Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


I watch a fair amount of football on TV, which means I’m exposed to commercials for all sorts of things I’ll probably never buy, like razors, beer, and SUVs.

Lately I’ve noticed something interesting. They still sell razors the old-fashioned way, by touting their features and capabilities. The latest razor doesn’t just have a 2nd (or 3rd or 4th or 5th) blade to spring a surprise on that stubble that had burrowed down to hide when it saw the 1st blade coming. No, this new whisker whacker vibrates, to persuade the little guys to stand up straight, all stimulated, before the blade comes along to mow them down. Is it likely to be any more effective than my dad’s old straight-handled, screw-off Gillette Blue Blade model? No, but at least it’s being touted as something that will do what a razor is supposed to do, namely shave your face.

Beer, as always, is supposed to be refreshing and not make you puke or pee too much. That’s been their story for centuries, and they’re sticking to it.

But vehicles, now, seem to be getting away from saying anything at all about the product itself and are instead assuming that you already appreciate the car and want to buy it, and the only thing left to convince you of is that you need to do it right now, for utterly unrelated reasons. Let me mention 3 recent examples.

Chevrolet announces it’s having a Red Tag Sale, where you can walk into a showroom and buy a vehicle for *gasp* the price listed on the price tag. (Boy, let’s hope the grocery industry never catches on to this gimmick.) Of course, this is for a limited time only. After January 2, they’ll go back to their normal methods, presumably lies, deception, and trickery.

Toyota suggests that their cars are so great that you should drop boulders on your existing vehicle, so you’ve got an excuse to get one of their new ones. In addition to being wasteful and bad for the environment, this constitutes insurance fraud. And it kind of makes you wonder whether Toyota expects any return business, since presumably this year’s satisfied customers will have to deep-six their purchases when next year’s demolition derby rolls around.

Cadillac makes an unabashed play for the stoner crowd by showing their cars zooming too fast for the eye to follow down a loooonnnnggg tunnel filled with neon lights, while the spokesmodel in the driver’s seat murmurs breathlessly about getting sexually stimulated, I guess by some knob or lever whose ostensible function wasn’t apparent before she dropped that tab of LSD. All we’re missing is Gracie Slick on the CD player.

None of these commercials are selling you cars. They’re selling you on the idea of being sold. In a way, they’re commercials for the commercials themselves -- metacommercials, if you will. I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising, since they’re made by ad agencies which ARE showcasing their own services, and if they can do it on the other guy’s dime, hey, so much the better.

The ultimate metacommercial, tho, is for Cialis. What they’re selling is hard-ons, but in our puritanical society they’re not allowed to say so, let alone show one. So of course the commercial is about anything BUT erections (which, presumably, we football fans are already sold on anyway). Instead, what they appear to be hucking are matching bathtubs with an ocean view. I wonder if the Kohler Company can piggyback on this in exchange for a product-placement fee.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Logic of Science vs. Religion

2007 Dec. 24

Letters to the Editor
Appleton Post-Crescent
PO Box 59
Appleton WI 54911

Re: Logic rests with religion more than atheism

Kurt Williamsen is so wrong in so many different ways about so many different subjects that I can’t possibly tackle them all. Let me, therefore, confine myself to his fundamental misunderstanding of how science works.

One thing he did get right was that “Scientists cannot claim to be 100 percent certain of their assertions.”. Of course, he phrases it as if it’s a bad thing. In fact, any scientist worth her or his salt would proudly proclaim that science NEVER claims to be 100% certain about ANYTHING. All scientific knowledge is held tentatively, subject to revision if better information comes along.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened with the situation which Williamsen mischaracterizes as Einstein contradicting Newton (whose laws of motion had held for a couple of centuries before relativity came along). Not at all. Einstein REFINED the laws of motion, showing how Newton’s equations were perfectly fine for speeds and gravities common to Earth’s surface but needed an additional term to accommodate speeds closer to light and gravities more like the Sun’s.

This isn’t to say that contradictions NEVER occur. The classic is Galileo’s showing that objects of different sizes fall at the same speed, not (as Aristotle had claimed) that heavier ones fall faster. But Aristotle was more a philosopher than a scientist and had arrived at his understanding not by conducting experiments but by thinking about how things SHOULD be.

This is exactly what religion does. It doesn’t test against reality, it just consults authorities and makes pronouncements. Religion claims to be 100% certain about everything, because that’s what keeps the fannies in the pews and the folding green in the collection plate.

And, y’know what? They ARE 100% certain about everything, even (perhaps especially) the many, many things they’ve gotten wrong, like whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or whether witches deserve to die horribly. And they remain stubbornly impervious to evidence to the contrary.

By contrast, science -- specifically BECAUSE it’s non-dogmatic -- is self-correcting. There are millions of instances where one scientist has improved upon the work of earlier scientists. And there are thousands of times when science has proved some aspect of religion wrong. But there has yet to be a single case -- ever, anywhere, by anybody -- of religion proving science wrong about anything.

= = = = = =
Richard S. Russell, Parliamentarian
Atheist Alliance International
2642 Kendall Av. #2, Madison WI 53705-3736
608+233-5640 •

Sun god! Sun god! Ra, Ra, Ra!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night …

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night …

... all seated on the ground.

When exactly would shepherds do something like this? Turns out to be lambing season, late March, early April, when they have to be ready to help a ewe in distress 24/7. Not really anywhere near the time of the winter solstice (which WAS, however, celebrated by the Romans as Saturnalia and observed by the Zoroastrians as close to the day when their prophet died).

All those nativity scenes set in a stable? Where in the gospels does it mention a stable? Nowhere.

Remember the names of the 3 wise men (AKA kings or magi)? Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, right? Also never mentioned in the Bible.

Here's a couple of things that WERE mentioned in the Bible: the massacre of the innocents by Herod (in Matthew) and the worldwide census/tax ordered by Caesar Augustus (in Luke). Unfortunately for their credibility, that's the ONLY place they're mentioned, 1 gospel apiece. Neither the other 3 gospels nor any shred of contemporary evidence from other sources alludes to them at all.

How do we know that Jesus was fulfilling a prophecy? Because it says so right there in Matthew 1:22-25:

= = = = = =

[22] Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
[23] Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
[24] Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
[25] And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

= = = = = =

Yup, there you have it. Prophecy said they'd call him Emmanuel, and 2 verses later they up and call him Jesus. As clear a case of prophecy fulfillment as you'd ever want to ask for.

Why were Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem at all? Wasn't Jesus known as the Nazarene? Turns out that we have here a syncretistic melding of 2 traditions of a desperate captive people.

One tradition said that they'd be rescued by royalty, a descendant of their "great" King David (a lying, cheating, murdering, drunken philanderer, still living off his reputation as a high-school football hero who scored the winning touchdown over Team Philistia and their gargantuan defensive tackle Goliath). David’s city was Bethlehem. In order to establish Jesus's bona fides as a descendant of David, we get 2 different lineages, 1 each in Luke and Matthew, which have David as a starting point and Joseph as an ending point and not a single other intervening name in common. Nor are the number of generations the same. This tradition wanted Jesus associated with Bethlehem, "the city of David".

The other tradition said they'd be rescued by divinity, the "son of god" (such critters being a dime a dozen in the Mediterranean region of that era). In this tradition, it didn't matter squat that Joseph was descended from David, because Joseph wasn't Jesus's actual father. It was this tradition that wanted Jesus to be associated with Nazareth (a town which exists in modern Israel but which is depicted on exactly zero maps or lists of the Herodian era). It is widely assumed today that "Nazarene" means "resident of Nazareth", but it's not at all clear that that's what it meant at the time, since there apparently WAS no Nazareth.

So the fictioneers in charge of telling these stories had to figure out a way to make Jesus (a) both the direct son of God (and thus divine) as well as the direct son of Joseph (and thus heir to royal blood), and (b) a resident of both Nazareth and Bethlehem. They solved Problem A by just baldly claiming both conditions were true, evidently hoping nobody would notice (just as they figured nobody would notice the howling contradiction involving the prophesied name of the supposed savior). They solved the Problem B by dreaming up an excuse for the family to journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Oh, and for another yuk, try to reconcile the differing accounts of where the family went AFTER Bethlehem.

Remember that all these stories were passed down solely by word of mouth for decades after Jesus's death. There seemed to be little point in taking the trouble to write them down, since he had promised he'd be back shortly, trailing clouds of glory and leading his dad's army of angels (the original embodiment of "shock and awe" tactics).

But, after half a century had gone by and the 2nd Coming was far more "awww" than "awe", a few anonymous scribes (known today as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, names just as accurate as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) decided they'd better piece together the story as best they could from the oral traditions. And so they threw in everything but the kitchen sink, including all the contradictions.

Thus we inherited Xmas stories. Which would be perfectly OK as long as everybody recognized them for the fantasies they are. Unfortunately — Can you believe it in this day and age? — some people still actually think they're non-fiction.