John Lennon and Jesus

I’ve always been mystified by the outrage provoked by John Lennon’s infamous statement that the Beatles would outdraw Jesus. Now the Vatican has forgiven the statement, though it seems clear that Lennon’s statement was never a comment about Jesus or religion, but about pop culture. It is also clear that it was a hyperbole, meant to pick the most extreme example possible to express his amazement at how fanatical Beatles fans were in the mid-60’s.

Jason Jones in Wasilla

This has to be seen to be believed:

Ethical Treatment of Animals

Humans have made significant progress in applying basic concepts of human rights to all people (though there is still much that needs to be done in guaranteeing rights for women in much of the world). The ethical treatment of animals still has a long way to go, but there are many groups that have managed to improve the living conditions of farm animals. Now a landmark decision may be near in Spain that grants our closest animal relatives the right to life, liberty, and, if not the pursuit of happiness, at least the right not to be tortured. That puts them ahead of humans deemed by our administration to be enemy combatants.

Evolution in Florida

Florida’s State Board of Education voted (4-3!) this week to include evolution (for the first time!) in the science curriculum of public schools. (Previously the concepts of evolution were taught in Florida, but the curriculum referred only to things such as “change over time”. My own recollecton of Honors Biology in a Florida High School are that our class had a debate on the topic of evolution. I was one of three or four on the side arguing in support of evolution, and the opposing group argued for Biblical creation. I do not recall any instruction on the matter in class at all.) The new standards were apparently headed for defeat until a so-called compromise was reached by inserting the words “the scientific theory of” before the word “evolution”. This concisely illustrates the anti-evolution advocates’ lack of understanding not only of evolution but also of what “scientific theory” means.

American Gangster

Starting as a somewhat scattered and murky movie tracking the rise of Harlem drug boss Frank Lucas, American Gangster hits its stride halfway through once cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is given a special task force to tackle the rampant New York drug problem. The story of Roberts’ difficulties in his private life, involving a lengthy divorce proceeding and his night law-school studies, is more distracting than anything else. It also makes Crowe’s decision to portray Roberts with an awkward duck-like stride and nervous habits jar with the depiction of his character as a rampant womanizer. Denzel Washington brings Lucas to life as a chilling but somehow like-able killer that you nevertheless really want to see brought down. Stephen Zaillian’s screenplay was inspired by this New York Magazine article about Lucas. I recommend seeing the movie before reading the article, as I did. The latter half of the movie, especially, is gripping story-telling. It is fascinating to see the scale of the dope operation that Lucas ran in Harlem and to learn that his was but one of many. I found myself simultaneously hoping desperately for him to be captured, but also for him to come out of it all okay somehow.

There is more interesting information on Lucas here that provides a bit more dose of reality to some of Lucas’s claims as well as the dramatic depictions of events in the movie.

UFOs and the Burden of Proof

Yesterday I attended a short speech given by former Apollo astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell at the University of Central Florida. Mitchell presented a scholarship to a UCF Engineering student and then gave a brief description of his career as an astronaut culminating in two 5-hour sojourns on the lunar surface as part of the Apollo 14 mission. Mitchell, with a Sc.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Aeronautics and Astronautics, then expressed his concerns and hopes for the future of humanity: concerns that we will destroy ourselves as our technological capabilities advance faster than our sensibilities, and hopes that we will survive these dangers to continue exploration of the cosmos. They are good and noble sentiments, and I appreciate him expressing them and pointing out that when the Earth is viewed from afar, as only he and a handful of other men have done, national boundaries evaporate and the precarious and unique status of the Earth as home to all life becomes painfully clear.

In response to questions, Dr. Mitchell expressed that aliens have visited the Earth, and while he wasn’t explicit, implied that they are living among us and concealed from us by a vast cover-up. He also affirmed that he had successfully communicated through ESP while on the surface of the Moon and that quantum mechanics now explained how this could happen. And this brings me to the criticism from “Object Reporter” on my post a couple of days ago in which I expressed dismay in a new call for government-funded research into UFOs. Object Reporter says I am uninformed on the topic of UFOs and accuses me of spouting nonsense. I stand by my statement that aliens are the least probable explanation for UFO sightings. While it is physically possible for aliens from another planet to visit Earth, there is no compelling evidence that that has ever happened. And compelling evidence is required for such an extraordinary claim. It is an extraordinary claim because the amount of energy needed for interstellar travel is huge, and a visit to the Earth by aliens would represent a huge investment of resources. For them to make this investment and then hide, but hide poorly, does not make sense. They hide poorly because somehow, while they escape detection by the vast network of aircraft and spacecraft tracking systems as well as the vast majority of the population including people like me who would be thrilled to meet them, they apparently occasionally make themselves plainly visible to some casual observers. Other explanations are more likely because in the vast majority of UFO sightings, ordinary terrestrial explanations for those sightings have already been demonstrated to be the case. If one hundred UFO sightings are demonstrated to be due to weather balloons, military aircraft, meteors, ball lightning, camera flares and other mundane explanations, then it’s likely something like that is the explanation for the one hundred and first. The claim of evidence for extraterrestrials carries the burden of proof. I, happily, do not have the burden to debunk each UFO sighting, anymore than if I claim that there is an underground civilization on the Moon someone else has the burden to prove me wrong. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I would be thrilled by the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, but so far there is no evidence, and the most likely evidence we’ll get would be an extraterrestrial radio signal.

The idea of a vast cover-up is also extraordinary. Forget for the moment that it is difficult to imagine a motive for a cover-up. The power of people in government is always enhanced by engendering fear in the populace, and fear is presumably one consequence of discovering aliens. NASA has as its mission to look for life elsewhere in the universe, and nothing would boost its budget more than the discovery of extraterrestrial life, even microbial in form. In short, lots of people in government have a self-interest in seeing extraterrestrial life proven, not hidden. But the biggest problem I see with the cover-up idea is how consistently miserable people are at keeping secrets. The most powerful person on the planet, the President of the United States, could not even keep a hotel break-in secret or (in a different incarnation) oral sex. The idea that, for decades, hundreds or thousands of people in the military and government could hide the existence of alien visitors defies reason. As for Dr. Mitchell’s demonstration of ESP, James Randi has a million dollars waiting for anyone who can demonstrate ESP or other paranormal phenomena. No one has succeeded, and by the way quantum mechanics, which beautifully describes the behavior of electrons and atoms, offers no explanation for ESP. Finally, in response to the comment on my previous post that “I wasn’t aware that the three doctors, half a dozen ex-military officials and a former state governor were supposed to be taken lightly…”: it is the claims of these people that aliens are on Earth I take lightly because they do not meet the burden of proof. And by the way, George W. Bush is a former state governor, and I take almost everything he says lightly. It’s the only way to avoid depression. Live long and prosper.

Not Again with the UFOs

Seizing on a comment by Dennis Kucinich about a UFO sighting, UFO believers have renewed a call for government resources to be wasted on investigating things that people see in the sky and cannot identify. The Reuters story does not identify the members of the “international panel” other than to say they are former pilots and government officials. 9/11 is invoked (of course) as a reason why somehow now we really have to pay attention to UFOs. I’m not exactly sure how that works: are aliens going to crash into our building? Or will we misinterpret an alien spaceship as hijacked airliner or foreign bomber? Our money would be much better spent educating people about the things that are in the sky rather than investigating the least likely explanation (aliens) of all possible explanations. The Air Force sums it up concisely: “Since the termination of Project Blue Book, nothing has occurred that would support a resumption of UFO investigations.”

My Ring Pic and Jon Stewart

Here it is: thanks to the new searchable video archive on The Daily Show’s web site, Jon Stewart making fun of our use of the word “dirt” in describing the composition of Saturn’s rings with the famous ultraviolet image I generated when Cassini arrived at Saturn on July 1, 2004.

Unreality Show

The warm glow I felt after watching the latest episode of my favorite TV show, The Office, was quickly extinguished by an ad for a new TV show on NBC that would, if I were a man of principle, make me boycott the network. Billed as a reality show, “Phenomenon” is co-hosted by charlatan Uri Geller who will judge contestants’ magic tricks. Not having seen the show, I will reserve judgment on just how misleading and misguided the show is. According to, the co-host Criss Angel, a traditional magician “will lend a more skeptical voice to the proceedings.” But also according to tvweek, NBC will both invite viewers to figure out how tricks are accomplished and figure out “whether any of the mentalists might have actual psychic talent.” Groan.

Surprise: The Earth IS Round

The latest sign of the decline of civilization can be seen in this humorously presented snippet from “The View” where one of the hosts proudly proclaims ignorance about whether the Earth is flat.