Archive for September, 2008

I am …


The fall equinox occurs today at 15:44. As the sun sits in balance, straight above the equator, I give you a post about balance, about thinking of the other side. About including others with you and including yourself with others.

Derek at Disonanz Cognitif has a post that just begs to become a blog meme. (Thanks to Mike Clawson at Friendly Atheist for pointing me to Derek’s post.) Here are three of his “I am” statements (go read his blog for the rest):

I live in a world of people, animals, places, things, ideas, time, space, matter, energy, forces, galaxies, quasars, mesons, and bosons. I live in a universe that seems self-sustaining and acts a whole lot like there’s no God in it. I am an Atheist.

I believe I have not yet sufficiently investigated the myriad of religious, spiritual experiences others claim to have had, and that there are too many well-educated, intelligent people who claim religious belief without a hint of shame, to discount the existence of an otherworld completely. I am an Agnostic.

I believe the teachings of Christ regarding positive social change and mercy to the oppressed are just a bit too clear a message of the gospel to be swept up as a minor sub-plot to securing an eternal country club membership for oneself. I am a Christian.

Derek explicitly avoids labelling himself in general (at the end of his post, he says “I am a person who has made a conscious choice to make no overt profession of faith or disbelief”), so it’s quite a bold thing for him to make such a list as this. If you read through the comments on the Friendly Atheist post, you can see that some people don’t even try to take the statements in the spirit they’re intended. It seems obvious to me that Derek is trying to point out bridges. Some commenters just want to nitpick and try to impose their own definitions of terms on Derek.

Going through his list, I could echo “me too” to every one of his declarations. More importantly, I think this is a great way to crack through some of the divisive oppositions in our society, if people can bother to listen.

And I think I could add a couple of entries to the list myself. Here goes …

I delight in solving puzzles and probing mysteries. I love to discover things which can be discovered and to know things which can be known. I am determined to learn about the reality that lies beyond my subjective, biased human perceptions. I am a scientist.

I savour the taste of a good, unsolved mystery. I enjoy the potential that lies in the unknown. I could lie for hours looking up at the sky, contemplating the fact that I will never know most of what there is to be known in the universe. I am a mystic.

I refuse to let people’s reproductive anatomy dictate how I treat them, except when I expect to interact directly with their reproductive anatomy. I resist sexist behaviour in myself and in others. I am a feminist.

I value the lives of all sentient animals, and cause them as little suffering as possible. I enjoy a variety of foods, but do my best to eat things whose production does not involve the deaths of feeling beings. I am a vegetarian.

I think the best hope for human well-being and betterment lies in treating one another with compassion and reason in this life, the only one we can be sure we have. I value human life above non-human life. I am a humanist.

So there it is. I invite you to add your own items, either in the comments here or, of course, on your own blog.

I know that many people will disagree with the connections I’m making between characteristics and labels. But remember, this is an exercise in seeking connections. There may be an element of exaggeration in some or all of the items, but there is also an element of truth. It is that truth, that seed of inclusiveness, of universality, that is (in my mind) the point of the whole exercise.

I think I’ll close this post as Derek closes his, with a line of hope and openness.

“And yet, the spiritual journey continues.”


Software Freedom Day


I just learned about Software Freedom Day: today, 20 September!

Software Freedom Day (SFD) is a worldwide celebration of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Our goal in this celebration is to educate the worldwide public about of the benefits of using high quality FOSS in education, in government, at home, and in business — in short, everywhere!

I don’t have much time to research and write the article I would like to write in support of this. I am a big supporter of free software (“free as in speech, not free as in beer”), and hope to include a line of articles on it in this blog when I have more time (whenever that might be).

For the moment, let me just give a little anecdote:

My dad is a farmer in Alberta. He uses a computer for accounting, word processing, e-mail. It is important, because one of his main operations is a mail-order seed-potato business, Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes with a website for people to browse and order from. (He grows several very interesting and exotic varieties of potatoes for gardeners across Canada.) My brother farms with him, growing u-pick flowers and a very popular sunmaze.*

They recently got attacked by an e-mail virus that just about did them out of internet access – a serious problem for an internet-dependent business.

We were visiting Canada at the time, and I suggested trying Linux (specifically Ubuntu, one of the most human-friendly varieties of Linux). They put Linux on the infected machine, got the e-mail client running within the day (it’s at least as easy as it is on Windows), and are now 99% virus-proof.

While we were at it, we put Xubuntu, a low-spec variety of Ubuntu, on a laptop that could no longer handle the demands of Windows, and suddenly they had one more usable computer than they had before.

A very short learning curve (about the same as you’d get moving from one version of Windows to the next) and they were all up and running.

Moral: if you don’t want to spend money on virus-prone operating systems or on the latest and greatest computer, but just need something that works easily, reliably, and safely, Linux is the way to go. (Free Software is marketed as “free as in speech, not free as in beer”, but it’s usually both.)

And even if you don’t want to go so far as trying Linux (even though it’s very easy), there is a lot of useful free software out there that you can use in Windows or on the Mac. Try, which has a word processer, a spreadsheet, and most of the applications and features that Microsoft Office has. Try the Gimp, an image processing program akin to Photoshop. And for the love of all things digital, make sure you’re using Mozilla Firefox rather than Explorer!

That’s all for now. Enjoy Sofware Freedom Day!

*Note: Yes, I am shamelessly promoting my family’s businesses here. Go, visit them, try the maze, grow some potatoes.

(Thanks to TeXblog for alerting me to Software Freedom Day.)

Life after death


We received the latest edition today of Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland. In it is this, my first (paid!) column in a series – accompanied by a twin column authored by Mike, the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist. The theme of this quarter’s issue is death.

In April, I went with the local student linguistics club to the anatomy lab of a teaching hospital. I have studied the physical and psychological processes of speech for ten years, but I had never before seen the speech organs in place; never seen everything connected as it is in life. That visit greatly enriched my education.

If the anatomy lab is so helpful to a linguist, imagine the benefit to medical students and to those whose lives they will go on to save.

It’s not all learning and delight, though. Stepping into the room, seeing the tables with the unmistakably human forms under sheets, I felt a stab in my heart – the visceral tragedy of death. Students of anatomy must acknowledge and respect the humanity – the sacredness – of the bodies being studied, while remaining detached enough to learn what there is to learn. Afterwards, one of my fellow students asked, “Did anyone else feel sad after the visit?” Yes, we did. This knowledge we had gained, this understanding, was only possible because people had died.

But the choice before us is not between their life and our knowledge. The choice is what to do when death comes. Though we were uneasy at times, I do not think anyone in our group regretted the experience, nor failed to appreciate the gravity of the choices and events that made it possible.

Because of that trip, I have decided to donate my body.

I’ve heard (and can imagine) many reasons for not donating one’s body. They range from the superstitious – “What if my spirit can’t move on because my body was not put to rest properly?” – to the self-conscious – “Do I want so many young medical students peering into my body?” These worries are real; but can they compete against the undeniable and tangible benefits the gift of one’s body provides?

Simply put, yes. People’s fear in contemplating such donations is immediate and profound. The fear of death cannot be set aside with a quick dose of reason; the prospect of having their body (or the body of a loved one) treated other than how they wish after death can cause true emotional distress. I would be a poor humanist indeed if I were to ignore such pain just because it isn’t rational.

Nevertheless, medical students still need human bodies to learn from. The days of the Resurrection Men, and the grisly Burke and Hare murders, are well behind us. Today, the utmost respect is shown to donated bodies. But, as in the days of the Edinburgh grave robbers, there is always a shortage. Universities are forced to exploit alternative means of anatomical instruction – sometimes ingenious, but never quite as good as the real thing.

The gift of one’s body suits every bit of humanist philosophy: care for others, value for education, and a dedication to reality over superstition and wishful thinking. I can think of few better epitaphs than on the marker of the plot used to inter the remains from the anatomy lab I visited: “To those far-sighted people who have contributed to the advancement of medical science & research.”

The decision is deeply personal, and I do not condemn those who choose differently from me. But I do ask that you think about it. (Perhaps many people don’t donate their bodies because it just doesn’t occur to them.) Ask yourself which option accords best with your values and your beliefs.

Contact your nearest medical school to find out more about arranging the donation of your body.


Earth birthday


Another Cosmic Calendar event already!

Only the day after the Solar System begins to form, our own humble planet comes into being.

(Remember, because we are compressing the entire history of the cosmos into one year, each day represents 37.4 million years.*)

I apologize for not having more to say just now – I am still in PhD write-up mode.

References used:
[1] Wikipedia, as usual.
[2] Talk Origins page on dating the age of the Earth

* For those who have followed this series from the beginning, you might remember that I claimed before the each day is 41 million years. I am now calling it 37.4 million. What gives? The earlier figure was based on a 15 billion-year-old universe. I have since learned that the consensus is for a slightly younger universe, at 13.7 billion years. Remember, this is a calendar based on what we know, and so when what we know changes, so does the calendar. If anyone else wants to fact-check my figures and calculations, please let me know.