Archive for the ‘Life Musings’ Category

Astrology Ontology

October 22, 2022

Astronomy uses people to explain the stars.

Astrology uses the stars to “explain” people.

(Anon)

Many amateur astronomers, myself included, have enjoyed Quasar Publishing’s annual Astronomy publication. Astronomy 2023 includes an article titled Astrology – the First Astronomers which at least in some forums, has generated some discussion.

The one page article talks a bit about the historical context of astrology as predating astronomy, its focus on the constellations that the Sun appears to pass through – the zodiacal constellations – due to the Earth’s annual trek around the Sun, and that the Earth’s slow wobble about its axis leads to the so-called precession of the equinoxes that has changed the zodiac’s constellation-occupying date ranges.

The article also talks about some well-known figures in the history of Science have practiced astrology including Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Ptolemy. As did Kepler, who also believed that there was some relationship between the platonic solids and planetary spacing. Today, we revere him for his Three Laws of Planetary Motion, investigations into optics, measuring the volume of wine barrels, and an early Science Fiction story (Somnium). He, like many early scientists, was on the cusp of the old and new ways. Think also of Newton, who was an alchemist. It’s easy for us to see the many ways in which they were in error now, given our historical perspective and educational good fortune.

The Astronomy 2023 authors comment on the aspect of the day of a person’s birth in relation to the Sun’s position at that time as used in “newspaper horoscopes”, and follow on with this:

Astrologers have clearly defined methods on how to create such charts, but the problem is the validity of their initial assumptions to start with. From a scientific basis, it has never been demonstrated how the arrangement of these distant bodies can influence individual’s characteristics.

So far, so good.

Earlier in the article we have this:

This article is not a criticism of astrology, but more spelling out the differences between astronomy and astrology.

That’s also fine as far as it goes. They continue with:

A bit like how science cannot be used to disprove God (whichever version) or in this case, astronomy disprove astrology.

It’s true. The existence of gods is not susceptible to proof or disproof. I’m not going to lose sleep over this or the infinity of other things we can’t prove or disprove. As an aside, the word prove shouldn’t be bandied around so much. The only things that can be proven are mathematical theorems. Science doesn’t prove things: it gathers more and more evidence in favour of a particular hypothesis or against some other.

The article follows on with:

They are just different. Astrology and religions are belief systems which are effectively non-falsifiable…this means there is no test known (or perhaps even possible?) that would disprove a concept. By religions, we include all the gods, including those that used to be worshiped by the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East cultures, responsible for the mythological figures immortalized in today’s constellations.

To be honest, by the time I had tossed around the content of the article, the initial knee-jerk reaction of “why the heck is there anything about astrology in Astronomy 2023?” had given way to: “how could the article be improved?”

My main feedback to the authors is that we need to be careful not to encourage the perception that all forms of knowledge are equal. Having an opinion isn’t enough, especially for things that matter in some important way. It’s okay to criticise ideas and systems of belief. More than that, we must criticise ideas because otherwise no progress can ever be made! Sometimes ridicule is also valid, in the case of truly toxic belief systems. Kinder, constructive criticism is better. Let’s face it: we’ve all had bad ideas.

The authors do make the point that belief of the astrological and religious kind are not falsifiable. They also mention that astrological assumptions and mechanisms are suspect.

Perhaps the case could have been made even more clearly by saying that systems of belief such as astrology and religion have no predictive or explanatory powers, whereas Scientific theories do, and further that the latter are open to question and revision. That’s not to say that Science is not a human process. There’s ego and politics aplenty. But the Method wins in the end.

I would also suggest that if all someone does when reading their daily horoscope is to have a laugh, then there’s nothing to worry about. If astrology or religion leads to important life decisions, then I think it is more than reasonable to apply a bit more scrutiny.

To prefer the hard facts over our dearest illusions, that is the core of Science. 

(Carl Sagan commenting upon Johannes Kepler)

Waiting for Artemis 1…

August 29, 2022
source: nasa.gov

I’m currently watching NASA TV waiting for the launch of Artemis 1, the first test of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion crew capsule, albeit unmanned this time with “crash test dummies”, mannequins that will be used to measure forces and radiation, and the first mission to the Moon of its kind for 50 years, since Apollo 17 in 1972.

There was an unplanned hold at 40 minutes before launch due to an operating temperature problem in engine #3.

There are a couple of launch opportunities in early September if today’s launch is cancelled.

This is an important precursor test mission for Artemis 2, a crewed mission scheduled for 2024 that will orbit the Moon and return its astronauts to Earth, Apollo 8 style, before the first crewed landing mission, Artemis 3, in 2025, 53 years after Apollo 17 and 56 years after Apollo 11.

I must admit that life keeps me pre-occupied enough that I wasn’t thinking about this much again until recently. For someone who remembers being sent home from school, even as a 5 year old boy, to watch Apollo 11 on the family B&W TV along with the blurry pictures of Neil Armstrong on the ladder of the LEM, and as a lifelong fan of spaceflight, manned and robotic, the fact that Artemis (the twin of Apollo) is happening seems just a bit special.

NOTE: While writing this, the Artemis 1 launch was scrubbed for today. The next earliest possible launch date is September 2nd, pending the outcome of the analysis of test data from today’s engine problem. Here’s hoping!

EDIT: More than 2.5 months after I wrote this post (Aug 29 2022), Artemis 1 has finally launched!

20 years since Mum died

August 16, 2022

August 17 2022 marks 20 years since my mother died.

My first inclination was to title this post 20 years since Mum’s passing. Even though I sometimes find myself using the word “passing” in this context, as an atheist, the word makes no sense to me here.

So, what’s changed in 20 years?

Everything and nothing.

And yes, I am aware that’s not a logically consistent statement…

Here’s a personal, random (that’s me in a nutshell) and partial list of things that have and have not changed:

  • A little over a year after we lost Mum, Karen and I had a daughter, Heather, who we dearly wish had known my mother.
  • The Kepler spacecraft has shown us that the universe is likely to be teeming with planets.
  • I still think Mum was the kindest, wisest, sanest of us all.
  • Some countries think war is still a fine idea. Sigh…
  • Our species is beginning to understand that consuming resources at the current rate is problematic. Note that’s not the same as doing something about it…
  • The world as a whole is still not taking climate change all that seriously.
  • I changed employers a few times.
  • The future of computing is still exciting and scary in equal measure. Technology is not value free.
  • I still think of Mum most days. I still miss her, and that’s how it should be.

Facebook Immortals?

May 14, 2022

I try to remember to light a candle each year on my mother’s and father’s birthday. Today (May 14), it was for Dad, and he would have been 91.

On August 17th this year, it will be 20 years since Mum died (four days before her 74th birthday). On January 7th this year, it was 2 years since Dad died.

So, you can imagine my mild surprise when Facebook notified me that it was Dad’s birthday and invited me to post on his timeline. Apparently Facebook time stretches beyond this life…

I’ve noticed this phenomenon a number of times now. Of course, given concerns about “what social media knows about us” and “how it controls what we think” (to which I’m not entirely unsympathetic, but about which I have not yet succumbed to total paranoia), I suppose it’s comforting to know that Facebook hasn’t yet figured out whether or not an account owner is still alive. Seems like a not-too-crazy-hard application of traditional symbol systems AI to search death records etc and put two and two together though.

At some point in time, the living Facebook population may outnumber the non-living. Perhaps just in time for Facebook Metaverse v2.0: reanimation? That may be taking AI too far though. 😉

Still, I thought I’d take Facebook up on the invitation to post on Dad’s apparently eternal timeline. Given his particular sense of humour, and that he was a Uniting Church minister, I’m pretty sure he would have found it funny.

Once in awhile I’m not misanthropic…

March 13, 2022

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

(Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot)

I find it increasingly easy to be misanthropic now.

Climate action malaise.

Zoonotic diseases (e.g. COVID-19, Japanese Encephalitis Virus).

Rampant speciesism.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and who knows what country next.

All unnecessary. All preventable.

I find myself speaking about homo sapiens in the third person more and more, despite (obviously) being a deeply flawed member of that species.

Despite a willingness to be conciliatory, to be a glass half full kind of guy, to encourage open, honest conversation, some days, I find it really really hard to have any hope that our species will mature quickly enough to significantly mitigate the coming climate catastrophe or to avoid decades more unnecessary suffering and death of the members of many species, but especially those that members of species homo sapiens use and abuse.

Every so often though, my spirits are buoyed and hope seems possible. That happened recently, when I watched this video.

Having said that, I do tire of the us and them phrasing of the title of videos like this (“meat eater” vs “vegan”). The content is positive and respectful though.

But there will need to be many more such intellectually honest, respectful conversations, before my view of the future is likely to be significantly perturbed.

Earthling Ed and Eric have the quintessential open conversation

How the Woke Cancelled Wumbus

June 1, 2021
Wum is for Wumbus, my high spouting whale who lives high on a hill.

Everyone knows How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

But have you heard How the Woke Cancelled Wumbus?

Among other Seussisms, “A Chinaman who eats with sticks” (from And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street), was recently declared to be offensive.

On March 2nd 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises issued this statement:

Today, on Dr. Seuss’s Birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises celebrates reading and also our mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.

We are committed to action.  To that end, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetIf I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.  These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.

These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

Hmm…

You have to admit though: that Wumbus high on the hill from On Beyond Zebra! looks pretty happy.

Land rights for gay whales anyone?

A Chinaman who eats with sticks… A big magician doing tricks…

No-one uses chopsticks anymore, right?

What about the “big” magician?

Should robust magicians everywhere suddenly be up in arms as they recall their traumatic childhood being force-read Dr Seuss?

In his recent article And then they came for ON BEYOND ZEBRA!, the American linguist John McWhorter said:

The book is not only entertaining but educational, in ways that a linguist like me especially values. It gently gets across the key fact that our letters only approximately reflect the language we actually speak. Note, for example, that there is no way to indicate with an isolated letter, or even a group of letters, the sound of u in put – if you don’t see it in the word itself, no other approximation works: oughooeueugh … see how nothing works? English has 26 letters to about 43 sounds, and Zebra introduces the idea, in its goofy way, that there could theoretically be more letters. 

But now we are to see the book as some kind of controversial contraband, and why? Specifically, on one page a man of no delineated race (and thus we would declare him “white,” I assume) is riding a kind of camel and has a mustache. A building in the background seems like, if anything (which it isn’t) some kind of pagoda. The man has the billowy pantaloons we would associate with an “Arab.”

I understand, formally, the idea that this picture signals that this is a Middle Easterner. However, I cannot be honest with myself and view it as a “stereotype.” In no way does this picture ridicule the man (or the animal), and in fact, the camel is a special kind (called a Spazzim) with elaborate horns that carry assorted objects which if anything make this man a mid-twentieth century homeowner.

SPAZZ is a letter I use to spell Spazzim, a beast who belongs to the Nazzim of Bazzim. Handy for travelling. That’s why he has ‘im.

I don’t know whether Dr. Seuss Enterprises felt pressure from within or without, but the action to which it has committed itself is an example of political correctness having reached dizzying new heights lately as the word woke has become part of our language.

Wokeness speaks to a keen awareness of social and racial injustice. We hear calls to “stay angry, stay woke”. The derivation is from African vernacular meaning that someone was sleeping but now is awake (“I was sleeping but now I’m woke“).

It’s not at all impossible to relate to such an awakening…

But with wokeness has come cancel culture.

Books from Dr. Seuss, along with other classics, are being cancelled.

Now, I lean pretty far left politically and ideologically. I’m a Green voting vegan atheist. I support freedom of speech, expression, and belief.

But it is arguably precisely these things that are under threat by cancel culture!

It reminds me of the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (index of forbidden books), the Nazi book burnings, and Ray Bradbury’s Sci-Fi story Fahrenheit 451.

To be fair, in the case of Dr Seuss, cancelled in practice just means: no longer being sold, not banned, but there are still books being banned, even if only in some countries.

Nevertheless, I think we have to resist a new index of forbidden books, no matter what form it takes.

Besides, if you did want to cultivate such an index, why on earth would you stop with modern classics?

Why not go after writings about (or by?) the vindictive, jealous, zealous god of the Old Testament, to name just one holy book?

Unless you think that burning witches or stoning adulterers or killing children if they’re disrespectful or slavery or drowning most of the world’s population are acceptable acts?

Or that damning people to Hell (New Testament) because they don’t utter the right magic words is okay?

No? Well, out with a bunch of books from the Bible then too!

But what counts as harm? What counts as injustice? What should be done about it?

If you look closely, you’ll notice that cancel culture is thoroughly anthropocentric.

How ordinary. How boring. How 20th century.

Not to diminish the importance of addressing the injustices still being done to people in various parts of the world, but why stop with human injustice? Why not upgrade racism to speciesism?

Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs: they’re no good to eat, you can’t cook ’em like steaks, but they’re handy in crossing small oceans and lakes.

It’s easy to imagine a different group of outraged people applying Seuss book bans for treating other species, even if fictional or outlandish, as things to be used. And I don’t mean Thing One and Thing Two.

Those poor old mistreated Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs. And don’t forget that the Nazzim only has the Spazzim because he’s handy for travelling. Or how about the udder (groan; dad joke) convenience of an Umbus?

UM is for Umbus, a sort of a cow with one head and one tail. But to milk this great cow you need more than one pail.

But Seussisms encourage a playfulness with language. And the corny humour never really gets old.

All Dr Seuss characters are essentially caricatures, including the chinaman with sticks, the Spazzim, and the magician.

There will always be someone to offend in this ultra-individualistic world we’ve created.

We have to stop worrying that something we write or say might be considered offensive to some group of people in the future and instead consider writings in their historical context.

That doesn’t mean that we should set out to hurt, to deliberately offend… Of course we shouldn’t…

And of course, we should stand against harm and injustice.

Obviously…

But what’s next: no Irish jokes? No jokes that start like: a priest, a rabbi, and a buddhist monk walk into a bar…

No question should be forbidden. No topic should be taboo.

Unless you think we’re special in some sense, except to one another, irrespective of any special capabilities we may have.

And yet…

We’re better than those others in some part of the world that is not ours. Right?

We’re smarter and superior to every other species. Right?

Wrong!

We have to reimagine ourselves as being a part of nature, the very nature that we seem so keen to distance ourselves from.

Not separate from nature. Not a special creation.

On this, especially, all holy books are misguided or misinterpreted. Usually both.

We are all biased beyond belief about one thing or another.

We are all flawed in some way.

Not one of us is perfect.

We need less judgement, misdirected anger, self-righteousness certainty, talk of those other people

We need more understanding, thoughtful conversation, tolerance of difference, kindness, forgiveness…

All easier said than done, I know…

Then again…

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

(The Lorax, Dr Seuss)

Adelaide Bikeway Fail

March 28, 2021
source: ABC News

ABC News recently reported that the Adelaide City Council (ACC) voted against the installation of a separated bikeway across the CBD after years of deliberations.

The 8-3 vote taken on Tuesday night means the council will miss out on $3 million in State Government funding towards the $5.8 million project. The east-west bikeway would have gone along Franklin Street, Gawler Place and Wakefield Street, connecting with the Frome Street bikeway in the eastern side of the CBD. The State Government funding was contingent on the council approving plans for the project by the end of the month. The tight deadline led to a condensed consultation period last year that upset businesses and the Greek Orthodox community, which has a church and a bingo hall on Franklin Street. Both groups were worried about losing parking spaces.

Sigh.

Worried about losing parking spaces… How about taking a bus or a cab or dropping off a friend or elderly relative?

In an email to subscribers entitled “The Cars That Ate Adelaide”, Bike SA condemned the ACC vote.

To be fair, according to the ABC report, there is some support for a bikeway, but not in the proposed location. Then again, given the length of deliberations so far, how much longer are we likely to have to wait for agreement?

The ABC report goes on to say that ACC celebrated “driver’s month” in November to encourage shoppers back to the CBD post COVID restrictions. Then this:

The council decision came after lawyer Greg Griffin wrote to the council on behalf of businesses opposed to the bike lane.

“Everybody has had enough of this matter continually arising,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide on Tuesday.

“No-one wants this bike lane. It will have a catastrophic effect in terms of businesses on Flinders Street.”

Mr Griffin said the population of Adelaide was primarily suburban, meaning it was “very different” to European cities renowned for their bike paths such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

“Everybody has had enough”? Not me.

“No-one wants the bike lane”!? Obviously false.

“Catastrophic effect”!? Oh please! Seriously?

“Primarily suburban”? Why then do we need so many cars in the Adelaide CBD if we’re all so suburban?

This kind of talk is a kick in the guts for those of us who want to ride a bike to work and get there safely, while reducing emissions.

We need more traffic in the Adelaide CBD like each of us needs a hole in the head.

I ride an electric bike to work three or four times per week at the moment. I get two or three 22km round trips from a single charge. There’s no discernible impact on our (solar powered) electricity bill and bugger all emissions from this activity.

I tend to steer clear of the CBD when riding but the proposed bikeway would have improved safety and made me more inclined to choose such a route sometimes.

My current route is quite traffic-heavy and judging by the lack of riders in the bike lane with me, I’m one of the few people apparently stupid enough to make the regular commute on that particular route.

Adelaide’s bike infrastructure is woefully inadequate with bike lanes stopping and starting (spatially and temporally) with sickening frequency, making commuting cyclists second class citizens.

Maybe we should (one day when that’s possible again) move to a country that actually gives a shit about safe cycling and lowering emissions and something other than car culture.

Voluntary Assisted Dying in South Australia

March 10, 2021
Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) legislation is being discussed starting from March 17 in the South Australian parliament.

A little more than a year ago, my dad expressed a wish to die every day I was with him for the last week of his life. He was living in Tasmania. While there are amendments to be accepted, VAD legislation is now on the way to being passed there.

I recently took part in a discussion of VAD in South Australia at the Blackwood Uniting Church, a special meeting of the monthly philosophy group, supported by a well thought out presentation by a palliative care doctor. The consensus seemed to be support for VAD.

A cursory glance through my blog will show that I don’t believe in gods of any sort. One problem with religion in general is that it encourages people to pretend to know things they can’t possibly know, and potentially (and this is the crucial bit) base important life decisions on such belief. I’ve written elsewhere about what counts as good belief.

With respect to Christianity at least, the more liberal the denomination, the less salvation by faith thinking there is, and the more emphasis on living a good and caring life due to some notion of (a God of) love there usually is. Of course, you don’t need religion for that.

Especially given that there was a “Non-Christian but I wish to support the Group” option, I was encouraged to sign up on the Christians In Support of VAD website after the philosophy group discussion.

The more names on petitions and lists in favour of choosing a “good death”, the better.

Speaking of which, here’s one such (secular) petition. I signed that too.

Try to enjoy life now. There’s a very good chance that this is the only one you’ll get. And if your end of life scenario sucks, remember: it’s your life, not some imaginary sky fairy’s. You should get to choose, in consultation with those you care about.

Whatever you believe, the fact is that each of us was born into a life that none of us asked for.

You can choose to consider life as a gift, or to simply accept the fact of existence and embrace it. Or both, if you like.

We were not alive for 14 billion years (give or take), and we won’t be alive for even longer while the heat death of the universe plays out over trillions of years.

But we should, where possible, have some say in the manner, time, and place of our exit from life.

Anyway, let’s hope that VAD legislation is passed in SA.

Questionable church signs #4

January 17, 2021

I took this quick photo of a church sign from a distance on the way to the train, after a nice afternoon on the beach with my wife. The name is obscured to protect the innocent, so to speak, as usual.

Trust Him. Trust Him?

If 2020 is anything to go by, I’m inclined to place my bets elsewhere. A pandemic, major bush fires, earth quakes, untold suffering, personal loss…

The implication of this church sign is that God knows what’s coming. This makes Him all-seeing. Is He powerless to change the future? If so, He is not all-powerful, in which case He should consider a line of work other than Universe building.

Or did He plan to create a future in which there is suffering. If so, He is not all-good.

There are those Christians who will say that the suffering we see in the world is because of our rebellion against God. If God incarnate, in the person of Jesus Christ, died for the sins of all, and rebellion against God is a sin, then shouldn’t that be forgiven too, rather than God heaping more woes upon humanity?

Yes, I know… Jesus died for our sins and “all we have to do” is believe in Him to have eternal life.

What if we don’t want eternal life?

And forgiveness: don’t we get that whether we ask for it or not because of what Jesus did at Calvary?

Others will say that there is a Grand Cosmic Plan that we just don’t understand.

Either way, God gets all the kudos and we are still left with the puzzle. Adding “God” to a sentence does not contribute to an explanation.

I do understand the desire to believe that there’s a plan, that all the bad things that happen somehow make sense. Especially when we lose those we care about.

But perhaps we should follow William of Ockham’s advice and not multiply entities needlessly. It all just seems too complex, too arbitrary. It has all the hallmarks of being man-made.

In any case, I much prefer questions that do not yet (and may never) have answers over answers that cannot be questioned.

The sign is right about one thing though: 2021? who knows? It should have stopped there.

Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Picture of mum at 2 years old and the world of 1930

January 3, 2021

Karen was looking through family history documents recently and came across this photo of my Mum at 2 years, 2 months old in 1930 with her parents Alma and Jim Melville.

My mother, Lorna Jean Benn (nee Melville) at 2 years, 2 months of age.

Other than being a beautiful photograph, what struck me was what a very different time it must have been.

The back of the postcard on which Mum’s picture appears.

I was initially planning to stop there. Being on holidays and in a contemplative mood, I began wondering what was going on in 1930, 2 years after the discovery of penicillin, 11 years after the end of the Spanish Flu, between two world wars, at the start of the decade which saw the rise of nationalism.

Thinking about the history of computing, this was the year of Christopher Morcom’s death, the young man who was so important to Alan Turing, and six years before Turing’s historic paper On Computable Numbers. In 1930, an analog computer capable of solving differential equations was created in the US by Vannevar Bush and a simple binary counter was built in the UK by C.E. Wynn-Williams. John Vincent Atanasoff completed his PhD before inventing the world’s first electronic digital computer in the late 30s. The influential Dutch computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra was also born in 1930.

Moving from computing to space and science history, American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Pete Conrad were all born in 1930, as was Frank Drake, American radio astronomer and SETI pioneer. The process by which ozone is replenished in the upper atmosphere was explained by Sydney Chapman in that year, Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, Neoprene was invented by DuPont corporation, the diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis vaccine was first used and the particle later identified as the electron neutrino was postulated by Wolfgang Pauli.

While 1930 was a very different time from 2021 in many ways, there were historical events unfolding when my mother was just a small child that have shaped our world in important ways, bringing her time and mine a little closer in a strangely comforting way.