in 2001 for The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, Night Watch (currently being converted into a TV series by his daughter) received the Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel, three of the four Tiffany Aching books received the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book.  Going Postal was shortlisted for a Hugo, but Pratchett recused himself as the stress world mar his enjoyment of Worldcon.  I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth of the Tiffany Aching novels, won the 2010 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

He was a pretty freaking good author is what I’m trying to say here!

Pratchett is survived by his wife Lyn Purves and daughter Rhianna Pratchett, herself an award-winning videogame writer.  Rhianna is currently working hard at turning Night Watch into a television series and The Wee Free Men, the first of the Tiffany Aching novels, into a feature film.  His novels, cunning social commentaries disguised as genre fiction, are timeless and taught many lessons, not least of which was to not fear Death, who appeared as a minor character in almost every novel Pratchett ever wrote.  And so, let me quote again from the Pratchett Coat of Arms “Noli Timere Messorem,” or in English “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”

And from the official Terry Pratchett twitter account:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.”

FFRF repeats its request to the Elkington Middle School

As most of you know, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote to the Grand Rapids School District in response to our notification that a poster advertising a “prayer time” in a classroom at the Elkington Middle School was on display in the hallway of the school. The poster identified a teacher and a classroom where the meeting would be held prior to the start of classes every Monday morning. Since the poster did not note that the meeting was neither sponsored or endorsed by the school district, it represented a church/state violation. It was also not clear that the teacher didn’t not actively participate or direct the meeting and this would further suggest a church/state violation. The School District had an attorney from the Twin Cities respond to FFRF and assure them that the poster would be corrected and that the teacher had no active role in the group.

A few weeks later at our monthly meeting, we learned that the poster was still on display with only a piece of paper tapped over the teacher’s name and none of the other requested changes. A photo of the poster was available and I forwarded this along with the other information suggesting the prayer meeting was still presenting a church/state problem. The FFRF attorney who had written the original letter to the School District has now sent a follow up letter noting that promised changes had not been made. He also noted that the School District’s mention of the Equal Access Act (EAA) raised further concerns since the EAA only applies to secondary schools and in Minnesota only the grades 7 through 12 are deemed secondary. Since the Middle School has children in the 5th and 6th grades, he asked for assurances that children of that age were not directly involved in the group as organizers or directors of the group. They would not be considered covered by the EAA.

We are now awaiting a second response from the School District and I will post that response as soon as we get it from FFRF. The failure of the School District to make sure that they were in compliance with the law suggests that they are not taking the problem seriously and may not have informed the teacher about his proper role and the limitations placed on teachers acting on religious beliefs.

Stay tuned.

Taking RFRA to its logical conclusion

From Daily Kos, we have an example of a Christian business man determining what sign he wants to put on the door or window of his shop so that he can freely exercise his religion in the operation of his business. Please note that there is no mention of LGBT discrimination in his notice. So he is not going to discriminate against gays so that’s not what the RFRA is about. He’s just going to follow his bible and demonstrate that he is an equal opportunity bigot against just about anyone.

They Had it Coming

Most readers of this blog follow current events very closely, and are therefore aware of the shit storm Governor Mike Pence of Indiana unleashed for himself.  Since most of us are aware, I will not rehash all the details, but it is clear that Indiana’s so-called “religious freedom restoration act” was designed to give legal sanction to anti-LGBT bigotry.  But attitudes in this country have changed, and Pence and others who supported the law are deservedly catching hell.  The RFRA in Indiana is not about religious freedom, it is about allowing conservative Christians to legally discriminate.  It is interesting that Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas was prepared to sign a similar bill in his state, but balked when the CEO of Wal-Mart (among many others) voiced opposition to the bill. Finally, big business is using its power to promote the general welfare.

At any rate, I am posting this simply to provide a venue for anyone who might want to discuss the Indiana law or any related issues.  What does everyone think?

AronRa – Our monthly meeting on March 24, 2015

The Unholy Trinity Tour features Seth Andrews (from The Thinking Atheist podcast), Matt Dillahunty (from The Atheist Experience TV show) and AronRa (YouTube resource on evolution and science education). We had seen Matt’s talk on faith last month and seen Seth give a presentation way back in July. This month it was Aron’s turn.

Aron and his wife have been fierce advocates for good education in Texas, a real battleground over teaching creationism and distorting history (ex. removing Thomas Jefferson from history textbooks because of his state/church separation blasphemy). Since Texas is such a large state, book publishers frequently use the requirements for Texas as the standard for their books across the country. If Texas was a place supporting decent education, this would be fine. Unfortunately, Texas is a true backwater. On a regular basis, fundamentalists and right-wing nuts try to alter the book standards to insert creationist nonsense and history that ain’t real history. Aron regularly testifies in front of the Board of Education to prevent this stuff. Here is a presentation in which he demonstrates his fierce and informed stance.

AronRa is now a frequent presenter and debate participant. His intimidating looks are for real (he rides a big Harley) and he won’t back down when it comes to teaching our children properly. He and the rest of the gang are currently on a tour in Australia. I will be watching for videos of their talks once the tour is over.

A Skeptical Moment

Today, my daughter is in the Twin Cities for a dance competition; she and her mother and brother left yesterday afternoon.  Last night, I had a vivid dream that my daughter’s team placed second.  This morning, as I was walking outside, my neighbor stopped and asked if I had heard how my daughter had done. Without hesitation, I began to say that they had placed second, so realistic was the dream, but then I caught myself, and said that I did not know.  Upon returning to my house, I immediately called my wife and asked how our daughter and her team had done.

Turns out that while they turned in a good performance, they did not place.  But I was thinking — what if they had taken second? It would have been a coincidence, but it is easy to see how some people would have recourse to woo, thinking the dream was some kind of prophetic event.  How would I have responded if my dream had been “confirmed?”

For me, this was a good reminder of the importance of critical thinking and the application of the principles of skepticism in trying to make sense of reality.

Duck Dynasty Dips**t

Phil Robertson is a bearded waste of flesh disguised as a cuddly Southern patriarch by the A&E show “Duck Dynasty.”  Fanatically Christian, Robertson has come under fire for the foul (foul/fowl pun not intended) comments he has made in the past about Muslims and gays, but I think his most recent comments take the cake.

Warning, these comments are graphic.

“Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot ‘em. And they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’ ”

He continues with:

“Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head. Have a nice day.’ If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘Something about this just ain’t right.’ ”

These comments were made at a prayer breakfast in Florida (it’s time to let that state go) about the supposed need for religious rules.  The problem is that all this does is prove that Robertson is a psychopath.  Seriously, what kind of man thinks about this kind of stuff?  It’s horrible; Salon, the Huffington Post, and Patheos have all slammed him for these horrendous comment, but Breitbart came to his defense, insisting that he was just making a parable (though they consented that it was extreme) and that the attacks on him are “ignorant” and “bigoted.”

Seriously, decent people slamming this scum for commenting on the torture of a man, the murder of his wife, and the rape and murders of his daughters are bigoted for being good people?  And what kind of mind-fucked asshole decides that his parable needs child rape to make a point!?

To put it more plainly: if you need to bring up rape–whether it be of a man, woman or child–to make your point, then your point is wrong.

Giant Locomotive Arthropod: Arthropleura

I decided to take a break from modern animals for a while and give something of a crash course on prehistoric creatures, other than the ones we all know about, dinosaurs and mammoths and whatnot.  So I think to myself, “What’s the best way to launch a series on prehistoric beasts?” and the answer comes to me, we start off with a ten-foot long millipede.

Arthropleura

Here it is, bursting from the primordial ooze like any eldritch beast worth its weight in horror.

I suppose the first question is “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WHY?”  The easy answer to that is that there is no god.  A more scientific answer is that the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere during the Carboniferous period when these monsters lived was dramatically higher than what it is today, 35% as opposed to the 21% of our atmosphere that is made up of oxygen nowadays.  The growth of arthropods is directly linked to how much oxygen they can get into their bodies (arthropods not being able to simply breathe in and out like we can, this process is more complex) and it was only the massive amounts of oxygen in the Carboniferous that allowed these things, the largest land-dwelling invertebrates ever, to exist at all, alongside giant spiders and eagle-sized dragonflies.

arthropleura-size

Here it is again with Suicidal Size-Comparison Alan. Hello, Alan!

I suppose I should stop taunting you with implications of flesh-rending horror, arthropleura ate detritus, all the rotting and decomposing bits of plants and animals that get pounded into the topsoil.  Though it was certainly large enough so that an adult arthropleura would have no natural predators, these things were borderline harmless (presumably) as they munched away on rotten mulch in their forest homes.  An extra fun fact is that the forests of the Carboniferous weren’t made up of trees, they hadn’t evolved yet, but instead were made up of giant ferns.

Arthropods would never again reach their Carboniferous heyday after the Permian period started, the atmosphere simply wasn’t as saturated with oxygen, which may just be a good thing.  Apart from the fact that “dropped dead from fear of seeing Labrador-sized pill bug” would be a fairly common diagnosis in the mortuary, this oxygen-heavy atmosphere was highly explosive.  Fire needs oxygen, and it had all the O2 it could ever want in the Carboniferous period.

P.S.–about the odd title, it was inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, where all the so-called “boss” enemies have some sort of title before their name.

 

 

What a Tragedy

Many of you have probably seen this article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/world/middleeast/from-minneapolis-to-isis-an-americans-path-to-jihad.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0

On the one hand, it is frightening that young American men — boys really — from a place like Minnesota would be taken with ISIS propaganda and actually go so far as to join the group.  But at the same time, what a tragedy.  The individual featured in this article was a college student from Minneapolis, with aspirations to become a lawyer.  Now, he has thrown away his life for a bunch of brutal nonsense.  What a waste.  It is tragic to think of what this person has traded away for a chimerical fantasy.

Mencken Again

Well, Mencken has entered into to our discussions with some frequency of late, so I thought I would post another Mencken quote.  This one, while succinct, is very reflective of Mencken’s biting wit:

“We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”