Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Flat Earth Reality Show

To answer the question you probably are about to ask, yes, there are apparently people in the world who believe that the Earth is flat. Some of them might be trolling, but apparently at least a few take it seriously. A clever Redditor recently came up with the idea that somebody should produce a reality show in which flat-earthers hunt for the edge of the world. We'd do it for the lulz, naturally.

A number of people online have decided that a TV studio should put their hands in their pockets and shell out to make a show about flat-earthers showing the rest of us where the edge of the world is. You'd probably just need to pay for a boat and camera rental.

The initial idea for finding the edge of the world was pitched on Wednesday by a redditor who is hopefully going places in the entertainment world. After 24 hours the idea already had around 65.7k upvotes - just think of the viewer numbers HBO.

To be fair, some flat-earthers do not believe a flat earth means it has an edge. Some argue there's an infinite earth that carries on in all directions (like standing on a sphere, perhaps). Others think that it is impossible to reach 'the edge' because of an ice wall - like Game of Thrones.

Here's the concept - take your teams to the top of the "ice wall" - you know, the glaciers in Antarctica. Then outfit them with all the gear they need and dogsleds (because dogsleds are funnier than snowmobiles). The first team to reach the other edge of the wall wins. The rest of us could watch as they embark on the 1200 mile trip across the continent... oh, wait, I mean the "ice wall." To be clear, that's a pretty thick wall.

And, of course, the joke is on the winning team, who will arrive at the "edge" and find - more ocean! You know, because Antarctica is a continent and not the edge of some sort of crazy wall. For bonus points, make them navigate by compass so that when they reach the south pole it becomes clear that the only direction they can go is north. That would be funny, too.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Against Lesbian Hands

Just as I referred back to the stupid controversy about Starbucks holiday cups from 2015 in my recent article on the Museum of the Bible, a new controversy was growing regarding this year's design. Or, more specifically, Fox News was desperately trying to stir one up. And this time around, it might even be dumber than arguing that the cups should include "ancient symbols" of the Christian faith like snowmen and snowflakes - and to be clear, coming up with something dumber than that is a real achievement.

Part of this year's design shows an image of holding hands at the top of the cup. The hands are shown attached to arms but not to bodies, which are entirely out of frame. Apparently some yahoos on the Internet have decided that the image depicts "lesbian hands," whatever that means, and are upset about it. Does a hand even have a sexual orientation?

But because it's essentially its job, Fox News waded into this non-story in the ongoing Culture Wars. Pairing a Buzzfeed article that noted that the image was not explicitly heterosexual, not explicitly cisgendered, with a couple of tweets, Fox News' website sold the whole mess as a report on a supposedly massive backlash against the coffee purveyor for trying to make baby Jesus gay.

Now, Fox News itself doesn't go very far into actually proving that there is a right-wing avalanche of criticism here. It offers a couple of tweets and not much else. As far as Salon can tell, there's not really more out there in the way of red-state rage. Matter of fact, look into the comments on that same Fox News post and you'll see that many of the site's readers see the whole matter as a massive serving of nothingburger, be they there to support or slam the right-wing outlet.

That Fox News tried so very hard to make this into a thing, however, says quite a lot about where it is and how desperately it misses its foremost fighter in the War on Christmas, Bill O'Reilly. He totally would have made something wonderful of this.

It's actually good to see that hardly anybody is taking this seriously. For years I wondered if Poor Oppressed Christian outrage had a limit, and it looks like this could be it. But it's also funny to see how desperate Fox News is to create a controversy based on nothing more than a couple of tweets. After losing its number one blowhard Bill O'Reilly to a sexual harrassment scandal earlier this year, the network is clearly floundering as it tries to drum up the old "War on Christmas" ratings.

I'm happy to see this whole idea spiraling down the drain to where it belongs. Nobody is trying to attack anyone by making an effort to be inclusive and inoffensive. Starbucks is a business, and they want to appeal to the largest possible demographic. The same is true of stores that put up "Happy Holidays" banners and the like. There's nothing more sinister to it than that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Thoughts on Retro-Enchantment

The subject of retro-enchantment - that is, casting spells into the past in order to make changes - came up in the discussion of my post on the feasibility of time travel. In the chaos magick system, such as it is, the idea is treated seriously and a number of people claim to have done it successfully. I, on the other hand, have not. Or, more to the point, all of the experiments I have done trying to exploit this method explicitly have failed to work, or at least failed to work any better than rituals performed without any retro-enchantment component.

It is true that if you look at a particular result and trace it back to its causes, you often can find some precipitating event that took place before you performed your ritual. Some take this to mean that either (A) the ritual effect went backwards in time, or (B) that the result was something that was going to happen anyway with or without the ritual. According to my quantum information model of magick, neither of these suppositions is precisely correct. I can illustrate how I think this works in practice using a simple thought experiment.

Basically this is the same idea as Schroedinger's Cat, but I like cats so instead of a thought experiment in which a cat might or might not be killed, I'm going to go with two light bulbs. The experimental apparatus is designed as follows: inside a light-proof box, you assemble a quantum diode (a simple random number generator) and connect it to a red light bulb and a blue light bulb. For each trial, the quantum diode returns either 1 or 0 based the decay of a radioactive element inside it and calibrated to produce a perfect 50/50 probability differential. On a 1, the red bulb lights. On a 0 the blue bulb lights.

While their findings are disputed by capital-S Skeptics, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) laboratory showed that human intention could create a shift of between 0.1 percent and 0.5 percent, depending on the subject. So the first step in testing this red/blue light device would be to see if it shows a similar shift. If it does, you can proceed - and anyway, this is a thought experiment, so for purposes of argument I'm just assuming that it works and you can reliably show a shift of that magnitude.

Ideally you would want the best subject you can find, so let's say that you can identify somebody who can do a 0.5. You conduct the test two ways. For the first set of trials, test the diode after you have your subject concentrate on the desired result. For the second set, test the diode before they concentrate on the desired result. Then you compare your data sets. According to my quantum information model of magick, these two sets should both show the same deviation from chance, my hypothetical 0.5. If they reliably differ, that's a flaw in the model that would need to be corrected.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Museum of the Bible Disappoints

Of course there's a Museum of the Bible. I mean, compared to building a giant replica of Noah's Ark, stockpiling a bunch of Biblical artifacts is easy, right? In fact, according to this article from The Washington Post, the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. does have an amazing collection of artifacts from Biblical history, such as one of two known copies of the first edition King James Bible and fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, it's one thing to study the history of the Bible, and another to engage with and understand its teachings.

The “impact” floor is where the deeper shortfall becomes evident. The section offers high-tech exhibits on the Bible’s role in U.S. history, popular culture and the world at large. There’s a motion ride that flies you through Washington to explore biblical references around the city, spraying water at you for an extra thrill. (The tour guide winkingly noted that its designer worked on projects in Paris and Florida for a company beginning with the letter D.) As on the other floors, there is a baffling array of touch-screens and tablets, modern-day interactives and glossy timelines.

Yet while the exhibits dutifully touch on past conflicts involving the Bible (it was deployed in defense of and against slavery!) and play up its crowd-pleasing successes (verses from the book of Genesis helped to define human rights!), overall the museum eschews any difficult engagement with issues of the day. A timeline of the Bible in U.S. history conveniently ends in 1963; its role in our debates on sexuality, contraception and abortion are pointedly left undiscussed. Therein lies the problem. It is increasingly clear that Christianity in America has been reduced to more of a cultural identity than a way of life. Fine, perhaps, if you’re part of the growing minority of Americans who identify as nonreligious or in active opposition to Christian belief. Less so if you had hoped it might yet inspire moral behavior among its adherents.

A cultural Christianity that reveres religious trappings and neglects their requirements is exactly the sort that props up figures such as Ten Commandments-toting, allegedly teen-molesting Senate candidate Roy Moore. (The Gospel of Luke warns that it’s better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck than to cause a child to stumble; the museum has a millstone replica Moore might want to investigate.) Cosmetic faith is the sort that displays charming engravings from Leviticus 19:34 — “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself” — while celebrating its achievements at Trump International Hotel.

Let me add a little more nuance to this. I don't think it's true that Christianity in general has been reduced to this, just the Poor Oppressed variety of fundamentalism. These folks are maybe twenty percent of the population, or about a quarter of all American Christians. They're just really vocal about dumb stuff like Starbucks cups and reliably make the news. The most extreme example is the Westboro Baptist Church - twenty or so people, mostly relatives - which is smaller than the local Twin Cities body of Ordo Templi Orientis, but so awful that they grab a lot of eyeballs on social media. I mean, they expelled their own founder for not being extreme enough. It's practically a comedy religion.

I'm going to put this one out there again, too - I don't take the Revelation of Saint John literally, but if I did I would have to point out that the "falling away" of Christian who believe themselves virtuous and yet have no real comprehension of God totally applies to these folks, not the more liberal mainstream Christians that they disdain. They've turned their version of Christianity into a sect that glorifies wealth instead of helping the poor, and whose only real issues seem to be hatred of homosexuality and abortion. It should be clear to anyone who actually reads the Bible that the first tenet there is entirely contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, and the other two are by no means the most important issues with which a Christian should be concerned.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Time Travel is Possible

Now, to be fair, possible doesn't mean easy, but still. The energy requirements are so far beyond what our civilization can produce that they're hard to imagine, but the point is that the laws of physics don't explicitly prevent it from happening. According to astrophysicist Ethan Siegal, what you need is a pair of entangled wormholes and a way to accelerate one end to the speed of light. Then someone in the future could pass through the wormhole and arrive in the past. The only issue is that it's a one-way trip, at least through the wormhole.

Time travel has been the holy grail of science for centuries but it could finally be within our grasp. There is just one problem, we might not be able to return to the present from the past.

Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel has outlined in his blog Starts With a Bang how the theoretical rules of physics might allow a way to use wormholes to travel back in time. A wormhole which is still at one end and as fast as the speed of light at the other could provide the basis for humans to step back into another era. This will not be easy, and considering how many people get confused when the clocks go forward or back the chances of successfully pulling off the creation of time travelling wormholes could be tough.

Siegal said: ‘If, 40 years ago, someone had created such a pair of entangled wormholes and sent them off on this journey, it would be possible to step into one of them today, in 2017, and wind up back in time at the mouth of the other one back in 1978. ‘The only issue is that you yourself couldn’t also have been at that location back in 1978; you needed to be with the other end of the wormhole, or traveling through space to try and catch up with.’

As far as returning to the present, that actually is so easy (relative to going through everything that you would have to do to create and accelerate time-entangled wormholes, of course) it doesn't even get a mention in the article. We already know how to do that, and it's a mainstay of every introduction to relativity theory. You just go really, really fast. That's how the "twins paradox" works. The fast-moving twin who doesn't age isn't rendered ageless, he or she experiences dilated time - in effect, the same thing as jumping forward in time.

So if you jump into the past via a wormhole, it's entirely possible for you to get back. Just fly through space at very close to the speed of light and make a really big loop that starts and ends at the earth. When you finish your journey, hardly any time will have passed for you but many years will have passed on earth and you will have traveled in time in the other direction.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

New SubGenius Documentary in the Works

Inquiring minds have been asking the question for years - is the Church of the SubGenius a joke disguised as a religion, or a religion disguised as a joke? More importantly, might it be both? Dangerous Minds reports that the makers of a new documentary claim that for the first time, their film will tell the true story of how J. R. "Bob" Dobbs and the church came to be - that is, if they can raise enough money on Kickstarter to pay for post-production.

The Church of the SubGenius’ annus mirabilis, 1998, may have come and gone (or it may be yet to come, as some of the faithful believe), but it’s never been easier to hear the word of “Bob.” OSI 74 carries on the Church’s TV ministry. Evangelical radio programs such as Hour of Slack, Puzzling Evidence, and Ask Dr. Hal no longer splutter from our computer speakers in a pitiable dribble of RealAudio 1.0, but burst forth in full stereo at 64 Kbps, a mighty firehose of Slack. The classic SubGenius recruitment movie Arise!, which used to cost 20 whole dollars, is now just as free as an ISKCON book with Ganesha on the cover. And The Book of the SubGenius is still in print.

But a documentary in the works promises to do something new for the Church, namely, to situate its founding and founders in real, actual historical time. Slacking Towards Bethlehem: J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius will tell the story of Rev. Ivan Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond meeting in mid-Seventies Texas as young weirdos. The pair “quickly forged a friendship over a shared love of comic books, Captain Beefheart and UFO paperbacks,” in the words of the movie’s press release, before starting a religion that won converts in R. Crumb, Robert Anton Wilson, DEVO, Frank Zappa and Negativland. Directing is Austin filmmaker Sandy K. Boone, whose late husband, David Boone, directed the 1980 cult film Invasion of the Aluminum People, which might be “an allegorical testimony for the Church of the SubGenius.”

The Church of the SubGenius was always dedicated to the virtue of Crass Consumerism, so it's no surprise to see a Kickstarter appeal to raise money for the film. And whatever else you want to say about the SubGenius movement, it has never failed to be deeply, deeply weird. The world could use more of that, especially these days. Which is to say, we all would appreciate a lot more slack. The article includes a link to the Kickstarter for the film, in case you would like to contribute and receive your very own bizarre backer reward.

I hope to see this get funded, because no matter what the truth is it sounds like it will be a lot of fun to watch. I'll be sure to update my readers here if and when it becomes available.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Witchcraft Accusations Prompt Zimbabwe Coup

Emmerson Mnangagwa, who probably is not a witch

While the situation in the African nation of Zimbabwe appears to be up in the air for now, news outlets are reporting today on what appears to be a military coup in progress against Robert Mugabe, who has been president of the country since 1987 after serving as prime minister from 1980-1987. Many years ago Mugabe played an instrumental role in Zimbabwe's struggle against colonial rule, but he has also been criticized as an authoritarian dictator who has become wealthy while taking advantage of his people.

Where this story falls into Augoeides territory is that the coup appears to have been precipitated by Mugabe's dismissal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who Mugabe accused of witchcraft last week.

Addressing supporters at the headquarters of his Zanu-PF party in Harare, 93-year-old Mugabe accused Emmerson Mnangagwa of consulting witchdoctors and prophets as part of a campaign to secure the presidency. Mnangagwa, who was sacked by Mugabe on Monday and expelled from the ruling Zanu-PF party on Wednesday, said he had fled Zimbabwe because of death threats and was safe.

"My sudden departure was caused by incessant threats on my person, life and family by those who have attempted before through various forms of elimination including poisoning," he said in a statement on Wednesday. The head of the influential war veterans association, Chris Mutsvangwa, said that Mnangagwa, 75, would travel to Johannesburg in neighbouring South Africa "very soon".

Mugabe's critics claim that the charges against Mnangagwa are trumped up, and that Mugabe dismissed him so that he could install his wife, Grace Mugabe, as his successor. This created divisions within Zimbabwe's ruling party, and those divisions appear to be fueling the coup.

Mugabe told supporters he had dismissed Mnangagwa for disloyalty and disrespect, as well as using witchcraft to take power. The move exacerbated divisions in the ZANU-PF party, where the youth faction is firmly on Grace Mugabe’s side, while the older veterans of the struggle against white rule look to Mnangagwa. At one point last month, Grace Mugabe even warned that supporters of Mnangagwa were planning their own coup.

Mnangagwa, who fled to neighboring South Africa, has strong support with the military, and Chiwenga, the army chief, threatened Monday to “step in” to stop the purge of Mnangagwa’s supporters. The military was once a key pillar of Mugabe’s rule. The party’s website later reported that Mnangagwa was back in the country and would be taking over leadership of the party. Political commentator Maxwell Saungweme said by phone that the military will probably try to pressure Mugabe to step down in favor of Mnangagwa as acting president.

Mugabe is known for leveling witchcraft charges against his political opponents, and Mnangagwa is not the first high-ranking member of the government to be dismissed because of them. So it's likely that the charges are made up. But if they're not, this is a good place to point out that magick sometimes works in mysterious or unexpected ways.

Let's say that Mnangagwa did a spell to make him president, without any particular limitations. One way for the spell to work would be for this exact situation to unfold, provided that when the dust clears Mnangagwa really does come out on top. A success is always a success, regardless of how it manifests.