Catholic tradition and other insanity

August 17, 2019

This week, Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he would rather go to jail than report admissions of child sexual abuse given in the confessional.

After everything that’s happened… The Royal Commission, the outpouring of emotion, the reliving of events by victims, the conviction of George Pell…

…isn’t it a tad irresponsible and insensitive for a leader of the Catholic church say this?

During a recent Q&A discussion of the Israel Folau incident Penny Wong said:

There is a distinction between a right to belief and the assertion that that belief should lead to you being treated differently before the law.

A related point is that just because a “sacred” tradition has existed for hundreds or thousands of years, that doesn’t make it magical or special.

To one who stands outside the Christian faith it is utterly astonishing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.

(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

What I just can’t comprehend is why anyone could take the catholic church seriously anymore. Quite apart from the abuse of children, it has done so much harm in other ways, including declaring it to be a sin for its adherents to exercise birth control.

This is especially problematic in the poorest countries, for those who can least afford it.

In this way, the church has made a significant contribution to the unchecked human population that threatens all life on earth.

And yet, so many otherwise rational people continue to trust the catholic church with their children, their childrens’ education, their collective future, and act as if the church still has anything of worth to say in the twenty-first century.

My concern with religion is that it allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.

(Sam Harris)

I guess I should be happy that a high-profile public catholic figure is making his church seem irrelevant, but for many devout catholics, such comments by a prominent leader of their church will gently wash over them and they will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Such is the irrationality of our species. Aren’t there other more important issues for us to worry about, such as climate change and our relationship with the other species of earth? Religion is so yesterday.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns, about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering, in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.

We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

In support of a non-theistic world view #1

July 26, 2019
atheism-symbol
source: https://tinyurl.com/y4hls8bx
Here’s a subset of quotes I’ve collected over some time in support of a non-theistic world view. I was prompted to write this after reading this post on Archon’s Den.

Sam Harris

In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.”… Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

To one who stands outside the Christian faith it is utterly astonishing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.

It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane. While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about.
How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.
One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns, about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering, in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.
My concern with religion is that it allows us by the millions to believe what only lunatics or idiots could believe on their own.
Words like god and Allah must go the way of Apollo and Bal or they will unmake our world.

Christopher Hitchens

That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.
Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.

Dan Barker

We have suffered enough from the divisive malignancy of belief. Our planet needs a faith-ectomy.

Charles Darwin

I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men.

Yuval Noah Harari

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

Carl Sagan

Once you are open to questioning rituals and time-honoured practices, you find that one question leads to another.
To prefer the hard facts over our dearest illusions, that is the core of Science.
(commenting upon Johannes Kepler)

Steven Weinberg

Science does not make it impossible to believe in God. It just makes it possible to NOT believe in God.

Turing to be honoured on the 50 pound note

July 19, 2019

I wrote this about Alan Turing In 2012:

It would be an understatement to say that Turing achieved much in his 42 years. He contributed to a fundamental problem in mathematics, in the process becoming the father of computer science prior to the existence of general purpose computing machines. He played a pivotal role in the Second World War as a Bletchley Park cryptanalyst for which he was awarded an OBE, wrote a seminal paper on the modelling of biological growth, worked on pioneering computer projects, and founded the field of Artificial Intelligence.

But Turing tragically committed suicide at the age of 41 after appalling treatment resulting from the charge of “gross indecency” for the “crime” of being a gay man in mid-20th century Britain. I went on to say:

In response to an online petition in the lead-up to the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, the British PM, Gordon Brown, said in 2009: “Turing was dealt with under the laws of the time, and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was utterly unfair. On behalf of the British government and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say: we’re sorry. You deserved so much better.”

It was recently announced that Alan Turing will be honoured by appearing on the 50 pound note starting in 2021.


Source: ABC (https://www.abc.net.au/news/image/11312384-4×3-940×705.jpg)

This Australian Computer Society article provides, among other things, details about the bank note design.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Alan Perlis, a recipient of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Turing Award, said this in 1966:

On what does and will the fame of Turing rest? That he proved a theorem showing that for a general computing device — later dubbed a “Turing Machine” — there existed functions which it could not compute? I doubt it. More likely it rests on the model he invented and employed: his formal mechanism. This model has captured the imagination and mobilized the thoughts of a generation of scientists.

Alan Turing played an unmistakable role in creating the world we all now take for granted. So too for my chosen profession.

It’s nice to see him being recognised in this way even if belatedly so.

Questionable church signs #3

July 19, 2019

I’ve heard it said that God (which god, you may reasonably ask…) is love.

When I first saw this local church sign, the slogan reminded me of 1984 and The Ministry of Truth…

War is peace

Slavery is freedom

GodIsLove

But if one, as the sign proclaims, wishes to uphold the Bible as the Word of God along with the notion that god is the epitome of love, it might be prudent to ask: How many times does “love” appear in the Bible?

Around one hundred and fifty, in each of the old and new testaments.

“Lord” and “God” on the other hand both appear a few thousand times (admittedly more in the old testament) suggestive more of narcissism than concern for others.

So, if we’re honest, the sentiment is simplistic at best, even if we confine ourselves to the god(s) of the Bible.

Vegan Haiku

July 15, 2019

A haiku distilling aspects of previous posts, suggesting documentaries that influenced my thinking:

Ghosts in our machine

Slave species Dominated

Our Cowspiracy

500 visual variable star observations

June 11, 2019

Last night’s binocular observation of eta Carinae was my 500th visual observation submission to the AAVSO International Database (AID).

eta Car BDJB 2019

An extremely modest number really, compared with other observers over a similar timeframe.

But still, somehow a nice milestone.

500th

I’ve also submitted more than 100 DSLR photometry observations to AID. Again, not many in comparative terms.

eta Car LC BV

The light curve shows the last ten years of visual and B band data along with the 169 (in purple) visual and DSLR eta Carinae observations I’ve made during that time. The red trend line shows the steady rise in eta Carinae’s brightness that has been going on for decades now.

Between VStar, work, and life in general, I don’t get a lot of time to observe these days, but I try to make each observation count.

For anyone following Strange Quarks, you will have noticed my preoccupation with other things in recent months.

Indeed, my last variable star blog post was regarding a southern nova  in March 2018.

This pre-occupation is taking its toll in various ways on me and those around me.

Vegan Activists: you’re doing it completely wrong

April 16, 2019
The sleep of reason brings forth monsters. (Francisco Goya)

Although written for Canberra, the Australian National Capital Right to Protest Guidelines say this:

Our democracy recognises this right which is subject to the general law and must be balanced against the rights and interests of others and of the community as a whole.

Of paramount importance are the protection of public safety, the maintenance of peace and the facilitation of fair and equal access to public areas.

Recent protests by vegans in Victoria, NSW, and Queensland were the opposite of this, certainly compared to the well-organised and anticipated Climate Change school strikes held around Australia or the rally against live export.

You’re frustrated. You feel a sense of urgency. You’re impatient.

But as The Conversation said last week, vegan activists: you’re getting it wrong.

file-20190410-2912-1sdf010
Credit: Ellen Smith/AAP, source: The Conversation

If you wanted to confuse the message with the medium, you’ve done it.

Pissing people off is not the answer.

Invading people’s privacy is not the answer. Would you tolerate that in reverse?

Those who said they had a burger instead of a salad for lunch that day in “retribution” for your action were just being inflammatory too.

But then, why do we expect others to be kind to us if we don’t lead with kindness and consideration?

I resisted using the term “vegan” for a long time because of negative stereotypes and an expectation of perfect compliance, preferring to say “I’m taking a plant-based approach”. I still like that better, even if it is more awkward.

Of course, the questionable actions of one group of humans is independent of what’s true or false in the world.

So, you want people to watch Dominion?

No-one really should want anyone to watch Dominion, even though I think its message is important.

Earthlings and later Dominion horrified and upset me. There are plenty more to choose from, including the Land of Hope and GloryCowspiracy, and What the Health?

Some people will respond to direct action or documentaries.

Others will be completely turned off by in-your-face approaches.

Some may prefer to read more matter-of-fact resources like those of the RSPCA or books like The Ethics of What we Eat.

Others will prefer a combination or none of the above.

I have a certain sympathy for the cube of truth, but even there I have concerns.

35400733_422407001613135_6048977934767620096_n

Source: http://tiny.cc/amj64y

I’ve spoken with activists in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall.

You’ve all seemed like nice people.

But sometimes, I hear you use phrases like “convert to veganism”.

The temptation to adopt that attitude must be strongly resisted.

You shouldn’t be trying to convert anyone to anything. That way lies dogma and an analog of religious zealotry.

Sure, engage people in conversation, encourage people to think about what they believe to be true about the world, cast doubt on the validity of traditions and long-held beliefs.

That’s just plain old skepticism and the aim of movements like street epistemology.

It’s not up to you — or anyone — to tell people what to think or how to live.

Above all, show compassion for the people you engage with (people are animals too), as well as the non-human animals you are trying to save, a path I have not always trod well.

I’ve chosen to try to eliminate the use of animal products. I feel compelled to.

Others choose to reduce the use of animal products in various ways.

It all helps.

Doing nothing is less tenable the further down the track we go.

I thought it was interesting that Grill’d had their first Meat Free Monday not long after the vegan protests. Voting with our wallets may ultimately be more effective than direct protest.

Honestly though, I’d rather not write about this stuff at all, but I still feel the need to get it off my chest. I’ve written more here.

I’d rather be writing about the recent amazing black hole image, variable stars, computing history, even the evils of religion. But this topic still occupies me.

In general, I’d just like to get on with trying to live a meaningful, enjoyable life.

Finally, as I’ve suggested in several other posts, to gain some perspective, watch Pale Blue Dot. Or watch it again if it’s been awhile, as I do.

On Food Choices: a summary (tl;dr)

March 31, 2019

…but what is not possible is not to choose…if I do not choose, that is still a choice. (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism)

Given the length of the previous seven posts, here’s a summary.

The right road lost

  • The criteria we apply to food choices are: our desires, our health, what’s good for the food producer (e.g. Fair Trade), environmental impact (climate change, resource usage/degradation), and what’s good for non-human animals (animal welfare).
  • Other than our health, without which nothing much matters to us, I consider this list to be essentially in order of increasing importance.
  • Large scale animal farming is environmentally unsustainable in terms of land and water use and the resulting waste and emissions (carbon dioxide and methane). This will only get worse as the human population continues its exponential growth. A plant-based diet could significantly reduce emissions and waste.

But is it healthy?

The 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines say that:

  • “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthy and nutritionally adequate.”
  • “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle. Those following a vegan diet should choose foods to ensure adequate intake of iron and zinc and to optimise the absorption and bioavailability of iron, zinc and calcium.”
  • “Supplementation of vitamin B12 may be required for people with strict vegan dietary patterns.”

The elephant in the room

  • It took a long time for me to accept the idea that we’re not at the centre of the universe, that there is no compelling evidence for gods of any sort, of a higher plan, of an afterlife.
  • The idea that we have a higher moral status, a greater right to be happy — to be free — than other animals is widespread, even though most of us would not be inclined to say so.
  • This idea is called speciesism. It is as if racism had been applied beyond the borders of homo sapiens.
  • Raising livestock for food involves billions of sentient animals worldwide per year being born into servitude and living lives that are nasty, brutish, and short, to borrow from Leviathan (Hobbes).
  • We need to widen our ethical circle to include other species. We do so when thinking about species loss through habitat degradation and climate change, but not necessarily when thinking about the animals we exploit.

Cultural relevance?

  • Do the desires (e.g. cultural, religious) of one or more humans outweigh the welfare — the life — of even a single non-human animal?
  • For example, it’s hard to see how the live export of cattle or sheep can be defended on cultural, religious or other grounds when we know the harm caused to individual animals.
  • And what of the shorter yet no less harrowing trip from farm to abattoir, to say nothing of what happens upon arrival?

Surplus to requirements #1

  • Caged hens as a source of eggs can’t be ethically justified unless you think that having an area no larger than a sheet of printer paper to live in, standing on wire, beak cutting to stop pecking of other hens, not being able to engage in natural behaviours are okay.
  • According to the RSPCA:
    • “In the egg industry, the sex of day-old chicks is determined at the hatchery. Sexing chicks…is done at this very early stage to determine their fate.”
    • “If strong and healthy, the female chicks remain in the hatchery, they are grown to a suitable size and then transferred to a laying facility — which could be a caged, free-range or barn set up.”
    • “Male chicks are considered an unwanted byproduct of egg production and are killed and disposed of shortly after birth.”
    • “A hen is declared ‘spent’ when her egg production drops at around 72 weeks of age. At this point she is considered less profitable and removed from the production system… Spent hens are either killed on farm and composted, or transported to an abattoir for slaughter.”
  • The treatment and fate of so-called broiler chickens and other birds such as turkeys is not something I have written about so far.

Surplus to requirements #2

  • As the RSPCA says:
    • “For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Most calves are separated from their mother within 24 hours of birth to reduce the risk of disease transmission to the calf, and most do not stay on the farm for long.”
    • “Separation within 24 hours of birth interferes with the development of the cow-calf bond and thus reduces separation distress. Cows will show a strong response (calling) if their calf is separated at an older age.”
    • “The term ‘bobby calves’ refers to newborn calves that are less than 30 days old and not with their mothers. Essentially, they are surplus to dairy industry requirements as they are not required for the milking herd.”
    • “Products from processed bobby calves include young veal for human consumption, valuable hides for leather, calf rennet for cheese making, and byproducts for the pharmaceutical industry.”

Asymptotic vegan

  • I would say now that I’m asymptotically approaching veganism: moving towards a plant-based diet on ethical and sustainability grounds.
  • There’s “low-hanging fruit” like meat. Then dairy and eggs. Once I got over a few psychological hurdles, leaving these behind turned out to be easier than I expected.
  • Yet there are shades of grey…
  • I have shoes with leather uppers that I purchased before my thinking changed. Should I discard them? Will that help the animal now? No. Will I buy shoes with leather uppers in future. No.
  • Last Christmas we had a turkey in the freezer with a long expiry date that had not yet been eaten. Would the “right action” have been to not consume it? If so, wouldn’t that have been a waste and wouldn’t that mean the turkey’s demise was pointless?
  • Do you care about herd immunity? You should. Will you get the yearly flu vaccine to protect the vulnerable in our society as well as yourself? Eggs are used in the process of making the flu vaccine. Having the flu vaccine involves a compromise, perhaps one we will not have to make forever if research bears fruit.
  • Do you use sweetener in your coffee? Does it contain lactose? Some do, some don’t.
  • Do you drink almond milk or otherwise consume almonds? I have not dealt with the question of bees and honey in the first seven posts, but irrespective of your thoughts on that, how are the flowers of almond (and other) trees pollinated? By bees. Do the bees just fly in and out of the orchard, or under some circumstances are they brought there, in man-made hives?
  • Do you drink wine? The fining process often uses animal products (such as milk or eggs), but there are alternatives.
  • We need to cease deliberately enslaving and killing animals, treating them as means to our ends, instead of acknowledging them as sentient creatures who like us, do not wish to suffer and moreover, who wish to be free.
  • The point is to think. To ask questions. To cast doubt on long held beliefs. To intend change, to do better. To find alternatives, to say no more often.
  • It should never be about dogma. I sometimes hear vegan activists using the phrase “convert to veganism”. That way lies religion and unjustified ideology.

On Food Choices, part 7: asymptotic vegan

January 30, 2019

Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in The Ethics of What We Eat (pages 255, 256), say that objecting to the idea of killing young healthy farm animals for food:

…leads many people to become vegetarian, while continuing to eat eggs and dairy products. But it is not possible to produce laying hens without also producing male chickens, and since these male chicks have no commercial value, they are invariably killed as soon as they have been sexed. The laying hens themselves will be killed once their rate of laying declines. In the dairy industry much of the same thing happens—the male calves are killed immediately or raised for veal, and the cows are turned into hamburger long before normal old age. So rejecting the killing of animals points to a vegan, rather than a vegetarian diet.

I’m not fond of labels but I would say now that I’m asymptotically approaching veganism, that I am moving towards a plant-based diet. I’m largely there but 100%, all the time?

There’s the “low-hanging fruit” like meat. Then dairy and eggs.

Yet there are shades of grey.

I have shoes with leather uppers that I purchased before my thinking changed. Should I discard them? Will that help the animal now? No. Will I buy shoes with leather uppers in future. No.

Do you care about herd immunity? You should. Will you get the yearly flu vaccine to protect the vulnerable in our society as well as yourself? Eggs are used in the process of making the flu vaccine. Having the flu vaccine involves a compromise. In part 5, I referred to Australian research that aims to reduce the ethical dilemma by determining sex before hatching.

On the subject of vaccines, fetal bovine serum may be used instead of non-animal derived alternatives in vaccine production. The RSPCA says that where a synthetic serum or a non-animal derived alternative exists, they must be used instead of the animal-derived product.

The extent to which alternatives are used is something I want to discover more about, but: vaccination matters people! Imagine smallpox making a comeback.

Of course, as the recent outbreak of African Swine Fever in Chinese factory farmed pig populations shows, when a large outbreak of disease in animals occurs, they are “destroyed”. I don’t think that would fly with human disease outbreaks.

Do you use a sweetener in your coffee? Does it contain lactose? Some do and some don’t.

Do you drink almond milk or otherwise consume almonds? How are the flowers of almond (and other) trees pollinated? By bees. Is this a natural process? Do the bees just fly in and out of the orchard, or are they brought there, in man-made hives? If the latter, although less harmful than taking their honey, it’s arguably still a form of exploitation. Is that enough to make you stop drinking almond milk? If not, you made a compromise.

We recently had a turkey in the freezer with a long expiry date that had not yet been eaten. Would the “right action” have been to not consume it? If so, wouldn’t that have been a waste and wouldn’t that mean the turkey’s demise was pointless? I think so, therefore we had it last Christmas and were grateful.

Do you drink wine? The fining process often uses animal products (such as milk or eggs), but there are alternatives. Sites like Barnivore will help and obviously you can Google. Wine labels may sometimes say whether they are vegan friendly. More reds than whites seem to be vegan friendly from what I’ve seen so far, but by no means all. Beer is often okay. The main thing is: check if you don’t know.

Jelly contains, well, gelatine which is created from animal skin, bones and connective tissue. There are alternatives.

There are even lighter shades of grey.

If food has been cooked and will be discarded if I don’t eat it, should I eat it?

Perhaps.

More subtle, if food is cooked and leftovers would be kept refrigerated, should I eat it since it will be eaten later by someone else anyway. That’s less compelling since any animal based food I choose not to eat will reduce the need/demand for that food.

There are bacteria everywhere, including in what we eat. Fragments of insects may inadvertently end up in our food. I may step on a bunch of ants…

But we have to make a distinction between deliberately enslaving and killing animals, treating them as means to our ends, instead of sentient creatures who, as Moby said in a TED talk, just want to be free of pain and suffering, essentially just want to be happy.

The point is to think. To ask questions. To intend change, to do better. To find alternatives, to say no more often.

It should never be about dogma. That way lies religion and unjustified ideology.

On Food Choices, part 6: surplus to requirements #2

January 30, 2019

source: https://tinyurl.com/y9d7tel4

This RSPCA KnowledgeBase page answers the question: what happens to bobby calves?

For cows to produce milk, they have to give birth to a calf. Most calves are separated from their mother within 24 hours of birth to reduce the risk of disease transmission to the calf, and most do not stay on the farm for long.

The term ‘bobby calves’ refers to newborn calves that are less than 30 days old and not with their mothers. Essentially, they are surplus to dairy industry requirements as they are not required for the milking herd. This applies to all bull calves (males) and about one quarter of heifer calves (females) born each year. And, each year, around 450,000 of these bobby calves are destined for slaughter.

It continues:

Some calves will be reared for veal and about three quarters of the heifers will become replacements for adult milk-producing cows. Heifer calves may also be reared and then exported to dairy farms overseas. Bobby calves may also be killed on farm.

Bobby calves destined for slaughter are housed together on farm and fed colostrum, milk or milk replacer, usually only once a day. Bobby calves, because of their low value, often do not get the same standard of housing, cleanliness, care or attention as the valuable replacement heifers or the calves being reared for veal.

Products from processed bobby calves include young veal for human consumption, valuable hides for leather, calf rennet for cheese making, and byproducts for the pharmaceutical industry.

It goes on to talk about the transport and handling considerations for such young animals and concludes with:

The RSPCA believes that bobby calves should be at least 10 days old and be fed at least four hours before being transported. Transport to the abattoir should be no more than 10 hours and in trucks that have protection from the elements, bedding and enough room for all calves to lie down.

To avoid or reduce the welfare concerns relating to bobby calves, the RSPCA position is that if bobby calves cannot be euthanased on farm (to avoid the welfare issues associated with handling and transport), they should be at least 10 days old before being transported off farm and then slaughtered within 12 hours of last feed.

Another consideration is the stress caused to both cow and calf, described on this RSPCA page:

Separation within 24 hours of birth interferes with the development of the cow-calf bond and thus reduces separation distress. Cows will show a strong response (calling) if their calf is separated at an older age, e.g. 4 days after birth, compared to separation at 1 day or 6 hours after birth. A similarly strong response in cows was found when separating the calf at 2 weeks of age compared to 1 day.

To reduce separation distress, consideration could be given to a more gradual separation process whereby the calf is prevented from suckling but still has (some) physical contact.

There are also health concerns relating to the cow such as mastitis and lameness although less so than in the US and UK.

On a positive note, this RSPCA dairy standards page says that:

In contrast to the fairly intensive nature of dairy production overseas – where cows may be housed in sheds for their entire lives – most Australian dairy cows spend at least part of the day on green pasture.

source: https://tinyurl.com/ydds25co

Finally, Animals Australia comments that:

The natural lifespan of a cow is up to 20 years, yet few commercial dairy cows live beyond the age of seven years, and many younger animals go to slaughter.

Due to the concerns listed above, the environmental issues discussed in part 1, and the more general argument about animals-as-means-to-our-ends from part 3 I choose not to consume dairy products anymore, where possible.

Part 7: asymptotic vegan