Closer to Midnight

It is now two and a half minutes to midnight. That’s what was announced today by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Who are they and what does that mean?

The organization was started in 1945 by scientists from the Manhattan Project who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work”. Check them out here – Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

As for what it means…the clock is a representation of how close we are to catastrophe. The board takes into account real and existential threats that effect humanity’s future.  This is the first time since 1953 that the clock has moved closer than three minutes to midnight and the first time in 70 years that it has not moved a full minute. Optimistically, they are allowing for the fact that the new American administration was just put in and all have not been confirmed yet.

For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s.

We’ve been as far away as 17 minutes to midnight back in 1991. And while the Bulletin keeps warning about these threats such as nuclear proliferation, climate change and other emerging technology…politicians seem to be taking them less and less seriously. There is now a man in the highest office in America who carelessly tosses around remarks about nuclear weapons and sets other nuclear powers on edge.

Both his statements and his actions as president-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science.

Every day there are more statements coming out of the White House about the removal of environmental policies and the muzzling of scientists. This was a big enough issue when happening in Canada under the previous Conservative government, it is a massive issue when it begins happening in the U.S. and this cannot be taken lightly. But it is hardly the only threat we fact in the future and I encourage you to read the entire Doomsday Clock statement for this year.

I find the closing of the statement something that should be focused on.

In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.

We must not stand idly by and allow facts to be distorted and the scientific method to be ignored. We must all speak out in whatever forum we have at our disposal. We must educate and we must all, every one of us, be involved. The time for silence is at an end.

Read the entire statement here – 2017 Doomsday Clock Statement

F*** Bigotry.

This has been one of those weeks where people in general, really annoy me. Granted in most weeks I rather be around my cats than most humans, but between all the stuff going on in politics and the utter stupidity of online trolls…it’s just been a lot this week.

Now most of the time, online trolls are just ridiculous and amusing. I’ve been collecting some haters for a YouTuber I know for a future “love letters” video ala Richard Dawkins. But in the process I came across a comment from a teen who said she was gay but her mother wanted no part in hearing about it. When she tried she got, “Oh, so you don’t wanna have any kids?”. She feels the need to lie about her sexuality and wants to come out.

THIS shit breaks my heart. No one should have to lie about who they are because they have parents that are completely closed-minded. This is the sort of shit you get from the religious. You’re a parent and you’re making your kid miserable. Does that make you happy in some sort of twisted way? You really think that you can make a child be straight that way? Or do you think if you ignore it, it will just go away? I hear this from kids who are gay, transgender…even atheist. Whatever a parent considers “not normal”.

Granted…I don’t have kids of my own. But my volunteer work over years has brought me into contact with a lot of young people. And you know what your fucking JOB is as a parent? It’s not to force your views on your kids and to try and make them fulfill some failed ambition that you were too inadequate to do yourself. It’s not to make them into some sort of carbon copy of yourself. Your job is to make sure they are happy and healthy. You are supposed to make sure they are educated and independent. Make sure they can think for themselves and contribute to society. You are supposed to do whatever you can to make sure they can succeed in life – in whatever way THEY want to.

Since when did being gay automatically mean you don’t want kids? And it’s 2017…there are lots of ways for gay couples to have kids. And if you live in a country where that’s not a thing…we all need to fix that. It is well past time that we stopped catering to religious bigots that want to keep anyone they see as “the other” from being full members of society. Time to get rid of blasphemy laws, time to make everyone a full 100% part of society — regardless of religion (or lack of), sexuality, gender…whatever it is. It doesn’t matter. We are all humans and equality should not have fine print.

Don’t let anyone keep you in a closet. Do you and be proud of who you are. Be strong and know that you are never alone.

The Price of Ignorance

There was a time in the not too distant past, when one could not be considered civilized if you could not carry on a conversation on topics like literature or scientific topics. When exactly did that stop being the case? When did ignorance become a point of pride? A lot of people like to trace this phenomenon back to the Bush administration. There seemed to arise this attitude that reality was whatever you thought it was and that facts depended on perspective.  We started to see more and more appearances of the thought that *every* fact and scientific opinion had two sides. But as Lawrence Krauss is want to point out, usually one of those sides is just wrong. But when everywhere you turn, there are paid lobbyists and their organizations spending millions of dollars to cast doubt on reality and research – does the average person really have the capacity any more to separate fact from fiction?

An argument could be made for the rise of a video culture over the last few decades that exalts athletics and the superficial over the intellectual.  When you couple that with the increase of highly religious people entering into American politics and helping to shift political discourse further to the right, you could see it as a rising tide that is very difficult to turn back. How do your reverse a culture that puts people like the Kardashians on a pedestal over people like Einstein or Darwin? Science isn’t just the domain of scientists, it should be the domain of everyone. Science affects every single part of our lives, more so now than ever and not only because it has afforded you the ability to read this blog.  🙂

Have you ever gone through your day and actually thought about how everything you touch has been impacted by science? From the engineering of the home that you live in, the science behind your electric lighting, there’s that car that you drive, the chemistry of your morning coffee or the modern medicine that you have access to – there is nothing in your life that modern science has not had a hand in. But if there was a disaster, would you understand any of it enough that you could help to rebuild society? Would you even be able to find food? To build a structure to protect yourself? How would your ignorance of basic science serve you if all of that were taken away? And science does more than that. It helps us to not only understand ourselves better, but to understand the world and universe that we live in.

Religion likes to work from the assumption that all the answers that you need are in whatever holy books is ascribed to that faith. It strives to indoctrinate as many as possible into antiquated belief systems that date back to before we even knew the Earth revolved around the sun.  It takes the end assumption that “God did it” to every question and warps the evidence to fit that conclusion instead of arriving at a conclusion based on the evidence. Despite all advances in our understanding of everything from evolution to astrophysics and cosmology, those who have a faith-based view of the world continue to fight against an evidence-based view of the world. And evangelical politicians continue to help blur the line by weakening education and trying to allow impressionable children to be taught religion as though it was fact. Even allowing things like the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter to function as though they were educational attractions is incredibly detrimental to the intellectual future of upcoming generations.

The price of ignorance is literally, lives. Religious interference in stem cell research costs lives. Such research could extend your own life or the quality of your life as you age. It could cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and alleviate suffering. Those who try to stop it, fail to understand science fully because they operate on a faith-based view of the world. Religious interference in women’s heath choices takes away the rights of women to make educated decisions on their reproductive health. This stance reduces the health and quality of life of both mothers and children under the guise of being ‘pro-life’, but in reality just an excuse to control and subjugate women. The price of ignorance is the cost of lives at the hands of climate change. In addition to the people who will die from rising sea levels, flooding, tsunamis and other extreme weather events, this is also a security issue. You think there’s an immigration issue now? What happens when humans can no longer live in areas like the Middle East?

I recently read an article from President Obama where he talked about the value of books to his terms in office. I will link to the article at the end, but this part struck me as it relates another article I read recently.

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted,” he said, reading gave him the ability to occasionally “slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.”

There was an article that has made the rounds again recently as President-Elect Trump has likely never read a book before. Research shows that those who read literary fiction have greater empathy. Given the disdain that those on the conservative right show for ‘intellectual elites’ and the equal disdain that they have for the poor, the disabled and anyone else that is struggling in today’s society, I don’t find this a stretch. This wave of ignorance that we MUST fight against is causing real harm to real people in the forms of everything from the climate to income inequality. We must ensure that there is an educated electorate that fully understands the consequences of their actions and their votes.

Ignorance is not a virtue, and we must stop treating it like one.

 

Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

Music is Life, the Rest is Just Details

So, let’s talk about music. I was inspired by a bit of a meme going around my friends on Facebook — “10 Albums That Influenced You In Your Teens”. First off, I can’t believe that I had to stop at only 10. Regardless, here were my choices:

Billy Joel “An Innocent Man”
Rick Springfield “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet”
Duran Duran “Duran Duran”
Spoons “Arias & Symphonies”
Roxy Music “Flesh and Blood”
Def Leppard “Pyromania”
The Beatles “Rubber Soul”
Culture Club “Colour By Numbers”
Elvis Costello “Punch The Clock”
David Bowie “Let’s Dance”

This was an *incredibly* hard list to make. When I was a kid, I listened to a lot of country music (real country…not the crap that’s out there now). My very first concert was Ronnie Milsap. I remember him coming out in a purple sequined suit, there were fire spurts going off during it and I recall a time when he danced on his piano (Milsap is blind if you aren’t familiar with him). I was impressed as hell but then, I was 7 years old at the time. The next day I wrote him a letter and a few weeks later I got an autographed photo and a very nice letter in the mail, both of which I still have.  Disco was also incredibly popular when I was a kid. I listened to a lot of BeeGees and I had a huge crush on Andy Gibb and also on Shaun Cassidy. When Gibb died in 1988 when he was only 30, it was devastating. But those of us who came of age in the 80s saw a lot of talent die far too young. A topic for another time.

When it came to rock music around that time, The Beatles were a huge part of my pre-teen years as well. I was absolutely mad for their songs and for 60s music in general. And I don’t know anyone my age that wasn’t influence by Bowie for as long as they can remember.

I turned 10 at the beginning of the 80s and my teen years were dominated by the insane and incredibly experimental music of the time. Computers were just coming into music…and to all of our lives.  I got my first Commodore 64 right around then. I remember having Monopoly on a tape drive – it took an hour to load so you’d come home from school and boot it up before dinner. I also remember buying books on coding and spending hours typing in 20+ pages of “go to” codes to make a ball change colour or bounce around the screen. Back then, you had to actually connect a phone to the modem to connect to the internet to used the bulletin boards that we all hung out in.

In 1982 I fell in love with my first rock ‘n’ roll crush. Rick Springfield. He played Noah Drake on General Hospital but when I was 12, he released “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet”. He was …gorgeous. And hearing his raspy singing voice coupled with his slightly risque lyrics (hey, I was 12) and his guitar-centric music made ‘my heart skip a beat’ (and you’ll know what that’s from if you call yourself a fan). His were the first fan posters to make their ways to my bedroom walls, but they wouldn’t be alone for long. In 1983 a show called “Good Rockin’ Tonight” started and my musical world changed overnight.  Terry David Mulligan introduced us to some of the coolest music that wouldn’t make it’s way onto radio (and some that eventually would). Hearing songs for the first time like “Only You” by The Flying Pickets, “People Are People by Depeche Mode, “Dear God” by XTC or “Congo Toronto” by Robert Priest just grabbed me and never let go.  Toronto Rocks and Muchmusic hit the air in 1984 and we got introduced to a whole range of Canadian and international stars both via music video and interviews.

That’s when bands like Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spoons and others entered the scene.  Bands like Spoons, Martha & the Muffins, Rough Trade and Leonard Cohen were part of the Cancon revolution in the 80s with a vibrant Toronto music scene but I was massively influence by British bands too. No one had seen anything like Duran Duran or Culture Club at the time – the focused on the look in addition to the music. And they took the music video to places it had never gone before. Man, the hours that we listened to HoJo, Wham!, Glass Tiger, A-ha, Tears For Fears, The Go-gos…so much great music that just made you want to dance (or bands like Yes that released incredible songs with videos that emotionally scarred you for life). And the scandals! Duran Duran making “long editions” of their videos cast with naked women that could only be shown after 11pm or Queen doing a video where they cross-dressed were our bit of salacious fun.

The bands that influence them also became the stuff we loved – Roxy Music, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Frank Black…that list could go on for ages. Our whole lives in the 80s revolved around the music and the crazy fashion that it brought on. I wish I still had my oversized pink neon sweatshirt, dammit. And no, I am NOT kidding.  🙂

If you aren’t familiar with a lot of these artists, you should check them out. It’s good to reflect on those songs that bring you back to moments that defined your life – we all have a soundtrack that runs through it.

 

soundtracklife

Always Look on the Bright Side…

So, a lot of 2016 sucked and I’m sure you have seen it hashed out in numerous places. I’m not going to talk about that because I have focused enough on the negatives already.  Instead I am going to blog about the positives that happened this year.

I’ve gotten to know great people online…working with people like Mario and Shikhar on our giant Wakelet educational project was an unexpected start to the year. That project has snowballed into a number of sites I run for my favourite scientists and science communicators among others. I think I’ve progressively gotten better at setting them up and balancing the “fluffy” stuff with the hard science.

In March, Neil deGrasse Tyson came to Toronto and I sprung for VIP tickets. There is nothing quite like listening to him speak in an auditorium. His voice fills a room and you can feel it right down to your toes. And when he put the photo of Saturn on the screen and read from Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” the entire place was silent. Afterwards I got to briefly meet him and was every bit as intimidated by him as I anticipated.

Shortly after that, I got to go and see Lawrence Krauss speak live for the first time.  Although he had to share the stage with an IDer and a creationist…hearing him talk (especially from front row center) was a great experience. And I made a new friend in Melissa while standing outside in the line! I had intended to go from the event to the bus depot to head home, but there was a meet & greet afterwards that he was going to. Naturally I could not pass it up!  Here was another person that intimidated me and before I could even approach him to say anything he smiled and said, “I saw you in the front row, thanks for coming” which made me incapable of speech.  I put on a great impersonation of a puppy just listening to him talk to people in the back room. I’d be perfectly happy just to tag around and listen to him talk all the time, frankly. But I eventually had to hop a cab at the latest possibly moment to make my bus. I launched his Wakelet page in time for his birthday that same month.

When June came around, I volunteered for the first time at the World Science Festival. Though I did not have the opportunity to meet Brian Greene I did get to sit in the VIP section (a reward for working Front of House) for a fascinating panel and also got to see him bring his Einstein show “Light Falls” to the stage.  But my favourite part by far was working as Production Assistant for World Science U For a Day. Being in the room and listening to both Barry Barish and Rai Weiss talk about gravitational waves and LIGO was amazing. And being the one in the room trusted to run the timer for the lecturers, helping the director and running the mic for the Q&A was incredibly cool.

I also loved hanging out in Washington Square Park – I could people watch there all day. Religious nuts, photo shoots, musicians of all sorts and I saw a guy in a wizard hat reading tarot cards.  🙂  Plus the added bonus of a Big Gay Ice Cream right at the Christopher Street Station. Also on this trip to NYC I was able to get to the Hayden Planetarium for the “Dark Universe” show narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I had never been to a planetarium of that size and scale before and the show was incredible.

I left the festival on the Saturday to head to DC for the Reason Rally. An entire day of being confronted by religious fanatics and having the chance to listen to speakers like Bill Nye, Lawrence Krauss, David Silverman and many others. I had the chance to meet David who is the President of American Atheists, get my copy of “Fighting God” signed and let him know that the reason I ‘came out’ as an atheist was because of him. And the reason I now consider myself a firebrand atheist and an activist is also because of him. He makes too much sense to deny…and he’ll be the first one to tell you that, lol. I went to the VIP party, got to break the ice with Professor Krauss while Bree got drunk and followed Cara Santa Maria around for a while. I got ditched after that and ended up at the after party solo for the entire night but I did get to see LK break out his dance moves. Who knew he was such a party animal? (For those not in the know…Richard Feynman taught him to dance!)

Before leaving DC, I wanted to pay a little tribute to Hitch. It seemed appropriate at an event dedicated to reason. I had thought about many things – going by the Wyoming, brunch at his favourite spot, finding one of his drinking holes…but the one thing I needed to do above all others was to visit the Jefferson Memorial. Anyone who is really familiar with Hitch knows the many reasons why this place is so important, both for who it honours and for why it was important to Christopher Hitchens.  The memorial is in a beautiful spot and is inspiring to stand in. It was quite an emotional experience to say the least on many levels. Bree and I took signs that we had a the rally to have some shots taken and we topped it off by being confronted by another religious fanatic from the day before. I was not in the mood for his BS and not only shot him down but called him on his bluffing and sent him away with his tail between his legs.

Over the summer, I made the aquaintance of a young YouTuber in Oxford named Alex O’Connor aka Cosmic Skeptic. Hemant Menta (The Friendly Atheist) pointed him out and I could see how talented he was. Extremely well spoken, intelligent and with a natural charisma in front of the camera…he reminded me a little bit of Hitch. I like to support talent when it appears and Alex definitely has it so I was right there to back his Patreon when he started it and to do what I could to help promote his channel. We have talked a lot since then and I’ve gotten to know his friends Gabriel and Mattie who have a YouTube channel of their own called Swish. I even managed to make my way into one of Alex’s videos on his 2nd channel when he filmed himself and Gabe filling my tea order at the shop they work at. I have autographed bags of tea to prove it.  🙂   I’ve got them safely tucked away for when they all become incredibly famous.

Over the course of the year, I started to become more acquainted with Lawrence Krauss.  It’s so strange that not that long ago he was just this person that I admired and whose books I read … and now we talk upon occasion. So odd, the twists that life takes sometimes. In September I went to see his TIFF movie premier in Werner Herzog’s “Salt & Fire” and he was so good in it! Shortly after that he delivered a TIFF talk to kick off the Star Trek celebrations and we finally got me really meet and say more than a couple of words to each other. I made him a gift of a scrapbook full of my photography and some quotes and poetry finished off with a thank you letter to him. I told him that it was a thank you gift for never telling me to shut up on his Twitter feed. He gave me a hug (!!!) and told me it was nice to know he had someone who would stand up for him.

So, even though there was a lot of loss in 2016, there was also a lot of gain. I feel quite lucky that I have made the acquaintance of so many wonderful people this year. Everyone of them has made an impact on my life this year. Here’s to 2017 and all the possibilities that lie ahead.

Awakenings…

I was talking with a friend on Twitter who mentioned she was doing some reading on Wicca and paganism. We’ve talked about religion a lot since we got to know each other and are both atheists now. It got me thinking back to my years following various faiths and I told her that this might now need to find it’s way into a blog post.

I live in a fairly “religious” city. Religious in a way where everyone pays lip service to it and attends church on Sunday but (with a few exceptions) I’m not that convinced that anyone truly believes it. And considering the amount of people at the bars and getting smashed every weekend, I’m reasonably sure I’m right about this. However, the amount of admitted atheists — ones who actually used the word — so far as I know is two. Me and someone I just encountered the other day on Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of people who admitted they don’t believe in a personal deity. But they’d never use the word atheist. Not that I can fault them as I’ve only been “out” as an atheist since the beginning of this year really. And we ALL know that’s David Silverman’s fault and that he’s extremely proud of that. He’ll be the first to tell you that too.  🙂

Christopher Hitchens made a comment once that you don’t suddenly become an atheist so much as you gradually discover you’ve been one all along. In reflection, that’s about right. I can look down along a path and realize many of the things that got me realizing there was nothing to support the existence of any sort of deity. I was part of the Baptist church as far back as I can recall. There was the normal Sunday school bit and when I was around ten I was part of Pioneer Girls, a church run organization kind of like Girl Guides. I can still start a fire with the best of them.  When I was a teenager, I volunteered at the Sunday school helping out with arts & crafts, little kids would want to the one who got to sit on my knee for “story time” (Bible reading), etc. I was part of a group that would go around and sing Christmas carols at the retirement homes and was part of a teen group at the church that studied the Bible. I had pretty much drunk the Kool-aid.

But I can’t say that I ever really believed it. It was the stuff you were *supposed* to do. I heard people talking about their ‘personal relationship with God’ but whatever that was, I did not have it. And I worked at it, did the whole ‘accepting God’ bit that Baptists do…I could at one point recite a fair bit of scripture at the drop of a hat. But whatever they expected me to feel or experience certainly was never there.

When I was nineteen and had my near-death experience, it made me re-examine my life up to that point. I had stopped going to church a year or so before entirely but after that moment, I never went back. But I still believed in something, I just wasn’t sure what. So, I started to read. I read a lot of Freud around that time, a lot on Buddhism, did a lot of meditating and then discovered paganism and Wicca. I read everything I could get my hands on and eventually became a solitary practitioner as an eclectic pagan — one who believes that all pagan traditions carry an element of truth.  I read tarot, followed the Wheel of the Year and crafted my grimoire. Though I have to admit, having close neighbours makes dancing skyclad under a full moon…a bit of an impracticality if one wants to stay out of jail.

Pagans don’t so much believe that deities are “real” but more like deity is an energy that surrounds us and infuses everything. That there’s a sort of web of energy that connects all living things, and Wiccans cast their spells or prayers into the “web”.  That energy is personified in whatever pantheon one chooses to follow and what name you choose to invoke. Most practitioners these days follow Greek, Roman or Egyptian gods, mostly because they are the ones most are familiar with. But they never really resonated for me.  My pantheon was Celtic and my patron Goddess was Brigit, Goddess of fire, poetry and inspiration. I still do pay her honour on February 2nd every year by reading poetry by candlelight. Not a bad way to spend an evening all told. Old habits die hard I suppose.

But what Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins started…crumbled away when Lawrence Krauss entered my life for the first time. What mythology could stand up against that trio? I finally did realize that what I had felt all my life was not a journey to find religion but one to realize that said religion is a crutch. Something that makes us feel better, to feel comfortable much like a fairy tale. But sooner or later we all must grow up and put those fairy tales behind us.

It cast a lovely light…

I’ve been struggling all day for the words for the impact that Christopher Hitchens had on my life. I honestly don’t recall the first time I read his work, it seems like he was always in the background of my life with some kind of reporting from somewhere in the world. Though I knew the name, when I was younger I was never politically minded so I never paid much attention. But to be honest, I’m not sure of the person I’d be today if Hitch had not been a part of my life.

I know that I’ve written about the near-death experience I had back in ’89 that was the main cause of my first leaving organized religion in the past. But I don’t recall ever hearing the word or even considering myself an atheist until I first read Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” and followed it up with Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great”. Hitch especially sent me down a path of self-examination that eventually led me to the realization that atheism was the only course of reason and putting the mythology of religion in my past. He was also my first real introduction to many topics in world politics. When I became more politically aware starting in my 20s, I started to pay more attention to what Christopher was writing about. Most of what I came to know about American politics started with what he taught me.

I still turn to his books, articles and videos on a regular basis, be it his views on American and international politics, British history, atheism or just some that he wrote on everyday life — like how to make a proper cup of tea. 🙂  No one could phrase an argument or articulate a particular thought quite the way that he could.

His superb oratory mixed with intelligence, a razor sharp wit and a voice that commanded your attention, made him so incredibly unique that the loss of him is still felt so keenly today. Anyone whose life he touched can’t help seeing things in the news or in politics without wondering what Hitch would have had to say about it. He taught us how to look at things in a different manner than everyone else and not to just accept what the mainstream media was telling us. And his example was that of a man who was willing to be unpopular for standing by his convictions.

Hitch left us too early. There was too much left to say and no one to say it. This huge gap in all of our lives has not yet seen his like to fill it. I can only comment on how much he affected my life…my words are a pale shadow compared to the ones that could be uttered in their place.

We miss you Hitch.

 

hitch2