Friday, May 30, 2008

WhiteKnightTwo to be Rolled Out July 28

Well, a ton of space tourism news has come out in the past couple of days, so I'll take the stories one at a time.

The most exciting story by far is the recent announcement of the rollout date for Virgin Galactic's first WhiteKnightTwo aircraft. The announcement was made at the International Space Development Conference yesterday morning in Washington DC.

Two White Knight II craft are being built for Virgin Galactic, and the first one will be named Eve. These craft will be responsible for carrying Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo spacecraft up to an altitude at which they can be released for their launch to space. Will Whitehorn, while he was making the announcement, also suggested that the White Knight II could be used for other purposes, such as firefighting or the launch of small satellites.

The announcement comes as no surprise, as the July 28 rollout date had been speculated before, but it's good to know that it's now official.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why I Would Rather Spend 10 Minutes in a Phone Booth with a Constipated Anaconda Than Watch American Idol

Yeah, you heard me. Can't stand it. It's awful. If I try to sit and watch it, I have to turn away, because my eyes start to melt and my dog starts barking to warn me about my imminent seizure.

Okay, maybe not that, but that's what I'm thinking.

And it's not just American Idol that does it to me. I'm just picking on them right now because a friend of mine (who I normally consider a clear-headed kind of guy) just started yakking about what happened on American Idol last night. Personally, I blame his wife for infecting him. I mean, I believe that she's fundamentally a good person, but she has been led astray and is spreading it.

But no, it's not just American Idol. It's Dancing with the Stars and America's Got Talent and Survivor. And it isn't limited to TV either. It's Grand Theft Auto and The Sims and Britney Spears and McDonald's. They all seem to induce different varieties of nausea.

Anyway, I took the example of American Idol and started considering the reasons why I dislike it so much when other people can't seem to get enough of it. I mean, I know I've always been a bit outside the norm, but I try to put myself in the shoes of others, and I honestly can't do it in this case. I honestly don't understand the appeal. So I started asking myself why. I think reasons exist on several different levels.

1. Reality TV as a concept. I understand the folly in applying intellect to reality TV, but intellectually, most of it doesn't appear to offer much. I understand the basis behind it; the networks want to make a quick buck without having to spend much money doing it. They set up these wild situations, throw a bunch of volunteers into them, make up some rules, record what happens, and put it on TV. There is little need for traditional writing staff or research staff or trainers or actors; they save a bundle. And then the popularity behind them makes them hugely profitable. However, setting up entertainment in this manner does little to challenge the intellect. It offers little to feed the imagination, challenges few perceptions, and does little to feed knowledge and experience. I feel like I gain about as much from watching American Idol (or similar reality shows) as watching a blank screen for an hour. If I'm going to sit and watch something, I need it to have a little more substance.

2. Modern Popular Music Trends. Perhaps it is in part a function of the schools in which I grew up, but I can't stand most modern popular music (by which I mean music that's popular and not necessarily just "pop" music). It's not that I can't stand popular music in general. I enjoy listening to Beatles music, and there are other forms of popular music (mostly from the past) that I'll listen to as well. It's today's stuff that I can't stand; and by today, I mean from about 1985 on. Much of it is Krap. With a K. It doesn't even deserve to be called crap. And in the schools in which I grew up, that stuff is 99% of what people listened to. It was all Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys and Eminem and whatever. I didn't understand why everyone was crazy about the stuff and I couldn't stand it, probably be cause I hadn't been exposed to anything else. It wasn't until I got to college that I even heard of less mainstream artists like They Might Be Giants (who are great). It also wasn't until then that I really learned about the tyranny of the record companies and how most modern music is written through corporate structures and not so much through ideas and inspiration. I think that likely has something to do with it. It is near-impossible for unique, talented artists to really become known without selling their souls to one corporation or another. I think the internet may change that, but it's not quite there yet. Oh, and guess what's played on American Idol? Mostly the Corporate Krap that makes me want to hurl.

3. Drama (especially manufactured drama). One reason I have such distaste for reality TV (and for many other aspects of modern pop culture) is its reliance on what I call the Train Wreck Effect. Apparently, a good way to get someone to watch your show is to get them to gawk at it like they would gawk at a train wreck. This usually means manufacturing drama. I've noticed as I've watched these shows (for periods of five minutes before rushing to the bathroom to Bow Down Before the Porcelain Altar) that most of the games, most of the rules, heck the very concepts of most of these shows are set up to manufacture as much drama as possible. A great example is the commercials that have been blaring lately for that lie-detector show (can't remember the name) where some lady has to admit to her husband on national TV that she would leave him for this other guy to win a million dollars or whatever. Talk about the Train Wreck Effect! It's rather disgusting the lengths these shows take to get people to gawk. And frankly, it's more than a little disturbing. Oh, and American Idol's version of the Train Wreck Effect? His name is Simon. I will even admit to having been mildly entertained by his bashing of the applicants the first two or three times. But after years and years of this, it's beyond old, and it just gets more disgusting each time. I can't even stand to look at his face anymore.

4. Commercial Gimmicks. There's few things I dislike more than sitting through commercials, but I understand why they're necessary, especially on broadcast networks. However, one of the things that will give me he urge to set my TV on fire is the gimmick where shows will tell you that they'll say who won just after these messages. Then after the commercials, they're diddle around for ten minutes, not really say anything, and then say they're really tell you who won just after these messages! And this will repeat three or four times before they even tell you anything! And American Idol is the king of this sort of behavior! Whoever invented that should be tied to a chair and forced to watch that in a loop for eternity. I have difficulty thinking of any greater hell.

So I guess the point I'm making is this:

To the friend of mine who stared yakking at me about American Idol this morning: when I'm forced to think about that wretched show at 7 AM when I haven't gotten enough sleep and I'm trying to force myself through the beginning of the work day, it makes me feel very, very stabby.

You know who you are.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Win a Trip to Space!

After all this talk of religion and politics, its past time for me to get back to some space tourism news. It looks like there will soon be a new way to get to space, and on the cheap!

A company called Space Miles (IOM) (which is, by my count, the thirty-third company interested in one way or another in getting you to space) has announced that plans are nearly complete to hold a series of lotteries with the grand prize being two tickets for a suborbital trip to space!

Frankly, it was only a matter of time before this happened. Something so prohibitively expensive, and yet holds such an interest for a wide variety of people, was just begging for someone to set up some sort of lottery. I would be shocked if this ended up being the only one.

It's called The Space Shuffle Lottery. Initially, the odds of winning will be 15,000:1. They haven't released the price for an entry, but if you read their website carefully, you can calculate the ticket price at around $25 based on the information they do provide. Pretty cheap to launch your butt out of the atmosphere!

I don't have a lot of information on Space Miles (IOM) as a company, but what I do know is they were started with a very different idea in mind (and from what I can tell, they still plan on implementing it). They plan to offer a credit card, the Space Miles card, with which you can earn space miles redeemable toward a trip to space.

Personally, I won't be playing in the lottery. I'd rather invest my money and save it toward a ticket I buy myself. It's a great concept though! And depending on the terms of the space miles card, I may just have to look into getting one of those if they do come out.

Once Virgin Galactic starts flight testing later this year, I fully expect other companies with similar offers to come out of the woodworks, so I'll definitely keep this site updated with what I hear.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

All the Little Things in Politics

I have just found myself with a renewed interest in the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. I have described my interest in him before, most notably in my second post. (Was that really three months ago?) Now, I don't take these things lightly. If I form an opinion, and more importantly, if I talk about it, I like to know that I've done my research. I like to make an informed choice.

There are a lot of people out there who seem to delight lately in going up to someone at an Obama rally with a video camera and ask why they like him, then proudly replaying the footage over and over when the hapless Obama fan don't have an answer. If they come up to me, they'll be both sorely disappointed and mildly annoyed as I talk their ears off.

It's not to say that I haven't considered Clinton or McCain; I have. However, I differ significantly with McCain on policy issues (this wasn't always the case; I was kind of rooting for him in 2000). I'll probably talk about that later when we get into the general election season. Today, I'd like to talk about Obama and Clinton.

I've always thought it would be great to have a woman president; in fact, I've believed that this is long, long, overdue. Also, I don't have many (a few, but not many) differences with her stated opinions when it comes to policy. The reasons I oppose her are a little more complex.

See, I've found a bit of a pattern having observed political campaigns over the past eight years or so. The manner in which someone runs their campaign seems to me to be highly reflective of the manner in which they hold office when they win. If someone runs a highly deceptive, immoral and divisive campaign, their activities in office are also likely to be highly deceptive, immoral, and divisive *cough*W*cough*.

So with very few policy differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I decided the best idea would be to sit back and observe how they run their campaigns and how they treat their opponents. Here are some of the things I've seen.

March 2, 2008: In an interview with 60 minutes, Clinton is asked directly whether she believes Obama is (as Stephen Colbert puts it) a secret Muslim. She replies with the following:

"Of course not. I mean, that, you know, there is no basis for that. I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn't any reason to doubt that."

When pressed, she clarifies:

"No. No, there is nothing to base that on. As far as I know."

I take him on the basis of what he said? As far as I know? Not that it would matter to me, but seriously! Can't you give your opponent a fair shake? I know that in the realm of politics, this sort of thing is ho-hum everyday stuff, but have a little integrity. Sowing seeds of doubt on a sensitive topic like this is just repulsive.

March 10, 2008: After Clinton's win in the Ohio primary and narrow loss in Texas (yes, it was a narrow loss, the networks called it wrong), she made suggestions on TV several times that Obama would make a good vice-president. He was ahead in pledged delegates. He was ahead in states won. He was ahead in the popular vote. But she says oh, well, maybe he'll be a good vice president. That struck me as a more than a little condescending. This isn't the kind of politics I want to see going on in the White House.

March 18, 2008: So in March, the videos of Obama's former minister, the infamous Reverend Wright, came out and were looped on TV continuously for about two months (and those of you who insist the media is solidly pro-Obama must have had your TVs turned off for about... er... two months). Now Obama could likely have prevented those months of looping clips. Soon after they were released, he got up in front of the podium, and could have easily said, "I denounce this man and what he stands for, and I don't agree with any of these horrible comments. I stayed in his church for the sense of community I felt with the congregation and nothing more." Issue solved, right? Well, Wright was the man who officiated at Obama's wedding, who baptized his children, and with whom he had a long-standing relationship. Rejecting him like that would have been pretty heartless. So he got up in front of the TV cameras, and gave a speech in which he explained his relationship with his former minister, and in which he encouraged a discussion on race and the differences between his generation and Reverend Wright's generation. It wasn't the politically expedient thing to do, but it's difficult to deny that it was the honorable thing to do. Only a few months later when Mr. Wright got up in front of the cameras again and made (frankly) a complete ass of himself did he and Obama part ways.

March 21, 2008: Bill Richardson endorsed Obama, and in his endorsement speech, he told a story that really says a lot about Obama's character. Here's a piece of the transcript:

"And I also realized that here was a really good guy.
"And I'll tell you -- and I'll tell you why. And I'll tell you why. I'll tell you why. You all watched those long, tedious Democratic debates, right? I could barely get recognized at any of them.
"The one time when I was recognized -- and I was sitting next to Senator Obama -- I said, "Finally I've been recognized." So I turned to him, and we started chatting a little bit. And then, all of a sudden, the moderator, instead of going after other candidates that hadn't been recognized, came back to me and asked me to answer the question. Well, needless to say, I wasn't listening.
"And I turned to Senator Obama in horror about to say, "Could you repeat the question?" And Senator Obama whispered, he said "Katrina, Katrina." And so I then gave my answer on Katrina."

Now that's the kind of politics, the kind of cooperative spirit that I want to see in the White House.

Various Dates: So the major political parties have some weird rules about the primaries and caucuses. They arbitrarily let some states go before a certain set date and punish others for trying to do the same thing. I don't agree with the system, but there you have it. I'll probably have a whole big rant about the primary system another time, but my point here is about political expediency. All of the candidates agreed to these rules, and when it became clear in December that Michigan and Florida were going to have their delegates revoked for holding their primaries too early, Clinton spoke on this:

"You know, it's clear the election they're having isn't going to count for anything. Obama's name did not even appear on the ballot in Michigan."

But we've all heard Clinton's calls in the past month, over and over and over, decrying the injustice that their delegates won't be seated, despite the fact that most of her opponents weren't on the ballot in Michigan (she won 55% of the votes against "Uncommitted"), and she herself stated that the elections shouldn't count. Personally, I've had enough of this sort of hypocrisy at the highest levels of our government.

And finally, May 14, 2008, the event that prompted me to write this post: Barack Obama, when asked a question by reporter Peggy Agar, responded, "Hold on one second, sweetie, we're going to do — we'll do a press avail." Then he never even answered her question. This "sweetie" caused a bit of outrage among various womens' groups, but then the reporter was surprised to find a voice mail on her phone the next morning, and it was then played on TV. The voice mail said this:

"Hi Peggy. This is Barack Obama. I'm calling to apologize on two fronts. One was you didn't get your question answered and I apologize. I thought that we had set up interviews with all the local stations. I guess we got it with your station but you weren't the reporter that got the interview. And so, I broke my word. I apologize for that and I will make up for it.
"Second apology is for using the word 'sweetie.' That's a bad habit of mine. I do it sometimes with all kinds of people. I mean no disrespect and so I am duly chastened on that front. Feel free to call me back. I expect that my press team will be happy to try to make it up to you whenever we are in Detroit next."

Dude! A politician apologized about something! And it wasn't even a half-assed apology made weeks after the event! How long I have waited to see this day! How long... how very very long...

Go Obama

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Monday, May 19, 2008

Religion and Joe Space Tourist

So what do I believe?

Well, reading what I've written the past few days, it would be easy to believe that I am atheist, or at least agnostic, but that is not the case. However, that doesn't mean that I take any of the organized religions at their word; that is also not entirely the case. My beliefs are a little bit more... confusing than that. Or perhaps just confused. Could be either one.

So let me start with a little history.

When I was growing up, at least until Middle School (Junior High for those of you living in other parts of the US), I attended a fairly open-minded sort of church. As I mentioned before as an example, I learned the Big Bang Theory in Sunday School. However, it was not without its flaws. When I was in Middle School, a cousin of mine (who is much older than me) finished Seminary on the way become a priest. However, my church wouldn't sponsor her for the position because (duh duh duh) she is a woman.

Oh my god! A woman priest! What a travesty! How could we have that? What if she got pregnant?!

Seriously, though, in a church where they teach the Big Bang Theory in Sunday School and they let ministers get married, they won't let a woman become a priest? Well, to cut a long story short, my family abandoned that church in protest, in favor of an even more open-minded church that was closer to where we lived anyway. We even had an openly gay priest for a while. Doesn't get more open-minded than that.

Which reminds me of another little rant that I have to go on while I'm still on the topic of religion. Gay marriage. Seriously, people. You're going to make a big stink about that? Really? Okay, there are two, and exactly two reasons to oppose gay marriage. One is tradition, and the other is religion. I'll take these topics one at a time.
1. Tradition. Traditions change. Get the hell over it. Or stop letting women vote and go buy some slaves and start knitting all your own clothes because guess what? Those were traditions too.
2. Religion There are exactly two places in the Bible where it is stated unambiguously that it is bad to be gay. Those places are called Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13. Seriously? Have you even read Leviticus? If not, I highly recommend it; it is very entertaining. Let me give you a few choice examples:
Leviticus 25:44: Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.
Leviticus 19:19: ...Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.
Leviticus 11:10: But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales – whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water – you are to regard as unclean.
Oh, and there are at least six chapters on how and when to ritually sacrifice various animals. Seriously, people, there are maybe five verses in this whole book that are in any way relevant to modern life. So we're going to basically throw out the whole book and say these rules don't matter, except for this particular rule which oh my god if you break this one rule you are the worst kind of person! Yeah, get over yourselves. Let these people find a little happiness.
I had a friend who was kicked out of church for being gay. His priest literally told him in front of his family that he was going to go to hell and he wasn't welcome there anymore. Now he is one of the most critical people against organized religion I know. Yeah, you guys are really helping yourselves there.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah, middle school. So I was in this new, even-more-open-minded church. I was a good, churchgoing kid. I even sang in the choir and helped design part of the church grounds. However, the damage was already done. I was observing what I perceived as flaws in the implementation of organized religion. My main problem with it was that it seemed to preclude the notion of independent thought. This partially came from my experience in changing churches. My parents literally had to go hunting for a different church with a mindset like theirs when they couldn't convince the clergy at the previous one to understand and accept their point of view. I was young, but from what I understand, they wouldn't even listen. I've found this to be normal among organized religion; even considering another point of view is extraordinarily rare. However, my line of reasoning went something like this: if God gave us the gift of independent thought, why doesn't he want us to use it? Assuming he put us here on Earth, made us intelligent creatures, then decided to rarely or never interfere directly in our affairs, isn't it logical to believe that he wants us to have free will? Wouldn't that have to be the point of all of this?
The other event that started me down the path of rejecting organized religion is that during church one time while the congregation was reciting some prayer or creed or something, I spontaneously stopped, took a few steps away, and realized that everyone sounded exactly like the Borg. Yeah.... that didn't help.

So for a long while, I was in a state of limbo, not sure what to think or do. I stuck around at church. After all, for all its flaws, the people were friendly. However, I started to come to the realization that people of other faiths were just as passionate about their beliefs as Christians were about theirs. I began to reject the notion that there might be one "true" faith. I started doing a bit of research in other faiths; I even read parts of some of their sacred texts (well, those that had sacred texts). I found (and this came to me as rather a shock having been a lifelong churchgoer), that some of the others appealed to me and made a lot more sense to me than Christianity. Buddhism, for example, or Wicca, or some of the Native American beliefs. However, none of them really settled completely with me. I suppose my newfound faith in, well, free thought kept me from embracing anything wholeheartedly.

When I was studying up on these various belief systems, I also found myself with a growing interest in astronomy and cosmology. I suppose the combination of the two topics of study brought be to the realization that I couldn't reject religion altogether. I was in college by the time I realized that I had sufficient evidence to convince myself that there definitely is more going on in this world than we can see, taste and feel. In fact, I came to realize that I actually had two pieces of supporting evidence, and they (irony of ironies) are based in part in science.
1. The existence of the universe itself. "Where are we from" is often considered our most basic unanswered question. When you really put thought into it, there is no logical explanation for the existence of the universe. There are two possibilities: it would either have had to originate spontaneously, or it would have had to exist forever. Currently, the most widely accepted scientific theory is that the universe was born in a massive spontaneous explosion, emerging from a sort of multidimensional bubbling cosmic soup. But where did this soup come from? Why does anything exist? But on the other hand, can you imagine a lack of existence? Can you imagine a formless void, yet without the void, because even that is a thing? I can't. But I can come close enough to come up with some weird existential quandaries. I originally had this thought when I was young and reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (highly recommended, by the way), and only later did I realize its full potential as possible supporting evidence of the supernatural. How was the universe born if not through some supernatural means?
2. The existence of human consciousness. Well, I should simply say consciousness since I believe it is highly unlikely that there aren't other intelligent beings out in the universe somewhere, and since I believe that animals are also conscious on some level. I'll talk about those another time, but for now, it suffices to say that consciousness exists at least in us. So what is consciousness exactly? Democritus, one of the first philosophers to suggest the existence of the atom, also suggested that souls were composed of special, spherical atoms that allowed intelligent thought to exist. These days, that doesn't seem like an adequate explanation, but nothing else does either. It is difficult to deny that there is something there experiencing sights and sounds and manipulating our behaviors, that we are more than the sum of our parts. However, that cannot currently be defined by science, and I'm not sure that it will ever be. This, too, seems to be potential evidence of the supernatural.
More recently (as in the past month or so), I've come up with a third potential piece of evidence, and its basis is even more rooted in science than the first two.
3. Quantum Mechanics. In recent years, the field of quantum mechanics has become more and more strange. Today, some widely accepted theories themselves border on the supernatural. Everyone has heard the principal of Schroedinger's Cat, in which a cat is placed in a box with a vial of poison that has a 50% chance of breaking. According to the literal interpretation of quantum mechanics, this cat is both dead and alive simultaneously, until the box is opened and the cat can be observed. I would argue that the cat is observing itself, but again, I'll save that discussion for another time. These days, quantum mechanics gets even stranger. Some physicists have even come up with certain sub-molecular events that subtly differ based on whether or not they are observed. In particular, a story came out recently suggesting that a principal called the "Quantum Zeno Effect" aides in the long-distance navigation of migratory birds (this also serves to lend evidence to one of my other theories, but again, more on that later). This observational aspect of quantum mechanics is undeniably strange, but let me throw a new brick into the mix that I've never seen discussed: all of this suggests that human thought influences the universe on its most basic known level. Think about it; if we can influence quantum, and therefore chemical reactions simply by choosing to observe them, then our thoughts and the choices we then make actually serve to change the outcome of events, albeit subtly. Other supernatural concepts like group consciousness or spirits or even God suddenly aren't that big a leap. Who knows? Perhaps everyone has it all wrong and science will end up proving the existence of God. Now wouldn't that be a bit of irony for the ages.

So, I guess that's where I stand. I firmly believe in the existence of things beyond what we can see or feel, meaning I am not atheist or agnostic. However, I don't deign to say that I know what those things are, meaning that I am not religious. So I suppose that I'm just confusing. Or confused. It could still be that too.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Religion and More Religion

For the third post in my potentially blasphemous series on Religion, I will explain my belief that religions don't have to be mutually exclusive to each other. I'm going to describe my thoughts on this on a couple of different levels.

On the most basic nitty-gritty rules-and-regulations level, all religions with which I have at least a passing familiarity appear to have at least a few clauses in their religious texts or other bases of belief that, at minimum, suggest that followers remain friendly to members of other faiths, and at the extreme, suggest that it is okay to become cozy to the beliefs held by other religions. Now, I won't claim to be an expert on any religion, really. I was raised Christian and I've read more than my share of other religious texts. Some very interesting (and lesser-known) passages can be found:
Christianity: this appears to me to be one of the more hard-lined faiths when it comes to getting cozy with other religions. Even so, examples can be found to the contrary. 1 Corinthians 7:13 says, "And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him." To be fair, there are also examples (2 Corinthians 6:14) that suggest the opposite. The Bible is a difficult text, because many passages contradict each other.
Islam: Yes, Islam. Remember that crazy middle-east religion that hates freedom and wants to kill us? Well, I suggest getting to know some Muslims. I have. Doing so can be a study in the falsehood of stereotypes. The common belief is that the Koran says directly to be unfriendly toward Christians, Jews, and others, and that it portrays them as evil. However, it appears that some (not all) of those are taken out of context, and there are some lesser-known passages to the contrary: [60:8] "Allah does not enjoin you from befriending those who do not fight you because of religion, and do not evict you from your homes. You may befriend them and be equitable towards them. Allah loves the equitable." [5:46] "Subsequent to them, we sent Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming the previous scripture, the Torah. We gave him the Gospel, containing guidance and light, and confirming the previous scriptures, the Torah, and augmenting its guidance and light, and to enlighten the righteous."
Judaism: There are a lot of misconceptions about the origins of Judaism, but those can be easily cleared up simply by looking at the wording of the earlier books of the Torah, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Ron Wixman, a university professor with an uncommon amount of common sense, originally enlightened me on this subject. Judaism's origins were not as a big, bad religion hell-bent on converting everything with a pulse, characteristic of the behavior of many Christians and Muslims in recent history. On the contrary, it was a local religion, initially intended to co-exist with other beliefs. Take Exodus 20:3, the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me." This wasn't originally meant to state that other beliefs were false; it was intended as a message specifically to the Jews, the "chosen people" that they were to revere this particular god more than (or in exclusion of) the others. Many passages refer to other gods, such as Psalms 82:1: "God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods." In fact, around twenty other gods are mentioned by name in the Torah. If there was such co-existence back then, I don't see why there can't be now.
Buddhism: Of all the religions I've read about, Buddhism is definitely the most friendly toward other religions. The Dalai Llama himself has stated that it is desirable that there are so many other religions in the world. Buddhism, in many forms, is openly acceptive of other religions, and even holds that many other religious beliefs are based in truth. These values likely arise, at least in part, from the fact that Buddha himself taught different people in different ways, suggesting that one single belief doesn't work for everyone. Makes sense to me.

In a higher, moral values and be-nice-to-others sense, I have always believed that one of the most sacred things to any person is what they hold in their brains. Forced belief is one of the worst crimes possible, and all those people who spend their lives trying to convert others, at gunpoint or otherwise, need to get a grip. Some of the world's worst wars, some of the most horrible events, boiled down to one group trying to get another group to believe their unprovable assertions about spiritual beings that never show themselves. I think it's wonderful that you believe what you do, but don't try and force it on others. This goes for pushy asshole atheists just as much as it does for staunch loudmouth missionaries; let people believe what they want. And to all of you evangelists who lie outright to others to frighten them, or worse, to trick them into believing your way, I'm sure your religion has an appropriate place in hell for you. Agnostics, you're still alright with me.

And to all of you out there who have had some near-death experience where you've seen a vision that proves to you that yours is the one true faith and how could anyone ever believe anything else? Well, other people have had those experiences too and attributed it to their own religions, so get over yourself!

Okay, I'm done now. Have a nice existence.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Friday, May 16, 2008

Religion and Science

Today, I would like to delve into my second discussion about religion: how it relates to science.

I said yesterday that I have never thought religion and science need to be mutually exclusive. I suppose this probably originated from the fact that I grew up attending a fairly open-minded church. Were you ever taught the Big Bang theory in Sunday School? I was. Well, a more churchey version of it at least. "All of God's people and all of God's plants and animals and the sun and the moon and all of the stars were crunched up into a little ball, and then God made it explode, creating everything we see today." Certainly an interesting twist on the Adam and Eve story. But this serves as a perfect example of the co-existence of science and religion. Why can't the Big Bang Theory be taught in Sunday School?

Let's take a more classic example of this controversy: the Theory of Evolution.

(Whew. I didn't get zapped by lightning.)

I apologize in advance; I'm going to focus primarily on Christianity here because it is the religion with which I am most familiar. Any of you who belong to other faiths, I'm not trying to snub you; I just don't know enough to adequately discuss how science relates to your religion. So it goes like this: The Bible says that God created the world and all its creatures in six days, and on the seventh, he held a party or went to a rave or something; nobody is sure what. However, the Theory of Evolution says that all of the plants and animals emerged through hundreds of millions of years of incremental changes in their physiologies based on natural selection. And, if I remember elementary school math correctly, 6 is in fact less than 100,000,000. Clearly, this poses a problem.

But does it? Frankly, not even many churchgoing people take the Biblical creation story literally. Even the Catholic Church has stated that the Big Bang Theory is acceptable. Those few who take the Biblical account literally are called Creationists. In fact, they have somehow nailed down the date of creation to October 23, 4004 B.C., at 9:00 in the morning. That's a strange thought. I wonder what it would be like, to feel so certain of the exact age of the universe. Kinda creepy. Anyway, I'm not going to try to convince Creationists to accept science. That would be silly and I would probably fail.

Here's a thought that I like to tinker with: partial creationism. I personally don't take the Biblical creation story as fact, but couldn't it be partially correct? Couldn't it basically be a metaphor for what did happen, put in terms that people of the ancient world could understand? Let's take it one step at a time:
The first day, God created the Earth, but "darkness was over the surface of the deep", so God created the light and separated the light from the darkness. Now if you believe the Big Bang Theory (I'm only about 50% on that, but I'll talk about that another time), that is in fact the first thing that happened. The big bang occurred, releasing the Universe's matter, including the matter that makes up the Earth. However (and this is a lesser-known part of the theory), during the first few hundred million years, the universe was completely dark, except for the microwave background radiation. There was no visible light at all for a very, very long time, and in effect, "darkness was over the surface of the deep." Only when the clouds of gas that made up most of the early universe had a chance to coalesce into the first stars did nuclear fusion begin, and the first light was released.
The second day, God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. (Genesis 1:6-7) When you look at the history of the Earth, that is what happened next. After our sun coalesced and started nuclear fusion, our solar system was mostly a formless spinning gaseous dust cloud. Only when the cloud had a chance to coalesce into the planets, and the "water" of the Earth was separated from the "water" of the sky, was the Earth really born.
The third day, God separated the water from the land. Well, that's close enough for me. Most of the water most likely came from comets striking the earth, and the emergence of seas and land masses is what happened next. Then, God created the vegetation. And, well, plants did emerge before animals, albeit in single-cellular form.
The fourth day, God created the sun, moon, and stars. Yeah, that one is out of order. I never said that partial creationism was a perfect theory.
The fifth day, God created the sea creatures and the birds. This is partially in order. Sea creatures most likely came first, then land animals, then flying animals. Close, though.
The sixth day, God created land animals. This was probably a mistake. Keeping those things alive causes way too many headaches; endangered species regulations can be a bitch. However, there's no denying that animals are very, very tasty.
The seventh day, God created laziness. And partying. That's what I like to believe.

Anyway, let's get back to my main argument. If you're going to take the Biblical creation story as a metaphor or as simply a story instead of literal fact, what the heck is wrong with evolution? We all had to come from somewhere, right? It seems that some people think that evolution somehow negates God because it suggests that God didn't create us. However, I've never considered that to in any way be good reasoning. Can't you take the original thought of 'the creation story as a metaphor' just a tiny, minuscule, microscopic smidgen further and conclude that God invented evolution? What the hell is wrong with that? Seriously, if you're already going to conclude that God didn't literally snap his fingers (or tentacles or whatever he has) to create the world in six days why the hell would you get all up in arms whenever someone suggests he didn't snap his tentacles and create us in an instant either? Come on, people! Have a freaking independent thought in your head for once!

Sorry, that's kind of one of my pet peeves.

Also, about the whole evolution in school thing: I'll meet you half way on that. Evolution should absolutely be taught in school! But as a widely accepted theory, not as solidly proven fact. Because that's what it is. The theory of evolution. However, Creationism shouldn't be taught in schools, at least not in science class! A theology class, sure. You know why? Because it is a hypothesis. That goes for "intelligent design" as well; that is also just a hypothesis. There is a difference between theory and hypothesis. A theory is something that has been tested and is based on verifiable evidence, whereas a hypothesis is, at best, an educated guess that has yet to be tested. Basically, my point is this:

If you want to believe in and live by a religious faith, that's absolutely perfectly fine. But you need to come to terms with the fact that there is no solid evidence that you can present to others to prove that your faith is correct! If everyone simply accepted that, 90% of the wars in this world would end! Or, at least, they would be fought under different pretenses. Be nice to others, because they're just as sure that their faith is correct as you are that yours is! Neither of you can prove it, so stop squabbling already! Stop it! Stop! Right now! It's annoying!

Stop it!

Agnostics, you're alright in my book.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Religion and Aliens

Yeah, you heard me. I'm going to make a foray into potential blasphemy. I've certainly made my political views well-known, so it's past time that I venture into the one other topic of discussion that tends to be just as dangerous: religion.

All this came up when a friend pointed out a news story about a Vatican astronomer who came out and said that belief in aliens isn't contrary to belief in Christianity. Click here to read the full interview.

My first thought was, "Well yeah, I've been saying that for years."

And I have too. I've always been greatly amused by the debate between science and religion, because I have never believed that the two were in any way mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, (and this is where many religious people get mad at me and the Vatican and I part ways), I don't even believe that religions are mutually exclusive to each other. I'll explain all this, but let me take it one issue at a time, starting with the aliens.

First of all, I've done some reading on various religious texts, and at no point in time have I ever seen a single sentence, a single word that contradicts the possibility of life having been created on other worlds. Even if you take, for example, the Christian creation story at its word, there's nothing that says God couldn't have created Adam and Eve here, and Gazonkiplatz and Burf%ol$*a somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy. Heck, some people belive passages like Genisis 6:1-2 refer to aliens: "When people had spread all over the world, and daughters were being born, some of the heavenly beings saw that the young women were beautiful, so they took the ones they liked." I have my own theories about this verse and others, but there it is. So, I applaud the Vatican for the basic premise. In my humble opinion, they are absolutely right.

With that said, I would like to nit-pick over portions of the interview, because I feel like being an ass right now, and it amuses me.

First of all, the astronomer states, "Let’s borrow the image from the gospel about the lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the 99 of the sheepfold to search for the one that got lost. Let’s imagine that in this universe there are 100 sheep, corresponding to the different forms of creatures. We who belong to the human race, could very well be the lost sheep, the sinners that need the shepherd."

What? What? Okay, I know this is all hypothetical, but is he really suggesting that we're a planet of sinners in a universe of saintly, well-behaved aliens? I wonder how many ways I can take this hypothesis apart.
1. This hypothesis is based on the idea that said extra-terrestrials would believe in the Christian god when most of the people on Earth don't even believe in the Christian god! Holy crap, man! Are you really so arrogant that you honestly believe the five billion non-Christians on Earth are the only intelligent beings in the universe who don't share your faith? Well, I guess if you weren't, you wouldn't work in the freaking Vatican, would you?
2. This hypothesis is based on the idea that even if said extra-terrestrials believed in the Christian god, that they would be required to live by the same morals and standards that are laid out in the Bible! You may ask me, "Why would that be a problem?" Well, let me give you an example. The Bible says, "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Okay, that's all well and fine for us, but let's say that there's a species of intelligent creatures out there with three genders, all three of which are needed for reproduction. Don't laugh; that possibility has been explored by astrobiologists. Okay, laugh anyway. But how are these three aliens supposed to reproduce under the confines of biblical law? Well, the natural conclusion is that they would all have to be in a three-way marriage. But wait! We've all heard the mantra over and over! "Marriage is between a man and a woman." So even if these aliens could be classified as "male", "female", and "other", which is a stretch in and of itself, the "other" alien couldn't ever be married. Such an alien society, following God's laws to the letter, would be very very saintly, and very very extinct after only one generation.
3. Even assuming that extra-terrestrials believe in the Christian god, and assuming that they are allowed to live by their own biblical laws that are more suited to their unique biological and environmental paradigms, this hypothesis assumes that every single one of them would actually live by these laws and remain sin-free! As if there could be 99 other species out there, not one of them evolving in such away that promotes the emergence of violence. Oh wait, that's evolution. We're talking about religion here. Um... As if God would have created 99 perfectly peaceful well-behaved species and only one that was prone to sin. Right.

But wait, it gets better!

At the very end of the interview, the astronomer says something very interesting when asked about possible alien redemption in the case that they are sinners: "Jesus incarnated once and for all. The incarnation is a unique and non-repeatable event."

What? Where the heck in the Bible does it say that? Or, for that matter, where does it say that there couldn't have been a different, alien "Son of God"? That's one of my problems with organized religion in general. They make too many assumptions about their religious texts. Those assumptions turn to dogma, the dogma turns to prejudice, that prejudice leads to fear, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. </yoda>

Anyway, where was I... Oh yeah! The reason I started writing this is that a friend of mine said that I should urge the Catholic church, based on this interview, to fund space travel activities. However, I'm not going to do that. I get too many strange visions about that South Park episode where the Evangelical Church builds a missionary ship to convert aliens, all the while Pat Robertson is on the TV urging everyone to donate money for a proton cannon so that they can prevent poor Ethiopians from escaping Earth to settle on more hospitable land on planet Marklar. That would totally happen, and I'm not going to be a part of it. Sorry, Geoff.

That's it for now, but stay tuned! Tomorrow, I delve into religion and science. Duh duh duh!

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Genisis I Makes its 10,000th Orbit

Genisis I, after 660 days in space, has successfully made its 10,000th orbit! Genisis I, in case you don't know, is the first operational space hotel prototype, created by Bigelow Aerospace.

Genisis I has been doing remarkably well during its mission! The inflatable module has traveled a whopping 270 million miles, and has taken over 14,000 pictures. A more advanced prototype, Genisis II, was launched a little less than a year ago, and has been just as successful. This, of course, is all leading up to their first crewed prototype, the Sundancer, to launch around 2011, probably on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Monday, May 5, 2008

Starting a business!

Well, I'm doing it. A friend and I are going in together to start a business. For the record, I've started one before (with a different friend), but it was just a small affiliate website that never really went anywhere. It still exists, but we've kind of lost interest, and neither of us have worked on it in many months. However this new one is going to be a lot more serious! We're setting it up a formal LLC, and we're going to get business cards and maybe even an 800 number! Look at us; we're important business people!

My main goal for this business, actually, is to have what I make from it pay for part of my solar panels that I hope to install in the summer of '09. It's the sort of business that doesn't require much initial investment, so if it fails miserably, we won't be at much of a loss. However, if we even have a small amount of success, it could be very, very good. We'll see!

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Friday, May 2, 2008

Personal History, Part Six

Well, this is the sixth and final installment of my personal history. And the peasants rejoice!

When I left off last time, I had been well-employed for about a year, I had overcome my terrible roommate situation, and I was contemplating using some of my income to get a house. But let's back up a few months; there is something I want to mention.

When I finally got hired on full-time at my work and became a fully-fledged cubicle monkey, I finally had enough income to start saving toward my trip to space, among other marginally important things like, you know, retirement and a house and stuff. So the first thing I did was get myself a financial adviser.

Rule 5: Get a Financial Adviser.

The relevant statistic here is that, 5 years after college graduation, the 10% of people with a financial plan have 60% of the money. Or maybe it was 5% and 80%. Um... I can't remember. I tried to look it up, but I couldn't find it again. But it's something ridiculous like that. For me (and the same is true for most people I've spoken with) the financial world is way too complicated to create a good financial plan on my own, so I paid the necessary fee to have a plan written up for me by a professional adviser. It's a very enlightening process; I highly recommend it.

So I spent several months in a fairly static state of having a good job and a roommate helping to pay the rent, so I was putting about a third of my income into living, a third into my financial plan, and a third into my bank account. Now I had originally set up my financial plan with a big chunk allocated toward eventually making the down payment on a house. However, during these months, I started coming to the realization that it might be advantageous to invest in a house sooner rather than later. Besides, I really wanted somewhere that I could play obnoxiously loud sci-fi movies without anyone complaining. And a dog. I wanted a dog.

So I took the plunge. I did a whole lot of research before I did so, but I could find few drawbacks to the decision, so I did it. This brings me to my sixth rule for getting into space:

Rule 6: Invest in a House as Soon as You Can Afford To.

Disclaimer: I have no background in either financial planning or real-estate; I'm just relaying my experiences in the hopes that the story might be useful to someone. Follow my advice at your own risk.

Wait, I'm telling you to buy something extravagantly expensive so that you can save up for something extravagantly expensive? Well, yes, and here's why: housing prices double about every 10 years. So assuming your credit isn't in the dumpster, the gain in the value of the house you buy will far outweigh your interest payments. And here's how I look at it: I got a 30 year fixed-rate loan. In 30 years, if I stay where I am, my loan will be paid off. At that time, I could take out another loan for a fraction of the amount my house will be worth, and get my trip to space. So in 30 years, come hell or high water, I will get to space. However, my goal is to do it before I'm in my 50s.

Back to my story. Basically, my situation was this: I had a lot of disposable income. Not nearly enough for a down payment, but likely enough to cover closing costs. I had great credit, and housing prices were starting to go down due to the economic downturn that we are currently in. So I decided to go for it. I did a lot of research, I spoke to two different lenders and two different real-estate agents. I sifted through lists of hundreds of houses in the area and actually visited over thirty of them, and I finally settled on a good house. It's small, but I don't need big, and it's very well maintained and in a great neighborhood. And it came with the dog I wanted! Just look at her, being all cute and stuff because she wants your food.

So that's basically where I am today! I've been in my house for a few months, I've found a new roommate (who is paying me and not a faceless corporation), and I'm training my dog to carry a dog pack so she can go backpacking with me. Life is good, and I have plans to enhance my chances of getting to space even farther.

But more on that later.

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Falcon Launch Site Blown Up

Haha, okay, that title is a bit misleading. Well, maybe very misleading. But I couldn't resist.

In all seriousness, workers at Cape Canaveral blew up the Titan 4 mobile launch platform, located at Launch Complex 40. This platform has mostly been used for military Titan launches, but it has also been used for some NASA launches, including the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

The demolition is the first step in the preparation of the launch site for SpaceX's launches of their Falcon 9 rockets, currently being developed and assembled. Much of the plumbing and electronics at the site will be re-used. Falcon 9 launches have been ordered by both military and private sources, including Bigelow Aerospace, who will likely launch a human-habitable inflatable space station prototype on one of the rockets sometime around 2010.

Oh, and here are some awesome pictures of destruction:

Images credit Spaceflight Now

Progress: 3.73%  Flight Time: 0:05:35