Darwin at the Throne

Besides introducing one of the greatest theories in history, Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species apparently makes for great bathroom reading.
A first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin Of Species, which was kept on a toilet bookshelf, is to be auctioned.
It is hoped the book, which was bought about 40 years ago in a West Country shop for a few shillings, will reach £60,000 in Tuesday's sale.
The book was kept on a bookcase in a guest lavatory at the owner's family home in Oxfordshire.(link)


The True Meaning of Christmas

Forget about the Christmas tree, the colorful lights, the snowmen, stockings hung with care. Forget about Santa Claus, his reindeer, the north pole. Forget about Yule logs, Christmas caroling, fruitcake and gingerbread houses. These are the mere trappings of Christmas. They serve only to provide the mood. To set the ambient lighting. To fill the air with the incense of joy. But they don't represent the true meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is all about Jesus, and the more the better. Break it down: Christ + mas = more Christ. In particular, we celebrate Christmas by giving presents to each other. In the past, secular and religious organizations have both complained that Christmas has devolved to a marketing tool by the big retail corporations. But what they fail to understand is that the giving of presents is a special recognition of the greatest present of all: Jesus gave us the ultimate gift (i.e. his life) to wash away the sins of mankind with his blood. In the years that followed (though the evidence for this is shaky), the newly minted Christians celebrated this event by cutting and spilling their blood. It was the least they could do - until infection set in. The somewhat deadly practice (for its time) gave way to the ritual exchange of gifts. This practice had the advantage of not killing the celebrant while simultaneously jump starting capitalism (ultimately giving rise to the United States).

While cutting is now a dangerous practice among troubled teens, the vestiges of the original tradition can be seen in the gift wraps and the bows used to ornament Christmas presents. Traditional Christmas colors are red and green, which symbolizes both colors of blood (e.g. see Hemoglobin and Hemocyanin). A red bow is symbolic of a bloody rag.

The classic Norman Rockwellian version of Christmas has families coming together over the holidays to share in the human bondage of love and feast. Nevertheless, this tradition evolved from the early Christian families gathering together to shed blood in the presence of one another, to symbolically absolve one another of sin. Today, we conclude Christmas by exchanging gifts, as if saying one to the other, "I sacrifice a part of me for you, that I may forgive you and cleanse you of your past sins." Giving gifts, sacrificing a small part of yourself, naturally makes you feel better, much like Jesus must have felt ascending into heaven.

If all this sounds like a contrived explanation, I have taken my cue from the American Family Association, an organization that describes themselves as an association of American families. They seek to promote the biblical truth underlying the culture of American families and they have been waging a war against the war on Christmas by leading a boycott against retailers who fail to say the word "Christmas" loud enough in their seasonal promotions. Think The Gap and Old Navy. And Banana Republic. In the AFA's recent call to arms, they are explicit about what makes Christmas special:
Christmas is special because of Jesus. It's not just a "winter holiday." For millions of Americans the giving and receiving of gifts is in honor of the One who gave Himself.
So Christmas is not about Cola drinking Polar Bears, mistletoe, or chestnuts roasting in an open fire. It's about exchanging presents. It's about absolving sins through personal sacrifice by way of a $50 Macy's gift card. It's about capitalism and the absolution of sin. It's about more Jesus. This is the biblical truth according to the AFA.

(h/t Think Progress, AFA Misfires in the War on Christmas)


Religion Going Down The Toilet

Are fundamentalist preachers getting crazier every day, or has it always been this way. Here, Pastor Steven L. Anderson shows us how he's a manly man doing manly things, like pissing standing up.

(via Pharyngula and Jesus' General)


Saving Spirit

The Mars rover Spirit has been stuck in a sand trap since 1889. That would be Sol 1889...or 1,889  days on Mars. On that fateful day, Spirit had been limping along, driving backwards, dragging it's left front wheel which had seized up many Diemos's and Phobos's ago (i.e. many moons ago). The fine engineers at JPL have been working on a plan ever since to free Spirit. They've even come up with their own logo and website devoted to the task. Meanwhile, Spirit has been busy taking in the scenery, snapping some pix, and going through a bout or two of amnesia. But the day has finally arrived. For today, NASA will finally put their plan into action and start sending commands start Spirit moving again. They have several different possibilities to go with, and will be choosing the best action as they get results back from their previous efforts. Among the final, last-ditch effort attempts will be to use the Microscopic Imaging Arm to help push (or pull) its way out. But lets hope it doesn't come to that.

Good luck JPL, NASA, and Spirit.

Bill Maher Was Only Joking

Remember when Bill Maher tweeted "If u get a swine flue shot ur an idiot"? Turns out, he was only joking! For one, he said it on Twitter, so that should have clued you in. Moreover, he's a comedian, for gods' sake! Get it? A comedian who tweets? You didn't really think he was serious, did you? Never mind that he's been as outspoken as Jenny McCarthy against vaccinations and used his HBO show as a platform to rail against the evil pharmaceutical companies. When he tweets, don't take him seriously. At least, that's the excuse he's giving at The Huffington Post:
For example, I recently joined Twitter Nation -- what can I say, Demi Moore is a very convincing salesperson -- and what everybody told me about Twitter was that it was supposed to be whatever stray thought or thing just happened to you -- you know, for people who find blogging too formal and stuffy.

But apparently it's taken very seriously, because there was Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services what she thought about the fact that "Bill Maher told his viewers anyone who gets a flu shot is an idiot."

Well, not quite. It was twittered, which I guess doesn't make a huge difference, but as 60 Minutes is the last bastion of TV journalism, accuracy is appreciated. And I see that counts for Twitter, too -- my bad -- so yes, some people are not idiotic to get a flu shot. They're idiotic if they don't investigate the pros and cons of getting a flu shot. But, come on -- it was a twitter from a comedian, not a treatise in the New England Journal of Medicine, that's not what I do.
He continues on by saying that he's "representing an under-reported medical point of view" in this country. And there are so many of those, are there not? I look forward to the time Bill Maher corrects the under-reporting of homeopathy, phrenology, and aromatherapy. Or does Maher consider only his points of view to be under-reported? Bill Maher suggests that our problem is in not having a strong enough immune system in the first place, probably due to all the junk food we eat. As if eating enough spinach will make you strong enough to fight the H1N1 virus. I wonder what nutrition plan he would suggest to people with AIDS? Perhaps an all-natural vegetarian meal followed by an after dinner joint?

Maybe he's on to something. After all, he claims to know enough about vaccinations:
Michael Shermer wrote me an open letter and felt I needed to be told that "vaccinations work by tricking the body's immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given." Thanks, Doc, I thought there might be a little man inside the needle. Yes, I read Microbe Hunters when I was eight, I have a basic idea how vaccines work.
Yet if he really understood how vaccines work, he wouldn't have wrote the HuffPo article. When exposed to certain viruses, the immune system adapts and "learns" how to fight them so that when the virus returns years later, you don't get sick. Contrary to Maher's implications, no amount of farm fresh spinach or broccoli will teach your immune system how to fight off a virus. That's simply not the way it works. What Maher is really getting at is what the medical community has known about for decades: clean, healthy, stress-free living gives your immune system the ability to more effectively respond to viruses - to fight off those viral agents it already "knows" about, as well as to quickly learn and respond to those it doesn't know about. Of course, you'd much rather have an immune system with a large "memory" of viral agents for faster response. Which is what vaccinations are all about.

And if you think Maher is really trying to set himself apart from all the other anti-vaxxer whackos, think again:
In addition, my audience is bright, they wouldn't refuse a flu shot because they heard me talk about it, but if they looked into the subject a little more, how is that a bad thing? If they went to the CDC Web site and saw what's in the vaccine -- the formaldehyde, the insect repellent, the mercury -- shouldn't they at least get to have the information for themselves?
He is using the same scare tactics that the anti-vaxxers use. Formaldehyde, insect repellent, mercury, oh my! Go to the CDC website, says he. Just look at all the crap they put into a vaccine, says he. Then read further to find out what these ingredients are for, check out the low dose rates, and see what effect they have on the human body, says he. Or...wait. No, he didn't say that. Nothing but lions and tigers and bears for Bill Maher.
The problem with Bill Maher is not his musing about big pharma doing shady things to make a buck. That's a discussion worth having. After all, corporations respond to shareholders uber alles. No...Maher's problem is thinking he has science on his side. Like George W. Bush, he's thinking with his gut on this one.

But then again, maybe we shouldn't take him too seriously. Maybe he was only joking in his HuffPo article. He is a comedian after all.


Concerning Bodies Floating in a River

An article in the NY Times from March 1882 reads thusly:
The Moniteur Scientifique Quesneville publishes these alleged statemens of a Parisian ravageur concerning human bodies floating in the river: "I always know beforehand if it is a man or a woman. If the body has the face upward, it is that of a woman; if it floats on its belly, with the nose in the water, it is that of a man. I have remarked that a man who has been thrown into the water after being assassinated reappears on the surface much earlier than one who has fallen in by accident or has drowned himself. The time the body remains beneath the water shows whether it is a case of suicide or of murder." These curious pieces of information are valuable in proportion to their truth, and they would appear to require verification.
I applaud the New York Times for their skepticism. "Valuable in proportion to their truth" is my new catch phrase when arguing with Intelligent Design proponents. Yet I feel a note to their editor of the Journal of Science and the Times is warranted with their uncritical reporting of Mr. Varley's latest invention:
"Mr. C. E. Varley, the eminent physicist, has patented an improved divining rod for ascertaining the presence of metallic veins underground."
I shall send a telegraph straight away.


Best Jon Stewart Clip

For me, this was the funniest clip ever from Jon Stewart. It's called the 11/3 Project and is a dead-on parody of Glenn Beck. But not only is it extremely funny and accurate...

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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...it has a Feynman diagram!