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Belief Manifesto 1

I was listening to a phone-in talk radio program the other day. The topic was the controversy over the numerous mega-churches that were closed on Christmas Sunday 2005. The guest was a minister from a non-mega-church who thought closing the church's doors on Christmas Sunday was absolutely abominable. A lady called in to defend the mega-churches, saying it was an internal matter between the churches' leaders and parishioners, and that making a public spectacle of the divisive controversy only served to cast Christianity in a negative light to the rest of the world.

The minister and the caller began quoting Bible verses to one another in support of their viewpoints. As they began their contest of launching one volley after another of scriptural quotes, I was hardput to side with one or the other based solely on their scripture, for they each quoted accurately and in context, both claiming an intimate knowledge of God's will in this situation. Each was obviously a devout Christian and had the best intentions in heart, but yet they were diametrically opposed on this issue. There seemed to be no middle ground, and realizing this, the talk show host thanked the caller, let them agree to disagree, and ended the call.

This exchange exemplifies my central thesis in this series of posts: it is impossible to know the will of God. But I take it a step further: it's impossible to know if there is a God, and if one were to apply Occam's Razor to the question, mostly likely there isn't based on what we as humans can know, understand, and perceive.

I am a white 30 year old male living in North America. This means I've never been in a minority or protected class, never at risk for discrimination or persecution by a large segment of the population. What I wrote in the previous paragraph changes that. Agnosticism is not well understood in our society, and it is frequently confused with atheism. Atheism itself is a socially unacceptable belief in American society. The thought of being labeled and identified in a negative way troubles me, but so be it. Saying all this means that I could never successfully run for a political office.

2003 Pew poll: 69% of Americans completely agree with the statement, "I never doubt the existence of God," and 87% mostly or completely agree with it.

I'm somewhere in that unlucky 13%. From the time I entered puberty and began to think abstractly, I began losing my religion. At first it was creation versus evolution, but over time it's morphed into faith versus reason. A lot of reasonable, sensible people I know embrace religion and reasoned thought simultaneously. Somehow, the glaring incompatibilities between the two are resolved or deemed unimportant. Perhaps they dismiss it by saying logic can't be applied to religious matters, because that's not how spirituality works, and so they never bother trying and aren't troubled by it.

As far as I'm concerned, though, religion and reason must be reconciled, because they each offer a different ontological definition of the universe. In other words, you cannot say that 2+2 simultaneously does and does not equal 4. Maybe I am a mental midget. Maybe I am close-minded. Maybe I am arrogant for insisting that things must have logical explanations, and even if I don't understand those explanations in detail, most of them should make sense to me at least conceptually. Maybe I am a heretic. Maybe I am a lost soul. Maybe I have a point.

I've been dealing with this since I was 12, and now I'm 30. So instead of telling the tale of how I got here, I'll just describe "here."

I forced myself to consider why I was so hesitant to let go of a belief in God. There are several answers:

First, the egoist reason: it meant I had to let go of belief in eternal life, immortality, as it were. The most terrifying thing was coming to terms with death as a complete cessation of existence. I want to exist forever. And since my sense of self-awareness is all I really, truly know, it's terrifying to think it will cease to exist when I die.

Second, the existentialist reason: it meant I had to accept the universe was random, and there was nothing (no one) guiding the course of things. This meant considering the vast universe and acknowledging my own significance is rather insignificant. And no guardian angels to look out for me, either.

For the first time in my life, I have come to terms with both of those fears, those reasons favoring a belief in religion. I have accepted them. I can approach the question more objectively than I've been able to before. What does this mean? Very simple: I am an agnostic.

And what does that mean? It means I don't think it is possible for me to know if there is a God, simple as that.

More in part 2.

:: Bryan Travis :: 12/31/2005 @ 23:19 :: [link] ::

Post from a Palm T|X

I'm posting this entry from the PalmOS Blazer web browser. Rachel gave me a Palm T|X for Christmas. So I loaded some pharmacy/medical software, games, and utilities. The T|X has built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios. I don't have any Bluetooth devices, and my Cisco 802.11 access point isn't working, so no Wi-Fi, either, until school started again -- or so I thought. This morning I turned on the Palm's Wi-Fi and BAM, there's a Linksys router. Apparently someone in my neighborhood has put up an unsecured access point with an SSID of "linksys." So now I can surf wirelessly from the leisure of my Palm T|X and weblog at a whopping 10 words per minute in Palm Griffiti. How sweet is that?

I was going to drop $50 on a new access point eventually, but why buy when you can freeload? (A tip of the hat to Freakonomics) Thank you, my neighborly neighbors!

:: Bryan Travis :: 12/30/2005 @ 12:57 :: [link] ::

The Great Spoon Heist

The article below stirs nostalgia. I was considered gifted once, and attended the Kentucky Governor's Scholars Program (goes by the abbreviation "GSP") at Murray State University in 1992. I fell in with a welcoming group of friends from the start, and over the weeks our numbers grew so large that we could not all pack into the moon-shaped booth bays in the student center cafeteria. We welcomed everyone, and amassed a permanent core group and even more vagrants who came and went from day to day. Nevertheless, we were considered by the other GSP'ers as one of the nefarious GSP cliques.

When our number became sufficient, we hatched a plan for each of us to "borrow" a spoon or two from the cafeteria at each meal. That is to say, we would each place an extra spoon or 10 on our trays, and pocket it (them) when we left. We wanted to see if the disappearing spoons would be noticed. After we left, a girl in our group collected the spoons from everyone in her oversized purse and kept them in her room.

We collected over 400 spoons, and no one ever said anything. A few times we noticed a shortage of spoons at the entrance to the food line where we picked up trays and utensils, but our tantalizing excitement was always doused by the next meal when there were spoons a-plenty. In retrospect, during the summer when there were about 450 GSP'ers on a university with an enrollment of 5,000 - 8,000 students, the cafeteria was probably operating so far below capacity that the missing spoons were never noticed. Our 400 pilfered spoons simply could not make a dent in MSU's dining services spoon supply.

During the last week of the program, the girl holding the spoons distributed them to the other girls in the group (boys were not allowed in girls' rooms, and vice versa) one Saturday morning before breakfast. We grabbed a few extra trays, and before we left, placed all 400+ pilfered spoons on the trays, covered them with paper napkins, and placed the trays on the conveyor belt to be washed.

We all leaned over the conveyor peeking down the line to watch the lady who scraped the dishes and placed them in the large dishwasher. Slowly the trays of spoons inched down the line as we waited. We couldn't see the lady's face, only her hands, as she lifted the napkins to reveal the bounty of spoons. The hands froze for a moment above the spoons, as if they had eyes and were unsure of what had appeared before them. We hurriedly ran out the door before she uncovered the second and third trays, afraid someone would come charging out of the kitchen to apprehend the spoon thieves.

Science and the private life of teaspoons (also here) (original study in BMJ)

LONDON (Reuters) - Australian scientists have proved what is common knowledge to most people -- that teaspoons appear to have minds of their own.

In a study at their own facility, a group of scientists from the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne secretly numbered 70 teaspoons and tracked their movements over five months.

Supporting their expectations, 80 percent of the spoons vanished during the period -- although those in private areas of the institute lasted nearly twice as long as those in communal sections.

"At this rate, an estimated 250 teaspoons would need to be purchased annually to maintain a workable population of 70 teaspoons," they wrote in Friday's festive edition of the British Medical Journal.

They said their research proved that teaspoons were an essential part of office life and the rapid rate of disappearance proved that this was under relentless assault.

Regretting that scientific literature was "strangely bereft" of teaspoon-related research, the scientists offered a few theories to explain the phenomenon.

Taking a tip from Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books, they suggested that the teaspoons were quietly migrating to a planet uniquely populated by "spoonoid" life forms living in a spoonish state of Nirvana.

They also offered the phenomenon of "resistentialism" in which inanimate objects like teaspoons have a natural aversion to humans.

On the other hand, they suggested, people might simply be taking them.

:: Bryan Travis :: 12/29/2005 @ 10:27 :: [link] ::

Festivus Maximus 2005

Festivus is the holiday for the rest of us.

So display your Festivus Pole, air your grievances, show your feats of strength, and celebrate!

Festivus Maximus!

:: Bryan Travis :: 12/23/2005 @ 13:25 :: [link] ::

Term Paper Snooze

That crazy essay I wrote for my "Overview of the U.S. Healthcare Delivery System" elective.

:: Bryan Travis :: 12/22/2005 @ 21:25 :: [link] ::

The Parenteral Compounding Practical

Another semester of pharmacy school is in the books, my third, with 8 credit hours of "A's" and 12 credit hours of "B's."

There was a close call with my parenteral compounding lab practical. This is a bit difficult to explain unless you're familiar with USP <797> and compounding sterile preparations. Suffice it to say, no matter how nervous you are, when you take your lab practical on USP <797> sterile compounding procedure, and notice the isopropyl alcohol spray bottle is missing from your station, you shouldn't cross the buffer zone to retrieve a bottle from another laminar airflow workbench unless you've first gowned up and put on your gloves.

The "buffer zone" is a holy area of cleanliness in a sterile compounding pharmacy. A demarcation line separates the buffer zone from the rest of the universe. On one side of the line is the pristine buffer zone, ISO Class 7 air, and the laminar airflow workbench or "hood." On the other side of the line is the rest of the universe... unclean, dangerous, and full of bacteria, particulates, and pathogens. Mere mortals are allowed to cross into the buffer zone only after completing a sacred cleansing ritual which includes:

  • scrubbing from fingertips to elbows with chlorhexidine gluconate, povidone iodine, or other suitable antibacterial chemical
  • wearing low-shedding clothes (scrubs)
  • resanitizing the hands with alcohol-based cleanser
  • wearing a non-shedding gown over the scrubs
  • wearing a hair cover and face mask
  • placing shoe coverings over footwear while simultaneously stepping into the buffer zone (shoe coverings cannot enter the buffer zone if they touch the floor anywhere in the rest of the universe)
  • resanitizing the hands again with alcohol-based cleanser
  • wearing latex, silicone, or similar gloves
  • sterilizing unsterile gloves with 70% isopropyl alcohol

So when I noticed the isopropyl alcohol spray bottle was missing from my workstation, I announced this to the instructor, noticed the extra 10 bottles in a neighboring unused laminar airflow workbench, and proceded to cross into the buffer zone to retrieve a bottle without performing any of the sacred cleansing ritual! I didn't realize the mistake until an hour later as I was driving home. This could have been a major point deduction, but fortunately, the instructor let it slide.

:: Bryan Travis :: 12/22/2005 @ 20:10 :: [link] ::