Humans are a really odd species – there’s just no getting around this. Maybe it’s a credit to us that we’re actually starting to recognize this, or maybe it’s a symptom of our condition that it’s taking us so long. It’s really easy to devolve into some kind of internal philosophical debate over that, but it’s pretty pointless.

What makes me say this, though, are the peculiar traits we have assigned to ourselves, and our irrational way of looking at things. We have an obvious view of ourselves as a higher species, and even those people that routinely study animal behavior and relative intelligence (however you want to define that) agree with this assessment. We use tools, far apart from any other species; we deal with abstracts, far apart from what we suspect of any other species; we alter our environment and culture, far apart from any other species. I was careful to choose the word “apart from” there, instead of something like “above,” because I’m not really sure we can consider these as traits that will distinguish us in a positive manner. While most species are remarkably efficient about the whole survival aspect, we wander away from that into realms that we rarely see from any others, and that seem none too useful. We’re more concerned with entertainment than survival, which is a pretty peculiar trait to assign to a “higher” organism. How many species can you name where individuals kill themselves off while thrillseeking, showing off, or overreaching the limits of their endurance, much less playing with their cellular toys while driving?

Even more interesting, however, are our thought processes. I commented earlier about the aspect of philosophical thought that has us believing that our minds can transcend our mere bodies in puzzling out the nature of the universe – we will figure things out, whether by logical debate or by empirical observation. And while this seems to be a great drive and is responsible for most of what we consider “advances” (at least the empirical part – the logical debate part is still up for grabs,) try applying such an attitude to any other species. The rabbit possesses the ability to fathom the nature of the universe, or perhaps the elephant does. Right away, we scoff at such ideas – neither can even figure out astronomy or oceanography, medicine or electricity. Nice measuring sticks, perhaps, but only from our own perspective, and it seems rather presumptuous to make any claim that humans leap infinitely ahead of such intellects and are not limited by senses or brain complexity. Can we really say that we’re that different?

More frightening, however, is a trait I can only despise and loathe: wishful thinking. And by this I mean, believing that our reality is made up only of those things that we prefer, that emotionally satisfy us. I am fond of saying that I hate the term “truth,” because it is abused beyond all reason and most often best defined as, “that which pleases me.” If you doubt this, pay close attention to the circumstances in which it is used, and most especially when someone claims to be in search of it. It is almost never a case where someone seeks supportable facts, things that work the same for everyone regardless of perspective (such as gravity, thermodynamics, inertia, and so on.) Instead, it is an emotional concept – “truth” is something that validates them as an individual, more than mere facts or demonstrable reality.

You will never find someone arguing that Ultimate Truth™ is a universe defined only by laws of physics, or that the true nature of life is a curious collection of chemical processes – even though both of these are the only thing that we really have evidence of. Instead, we have “souls” that are much, much better than our icky weak bodies, making us exist beyond the frumpy physical realm. We have consciousness which can often go visiting other places and occasionally connect with other metaphysical concepts. And we have spirituality, a connection and/or communication with other realms of existence that cannot be defined or encountered with our silly little mortal senses, yet exist only “the right attitude” away.

In fact, scientists frequently get into trouble when they cannot support these marvelous states of being; treated with derision and condescension when they find no evidence of things that people know must exist. Meticulous tests and years of study are no match for hunches and intuition, often from someone who believes they can read souls through eyes and such. It is frightening, and quite frankly disappointing, that so many of our decisions are made more on the basis of emotional appeal than rational examination of evidence. It’s very hard to call this “higher intellect.”

Look at the peculiar elevation of terms like “belief” and “faith,” and not just in terms of religion. Both of them are remarkably corrupt arguments, especially when “belief” is defined as different from things we can demonstrate – “I believe in love at first sight.” We gamble and buy lottery tickets, often based on some concept that we can “feel” the payoff, that we can detect a confluence of factors which will result in a winning situation, even though it’s obvious that we just really want a lot more money. We have “lucky” items, usually pocketable (very helpful set of conditions, that – imagine a “lucky tree”), and engage in rituals to ensure benefit, like wearing sports logos. We worry about “jinxing” ourselves by vocalizing wishes for good luck, so much so that we have alternate cultural phrases to thwart the superstitions, such as, “break a leg.”

I am perhaps being too hard on us. Some of these things come from evolved traits: we seek patterns, because they help us not only recognize danger, but also puzzle out useful things like plant growth and animal habits, very basic survival instincts. We have a sense of community, maintaining cohesion to reap the benefits of group efforts. Even intuition is often our subconscious impinging on our decision-making, picking up subtle cues about another’s behavior that potentially spell trouble. These things are all useful, and almost certainly evolved into us over time because they worked well (this is a very difficult thing to prove right now, at least until we identify the brain structures that influence behavior.)

At the same time, we also have the rational portions of our thought processes, the part where we can compare factors and weigh probabilities, arriving at actions or decisions that provide the most benefit. That’s an evolved trait too, and usually the very part that we consider the key difference in humans, what sets us apart from other, more instinctual species.

Both of these have their own benefits, but they must work together – relying solely on either one is less advantageous than the combination. It must be recognized that what evolution produces isn’t necessarily the best organism for any particular goal or concept, but only a selection of the traits that work best from what’s available at hand, dictated by genetic mutation and combination, guided by environmental demands. This means that the traits possessed by any species, humans included, might be very good, but are probably far from ideal. You can build a car from parts in a junkyard and it may function quite acceptably, but you would achieve better results if you machined each part according to function. Nature doesn’t have this option. So what we have, what every species has, is a collection of used, modified parts that function acceptably, but not ideally. And our brains are one of those parts.

We may want something to be true very badly. We may really like it if something that we imagine were actually a reality. These emotions are very good to have when they encourage us to work towards a goal, such as improving medicine or education. But allowing such emotions to take precedent over rational consideration ruins the combined functions that make us what we are. And it’s weak, pathetic really – “I want this to be true, therefore I’m simply going to believe that it’s true, in the face of evidence.” In some circumstances, we consider this delusion and denial, but in reality, we fall for this all of the time. How many people do you know that fell in love, not over the traits their partner possessed, but over the traits they wanted their partner to possess? Do we elect politicians based on their records, or on their rhetoric and personalities, or even on their party affiliations? Is there any reason whatsoever to believe that crystals channel powers, or that we’ll arrive at our destinations later if we use the “slow lane” until we actually need to pass someone?

Then we have the hedging, the people who recognize that denying reality is a bad thing, but still want their Happyland. So they try to find ways to dodge around the facts, and create special circumstances, a “reality” that we haven’t discovered yet (but that they, somehow, know exists.) The various gods changed in nature as we progressed in our knowledge, going from living on islands and mountaintops, dueling with mortals on a regular basis, to existing in a realm both undefined and permeating our known dimensions, having to always remain just beyond our reach. Homeopathy relies on the “memory” of water molecules, activated by shaking (no, seriously,) blithely dodging the fact that we’ve been using the same water molecules for billions of years – I guess they forget after a while. Visiting aliens have to overcome countless obstacles in physics just to get here, but then have to abduct living beings to find out how we work (you’d think abducting an anatomy textbook might be a bit easier.)

If you want to see great examples, an article at New Statesman asked several prominent figures about their religious beliefs. You’ll notice that evidence is not exactly running high on the list, and the rational explanations, while present in some cases, still rely on unsupported assumptions. But note how many variations of, “because I like the idea of religion” there are (Jerry Coyne has a nice review of this article at Why Evolution is True, if you want to see how it all breaks down.) Isn’t it funny how the “reasoning” for religious belief is different for anyone you ask? Can you imagine how confusing school would be if biology were explained so variably, or inertia was different things to different people?

Bringing up things like this makes people very defensive. One may get accused of “taking away the magic” and destroying something that people wanted or needed, and that “wasn’t doing any harm.” But elevating a personal desire to the level of fact is incredibly indulgent, and yes, it does indeed do harm. We have a tremendous amount of difficulty in this country right now from the idea that evolution, supported by thousands of facts and 150 years of research, expansion, and refinement, is treated less seriously than the scriptural idea of all animals being created in their present form (originally all herbivores in a garden of paradise, yet.) Hundreds of thousands of people believe that vaccinations cause autism, and are willing to openly ignore the studies, scientists, and doctors that tell them that this is nonsense (moreover, that the original study that raised the very idea in the first place is a well-known, and long-discredited, scam.) Millions of dollars each year are spent on miracle cures, herbal remedies, and performance enhancements such as rubber bands. Hell, millions of people believe that they’re resistant to alcohol (which begs the question of why they even consume it in the first place.) When people decry the loss of the “magic,” do they ever realize that they must never have had it in the first place? That the “loss” is only of their ignorance and delusion? How can someone destroy “magic” with words?

When someone complains that the testable, evidence-based view of life and our universe has no “meaning,” this is telling in itself. As I pointed out before, finding no god or mysticism when we examine the universe doesn’t suddenly make them stop existing; it means they never did – even when someone was perfectly happy with their “meaning” before they found out. The loss is only of their attitude, which is ludicrous – life was somehow better when they were naïve? But that’s the childish message that comes out. Even worse, many people will still deny the weight of evidence, presumably with the idea that they can vote for the reality they prefer. Isn’t that special?

The natural, scientific, empirical world is not empty and devoid of meaning or wonder – it’s actually brimming with those, full of fascinating aspects that we are constantly in the process of discovering. Science magazines have more “news” than all other types of publication, which tend to have the same stories of people doing stupid things over and over again. When someone whines about the loss of their magic, they’re really whimpering that their emotional desires are not being indulged – but that’s life. And in fact, the scientific method that we use to such great benefit recognizes this very concept of emotional desire and how damaging it is; double-blind tests, comparison controls, and peer-review are all processes to reduce the bias that can be introduced from wanting to see a particular result. Researchers are human too.

Wanting things is fine. But convincing ourselves that such desires actually affect reality is not only delusional and irrational, it corrupts the very benefits that desire provides, because we stop seeking it if we convince ourselves that we already have it. Selecting a worldview based on desire instead of reality is both pathetic and frightening, not exactly something to make you feel all warm and fuzzy about the future of the human race. Our minds are great things, but only when used effectively – we can be fooled too easily, most especially by ourselves. The idea that we can fathom the True Nature of things with just philosophy fell flat when faced with subjects like microorganisms, relativity, electromagnetism – really, a hell of a lot of things that we now use routinely. We needed to observe carefully to puzzle these out, experimenting and actually throwing failure scenarios in the path, backing up our ideas with physical, measurable evidence. Our minds worked to figure these out only when we stopped trusting in the mind to be infallible and majestic. We have flaws, and the prime step in dealing with them is recognizing them in the first place.

If we find the real world to be disappointing, that’s our failure, not reality’s. We’re the only species that seems to have the faintest issue with this at all. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Easter quiz!

It’s okay, you’re not being graded on how well you’ve been paying attention. Just give this a shot, then pass it along to your christian friends who spent this morning in church.

8. When/Where did Jesus ascend back to heaven?

a. Jesus returns to heaven on the same day he arose, right after dinner, from a room in Jerusalem.
b. We don’t know exactly, but it’s at least 8 days after the resurrection, when the despondent apostles have gone back to being fishermen on the sea of Tiberias.
c. After his resurrection, Jesus spends at least 40 days of teaching his disciples in Jerusalem before ascending to heaven from the Mt. of Olives.
d. Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven; he met his disciples in the mountains of Galilee and told them he would be with them always.
e. We don’t really know; Luke is the only gospel writer who actually mentions the ascension.

Thanks to David Fitzgerald for the quiz, Phil Ferguson at SkepticMoney for hosting it, and Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist for the linkage.

Happy birthday Earth!

Isn’t that what “Earth Day” means? Nobody seems to know exactly what year we’re celebrating (some say 4,542,368,926, some say 4,542,368,933 – I mean, c’mon, scientists!) and I’ve always wondered how they figured out what day the Earth was formed anyway. It coalesced out of the accretion disk, a cloud of dust and rocky debris, so when is it “done”?

But anyway, I’ll just make this brief post to urge you to go outside for at least a little while today, and pay attention to the non-concrete-and-asphalt bits around you. Sure, you should make the effort to be green, and that’s fine, but this isn’t about scolding – it’s simply about recognizing the interesting functions of the world that go on without our intervention or influence. We can be awfully self-centered as a species, so much so that it takes extra effort to see what else is going on – silly but true. So go out, and listen to the birdsong, and try to figure out what function it’s performing. Look at the leaves and flowers and see how they unfold from the base where the nutrients come from, or how they capture water. Watch an insect run right smack into a wall and realize that they treat flight differently than other species.

And if you miss your chance today, then do it tomorrow instead – it’s not like there’s only one day a year where this is allowed or encouraged. I’ll be back with any interesting things that I’ve captured or observed, later on.

My apologies, again

If you’ve been trying to access the blog in the past few hours and were running into issues, it’s all my doing. I’ve been trying to get through a list of upgrades, and it means lots of trials, shutting things off and back on, and so on.

The up side is, there’s a few more options available, some of which I’ve implemented. The down side is, I’m not done yet, but this is probably as far as I go tonight.

While I like the Atahualpa WordPress theme, the initial install was an old version that didn’t upgrade to the latest without major errors, so I left it alone for a while. I finally walked it through several versions tonight, but it’s stalled again at 3.6+; there are known issues, but so far the remedies haven’t worked for me.

Anyway, it’s better, but not current. I apologize for any issues you may have had.

Full of sound and fury

In these times when banks demonstrated that they couldn’t be trusted with the enormous responsibility that they were given, leading to economic horror stories and an unstable job market, it’s refreshing to see our administration putting a lot of effort into actions that can only improve our situation.

I’m talking, of course, about Ten Commandments Weekend and the push to have plaques with the commandments installed on courthouse or state capitol properties across the nation. And here, I thought a national day of prayer couldn’t possibly be topped for positive action.

Oh, no, you’re thinking. Here’s goes another atheist off on a rant about some benign christian activities. But you’re wrong – I actually approve of the actions. You see, if anyone is brain-damaged enough to think that this is functional in some way, and if the populace is childish enough to vote for anyone like that, these things are good to know. It’s like when they put “Student Driver” on the backs of cars – it’s just that extra little bit of warning, you know?

The idea behind this, or so it’s claimed, is that the ten commandments are the cornerstone of our laws and morals, and so we need to be, um, reminded of what they are, I guess, because a knowledge of the specific laws (that everyone manages just fine) isn’t enough. We need to know just where they came from, so we thank christians (or is it jews?) for their input in making us safe. I think.

To be honest, I really don’t know why this is being promoted, because it sends a very distinct message that people are total fucking morons. A quick perusal of the ten commandments (any version you prefer because, as has been noted countless times now, there are several versions in the same damn collection of scripture) will show that their usefulness is about on a par with looking both ways before you cross the street and not swimming for an hour after eating. Some of them are useful (don’t kill, don’t steal) but do we really need to be reminded of these? It seems kind of ignorant to think that we needed these to create laws when chimpanzees and wolves have much the same social structure, you know? And then others are simply superfluous. “Honor they father and mother” – do we actually have any laws based on this? Are there laws that specifically denote “father” and “mother” in any kind of special way, so that you’re in violation if you’re not honoring them? And what exactly constitutes “honor”?

[A quick note: you did notice that “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t specify humans, didn’t you? That leaves rocks and dirt for food, provided you carefully sweep off the microorganisms first. Just a reminder.]

George Carlin pointed out long ago that coveting your neighbor’s wife or property is not exactly enforceable, since they’re “thought crimes” and if you find that your neighbor’s wife is hot (husbands are not mentioned, because gender bias is something god approves of,) a plaque in the courthouse foyer isn’t going to correct that in any way – unless, perhaps, she works in the courthouse. You’d think god would have figured this one out. But worse, coveting property is what actually motivates us to improve; we pay for houses, cars, and so on by working harder and earning more money. They’re the neighbor’s possessions until we pay for them, aren’t they? And in most cases we actually need them, even if we don’t need them to be as elaborate as they might be. These are just vague and misdirected commandments, really.

The first few are the most amusing, however. “I am god,” yeah, fine, too bad you always manage to speak through proxies, mister omnipotent. “Don’t pay attention to those other gods” – wait, what other gods? Am I the only one to notice that this says either that there are more than just the one, or that it’s really easy to mistake something else for a god? Again, you’d think telling a real god apart should be rather easy, but I guess not, so I suppose we should always ask for ID. And let’s not forget, “Don’t take my name in vain.” Now, as far as I’m concerned, you can do any damn thing you want with my name, because seriously, that’s playground shit. But it seems there’s an issue about this when you’re omnipotent. Anyway, it serves the cornerstone of our laws – you can look up the very laws that were influenced by these anytime. Just like keeping the sabbath holy – we need these laws! If people were to work on Sundays (or maybe Saturdays – moses was jewish after all) and cuss, there’d be total chaos! People! Take a stand for morality! And if you lop your hand off on the weekend, just wait for Monday when the hospitals reopen. Ice is cheap for that very reason.

Yes, it’s a damn good thing our representatives and congressmen are fighting to maintain such wonderful standards! We need to know the history of the laws themselves! History is a good thing – we can relive mistakes if we fail to understand the important lessons of history. You know, like theocratic states and allowing religion to dictate government. Oh, wait, I didn’t just remind everyone that government itself isn’t religious (there’s this little thing about taking oaths to that very effect as they assume office) and that we’re supposed to be open to any and all religions as part of the guaranteed freedoms – did I?

So, yeah, I’m very much in favor of any representative, congressman, senator, mayor, or ombudsman who parades their abject ignorance so publicly. It makes it much easier to tell them apart come election time. I even pay attention to how much public support such things have, because it’s far easier than trying to administer IQ tests to the populace, and less time-consuming than putting a box of rocks in front of them and seeing if they can outsmart it.

But maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps those nice upstanding politicians recognize that religion is waning in this country, and are taking steps to counteract this. We all know that, a few hundred years ago when religion was omnipresent and many countries were governed by holy authority, there was no crime at all. Thing were much better then, especially when you could burn the witches and ward off demonic possession with blessings and holy water. When the churches helped most people through the eye of the needle and into heaven by relieving them of their filthy riches, taking the onus of damnation on themselves by hoarding the wealth of the populace. Ah, good times!

Unlike today, when things are so shitty and armageddon is coming… soon. Any day now, really. It says so right here in the scripture, if you can figure the rebus out. A church on every corner, godly slogans on currency and pledges, illness-survivors and sports figures crediting god for their triumphs, these just aren’t enough to hold back the atheist horde; the US needs plaques! Atheists can’t stand plaques – we can’t cross running water either. This country will get back on a fine moral footing with plaques.

Anyway, it’s not like the members of our government are being funded by the taxpayers to provide specific functions or anything, so who cares what they get up to?

I can imagine someone saying that it’s really all just a ploy by politicians to appear pious and moral and trustworthy, but seriously, can you really buy that? The premise requires people, especially religious people, to be weak-minded enough to find these actions worthwhile and a higher priority than, say, politicians simply doing their jobs. That they believe those particular politicians firmly follow the commandments against lying, stealing, and adultery. There aren’t that many criminally naïve chuckleheads out there, are there?


It’s hungry!

I do have mercy on my four readers sometimes, and can avoid umpteen-hundred-word posts once in a while. So, click in the box and feed the poor little treefrog.

Though possessing an unsophisticated amphibian brain, this sticky-fingered exophthalmic learns amazingly fast – leave the cursor in one place and it’ll simply wait for the meals to appear.

Even better, now I’ve found a way to fund this site. Each click donates one dollar from your PayPal account!

Okay, that’s not true – you know you need to actually sign into your account to do that. But the guy that figures out how to rig that to actually work will make a fortune in a day or so before people catch on.

You’re going to go check your account now, aren’t you?

Get your own frog, or others, from aBowman. I would have gone with the spider but that would creep too many people out. And he doesn’t have any alligators yet…

I like spring

I know you count on me for much deeper, more profound statements than the title, but as a nature photographer and just someone who likes playing in the mud, I go through a kind of withdrawal during the winter months, and so I’m quite happy to see the explosion of natural things to capture interest when spring rolls around. All of these, by the way, are extensions of the same day of shooting I posted about previously, really about two hour’s worth, all in a local park.

Above, the catchment basin for water drainage that featured the praying mantises and grasshopper had the typical vernal occupants, the tadpoles. My hand is in a shallow culvert where the edge of the drain pipe had formed a very narrow channel for outflow, and the current proved stronger than the tails of these little guys – they had been carried in by the flow, and were unable to get back out to the greater pond area. Since, as I type this, we have gone through three fierce rainstorms in the intervening time, the water level has no doubt risen remarkably, and thus the narrow flow channel is gone – they are likely able to rejoin the pond now.

Not far away ran the creek which, while shallow and narrow, features two beaver dams and its own collection of spring evidence. Here, my patience allowed this minnow to return to his (most likely it’s a male) spawning pit, a depression that fish clear by thrashing away silt, and sometimes by nudging debris with their snouts and carrying away gravel in their mouths. Since the upstream path from this had a distinctive gravel deposit, I consider this likely, but identifying minnows from this kind of angle is difficult at best. The pit serves as a collective area where the newborn fry are free from too much current, and the parents can keep track of them easily, able to protect them within the smaller space. This one was very much aware of my presence, so I was required to hold still for a few minutes, camera raised, until he posed by his construction.

The lepidoptera are making their gradual return, as well. On the walk back, I spotted a heavily-bloomed vine that The Girlfriend told me is a Carolina Yellow Jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens,) being visited by a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus.) The males of this species are very similar to the Black Swallowtail, being predominantly black – it’s lucky this matches the name, or it might have been confusing. The Blacks were the ones who raided our parsley patch one year. There is a benefit to either maintaining a varied garden or planters, or letting at least a portion of your yard go wild: it attracts so much more in the way of interesting insects and wildlife. If you’re active in nature photography, convincing them to come to you certainly helps.

It’s very easy to say that the swallowtails are the most common butterflies in this area of North Carolina, but this is not likely to be true: the swallowtails are among the biggest and easiest to spot, very distinctive when around (and often mistakenly identified as the deep orange Monarchs,) but the smaller ones outnumber the larger species by a significant margin – we simply fail to notice them as much.

Below, a Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis) pauses to grab some hydration at the edge of the catch basin. While everybody thinks of butterflies as drinking only from flowers, they need supplemental water and minerals too, and it’s not uncommon to see them feeding from other things, especially mudflats. They like salt, and I’ve convinced them to remain on my hand in butterfly houses by wiping the sweat from my forehead; I also have several photos of a cluster of butterflies that were quite happy over fresh raccoon feces. Seems unsavory, but one species’ trash is another’s treasure, and nature isn’t inclined to follow the preconceptions that we possess of pretty things.

At the same time, I have issues with descriptions such as, “red in tooth and claw,” simply because predation isn’t this evil or vicious thing that humans tend to make it out to be, either. Everything dies, everything suffers, at one point or another – that’s life. While it’s okay to have empathy and to want to avoid unnecessary suffering, for ourselves or any other species, this shouldn’t extend to making judgment calls on supposed “morality” or the appropriateness of natural interactions, most especially from a standpoint of how appealing, or unappealing, any participant is. I’ve had to remind people of this quite often, as they want to protect their birdfeeders from hawks, or birdhouses from snakes, or gardens from rabbits and deer. It’s all part of the system.

So now, let me take this opportunity to try an experiment. I’ve been thinking of soliciting readers’ own photos of local flora and fauna and putting up a special page, but I haven’t the faintest idea of whether there’s interest in this or not. That’s where you come in. If you’re interested in this, let me know in the comments. I’m only an amateur naturalist, but I’ll do my best to help identify species, behavior, and any other questions you might have as well. Should it prove popular enough, I’ll go ahead and set up a new gallery.

Thanks for your help!

Half a century

Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space, as well as the first to orbit the planet, beginning what is widely considered the Space Age of human development and accomplishments. For the first time, we left the planet and set foot among the stars.

Well, okay, that’s being a bit dramatic. We’d been leaving the planet for quite a while, just not very far. In fact, when you attempt to define things distinctly, it all becomes kind of muddled. The frontier of “space,” as opposed to simply “in the air,” isn’t able to be defined at all except arbitrarily – the air simply keeps getting thinner and thinner as you get further from the surface. No, dammit, not even that, but further from the Earth’s gravitational center, and to be honest, this is more like the Earth-Moon’s gravitational center, which isn’t the center of Earth at all. But anyway, “space” is not really a line you can cross, it’s just a convenient figure for some particular purpose, which may vary with the purpose. The International Space Station, orbiting higher than Gagarin’s maximum altitude of 327 km (203 mi,) needs periodic reboosts in altitude (orbital velocity – I’ll deal with that in a later post) because atmospheric drag causes it to lose altitude. So it’s not really entirely out of the atmosphere, and Gagarin certainly wasn’t. But the air was thin enough that it’s all a matter of semantics, really. Science is kind of muddy that way.

Gagarin’s flight holds entirely different perspectives depending on what nationality you are. The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States carried a lot of different baggage – to the populace of either country, it was a matter of pride, accomplishment, and a bit of “in your face” competition to demonstrate which country was the bestest. To the military of either country, it was a tense battle between superpowers to see if either would gain a significant weapons and intelligence advantage by utilizing orbital and sub-orbital vehicles. To many of those outside of these two, it was a spectator sport of watching two countries pouring huge resources into dominance issues, some of which might overflow into drastic effects for any country near either of them, or indeed, for most of the globe. The Cold War was in full force, and no one really knew just how likely global thermonuclear war was, but it certainly didn’t help to watch the posturing of the US and USSR.

In the US, Gagarin’s flight (being a major accomplishment of the Soviet Union) was both a blow to morale, and a galvanizing issue: okay, you guys got first person in space (and, for that matter, first orbital satellite, too,) but we’re going to top that. It’s hard to say if landing someone on the moon topped that, really. It was certainly a bigger accomplishment, but we’d already lost the race for three other firsts (satellite, human in space, human orbiting the planet, which we didn’t even accomplish until our second manned spaceflight, with John Glenn – Alan Shepard only did a suborbital hop, less than Sputnik.)

What’s funny is, while I was growing up the US perspective was pushed fiercely, and the US accomplishments were focused upon. As a follower of the whole space program, I was disturbed to find out many years along that we were behind the Soviets for much of it. Not disturbed from the accomplishment or pride standpoint, but because the info was seriously downplayed in our media, even in the various books I grew up with. I knew Shepard and Glenn, Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins, but had never heard the name, “Gagarin.” Or how about “Tereshkova” – know that one? You should – Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, and while I’m slightly against even making distinctions of gender, the Soviets did it in 1963 – the US didn’t follow suit until almost exactly twenty years later with Sally Ride.

It’s all a remarkably interesting, and active, point in world history, and certainly worth knowing more about. Even without the various dubious “accomplishments,” the space programs contributed tremendous amounts to our development and technology, which is where the real accomplishments lie. Younger people (younger than I, anyway) perhaps take it for granted that we have satellite communications, GPS navigation, and photos of other planets and moons, but it wasn’t all that long ago that these were nothing more than science fiction – notice the older sci-fi movies that show a bare, unclouded Earth from space! It’s very damn cool, and whether you want to credit Gagarin as the leader or not, it’s all part of a vast culture of technology that is of great historical significance. Check it out!

This defines, “irony”

Until you read it, anyway:

Pearls Before Swine

Pearls Before Swine, where only the adult male crocodiles are stupid.

Odd memories, part five

I was raised, nominally, catholic, which just goes to show you that environment is not completely responsible for how someone turns out. But for a while in my early years, I not only attended church, but also “Sunday school,” which gives you the right idea even though it was held on a Saturday, probably somebody’s sadistic idea of keeping kids from cartoons. The armchair religio-psychotherapists reading this can have a field day with speculating if they like, since I did indeed resent being kept from the Pink Panther every week.

Anyway, one particular Saturday, I was dropped off by my dad in the usual spot, only to find that nobody was around – school for that day appeared to have been canceled. Bear in mind I was only five or six at this point, and now all alone a good distance away from where I lived. My dad also had to drop off my sister at a different location just down the road, so I hurried out to the main road to see if I could catch him on the way back past.

This was before it was determined that I needed glasses, and my distance eyesight was pretty bad. Mind you, this had led to some issues at real school (you know, where one learns useful things) as well, because parents sometimes just can’t see things through their child’s eyes, or more specifically, the way a child does. When asked if I could see the chalkboard, my answer was always, “Of course” – it was that big black fuzzy rectangular shape at the front of the class. Eventually, they got around to asking if I could read what was on it, and I got to make my first visit to the ophthalmologist. This was all later than the event I’m relating – stop sidetracking me.

Anyway, I saw a car pull out of the parking lot of the distant church annex where my sister attended her own Saturday school, and figuring it was my dad, I cheekily stuck out my thumb like a hitchhiker. As the car drew close, however, I determined this was not at all my father, and put my hand down, but too late. The windowless unmarked white van car drew up alongside and the driver inquired if I was okay, as if he’d never seen a six-year-old hitching a ride before (hey, some people lead sheltered lives.)

I explained the situation, and he was pretty insistent that he take me someplace safe so we could contact my parents, but even in those ancient times, parents cautioned their children about getting in cars (maybe it was chariots) with strangers. There wasn’t a hell of a lot else I could do, though, and we ended up only around the block at the house of the priest who led Sunday mass every week, father Whosenameescapesme.

Now, due to the marvelous reliance on euphemisms within religion, and the various things my parents and the Saturday school proctors had told me, and confusion about the various ways “father” is used, at this point in my life I was convinced that father Whosenameescapesme was, literally, god. He could be everywhere, couldn’t he? So of course he led mass each week, in our church and everyone else’s. It will interest you to know that god is tall, slender, with very short blond hair – pretty young-looking, despite Michelangelo’s and Monty Python’s misleading portrayals. I thought it was fairly cool that my dad could stop and chat with him after the service (god, I mean, not Monty Python, which would have been much cooler,) as if they were good friends. I know lots of people say they do this all the time, but my dad got answers!

It is, of course, another thing to a six-year-old. Here I was, waiting in god’s own house for my dad to come pick me up. I was raised pretty easy on the whole eternal-torment-in-fire thing (this was New Jersey, not the deep south,) but there was still a very distinct upbringing of “right” and “wrong,” and believe me, you start trying to remember every item on that list when you’re standing around in god’s living room. I touched nothing – I didn’t even sit down. I didn’t quite stand at attention, but I radiated innocence, as well as a jigger of fear, I’m sure. So father Whosenameescapesme, astutely sensing my unease, left me to my own devices until my dad showed, though if he’d possessed (heh!) even a faintly impish sense of humor he could have had a blast. Everyone but me ultimately thought it was amusing, especially when I made it clear the hitchhiking thing was a joke, not intended for anyone but my dad, so the only punishment I received was forty minutes of trauma not touching god’s stuff and hoping my shoes were clean enough. Of course, I remember this more than any chewing out that I ever received.

You’ll be interested to know that god’s living room is not terribly modern, dark and wood-paneled with anemic lighting (yeah, go figure) and his taste seems to run towards antiques. Actually, I think he lives with his mother.

Later, after being freed from this weekend onus (of which you’ve just heard my most distinct memory,) I established that Saturday morning cartoons are truly the bad influence that we’ve all been told.