Thursday, October 22, 2009

godless gaining ground

As an unapologetic atheist, I've been pleased to hear so much in the last several months about what appears to be a very real growth of public support for the godless life. Helped along by the likes of Twitter and a few good blogs, I've become convinced that despite what you may hear, there are actually quite a few ladies and germs out there who don't need some guy in the sky to make their world go 'round!

But don't just take my word for it; let's look at the evidence! A couple of weeks ago, the Atheist Alliance International held their annual meeting in California, and they reported record attendance. The term "no god" was the most tweeted term on Twitter for a short while this week, while this gem of a Twitter offshoot was created to replace the word "science" in any tweet that mentions the words "God" or "Jesus." And just two days ago, it was announced that the New York City subway system will soon carry a new advertisement proclaiming (apparently with statistics to back it) that more than 1 million New Yorkers—that's about 15 percent of the city's population—are "good without God."

By the way, don't forget that earlier this year, Barack Obama gave a shout-out to atheists during his inaugural speech, the first time any incoming president has done so. And on top of all this, I recently found out about a wonderful Internet show called Mr. Deity, which is beyond cool. The segments are short, they're all available online, and while some could use a little more direction, their overall impact is priceless. All I can say is: God FSM bless the nonbelievers.

Friday, October 16, 2009

brandi carlile will rock your world

I have my bathroom to thank for Brandi Carlile being in my life. If I hadn't redone it from scratch last summer and been forced to relocate to my folks' house for two months, I never would have watched almost every second of prime-time coverage of the Summer Olympics. And I certainly wouldn't have heard and fallen in love with her song, "The Story," which was played repeatedly for a commercial. I also have my father to thank, who on his own went out and bought me her brilliant album of the same title.

So that's how I found out about this amazingly soulful rock-country-pop chanteuse from suburban Washington State. It's rare to find a singer who can as easily pull off moving folksy ballads as absolutely steamroll through Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." But Carlile does it all with a maturity that far exceeds her 28 years.

I was lucky enough to catch Brandi in concert recently when she played the Beacon in Manhattan. I scored third-row seats close to dead center, and this made the experience pretty magical. Carlile works closely with a set of twins, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who play guitar and bass and who also contribute backing vocals. The set started off with the three of them plus their new drummer huddled around a single mike on the soft unplugged ballad, "Oh Dear," which actually concludes her new album, Give Up the Ghost. Carlile then proceeded to rattle off song after song from her three full-length albums, all the while giving the audience some amusing and, at times, poignant commentary (this play-by-play is from an earlier concert, but you definitely get the idea).

Highlights of the show included "Turpentine," in which Brandi divided the audience up into sections so that we could engage in a resounding three-part harmony at the appointed times. She also led her bandmates in a completely unplugged version of "Dying Day," which was absolutely incredible. This is the historic Beacon Theater, mind you, full to capacity as far as I can tell. A barefoot Brandi and friends shuffle up to the very front of the stage with no microphones, no amps—nada; they belt out this song; and heck if we didn't all get a chill down our spines. It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster later on in the show. Brandi gushed like a 12-year-old with a crush about recording sessions with her idol, Elton John, who sang and played piano on one of her new tunes, "Caroline." Shortly thereafter, she broke into a devastating song, "That Year," about the suicide of one of her high school classmates.

One particularly amusing moment came when Brandi introduced a new song she'd written as a spoof of modern country tunes. She played us a few examples of horribly bad lyrics from actual songs she'd heard on the radio, and then broke out into this hilarious new piece, the name of which I didn't catch. She also took to the piano to do a lovely rendition of "Let It Be" before finally rocking out to her big hit, "The Story," which I had first heard during the Olympics just over a year prior. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention what was perhaps the most rewarding event of the whole concert for me: when Brandi threw one of her guitar picks into the crowd and it hit my leg. I've been using that pick ever since to practice my guitar again after having let it collect dust for a couple of years.

Suffice it to say, regardless of what kind of music you listen to, you pretty much can't be a human and not be entertained at a Brandi Carlile concert. So if she stops by a venue near you, do not walk, run to the box office and make sure you get a ticket. This young lady is going to be a huge star and will most likely be selling out arenas before long, so get a piece of the action now while the crowds are more intimate. I guarantee you won't regret it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

climate genie: wish list for blog action day

Today (and every October 15th) is Blog Action Day. Now in its third year, the event aims to bring worldwide attention to one critical global issue through the power of blogging. This year, that issue is climate change.

As someone who blogs fairly regularly about the human impact on our environment, I originally considered whipping out yet another issue and hammering into your brains why it's so critically important to our one shot at keeping the world habitable. But then came all the pressure of choosing the perfect topic, and, well, I blanked. So I decided that it would instead be more fun to make a list of things I'd love to see come true in the name of quelling some our climate problems. Call it my little climate genie project! But instead of the traditional three wishes, I get 10. Okay, here we go!

Wish #1: Here's where I wish for an infinite number of other wishes. Obviously.

Wish #2: I wish people would teach their kids not to keep the water running while they brush their teeth. Personally, I've never understood this phenomenon—why one would keep the water on whilst brushing one's teeth. Call me crazy, but I've never in my life kept the water running, and my teeth and I have turned out just fine, thank you. And as I now know as a grown-up, it's just a needless waste of water! And we all know how I feel about that.

Wish #3: I wish people would just recycle already. It's really not that hard, and if everyone got on board, it would decrease pollution and use of fossil fuels like nobody's business. I visited an environmentally-friendly camp in New Hampshire this weekend, and I was amazed at (okay, and a little jealous of) their recycling shed. Everything was separated into its proper place, like with like, in dozens of plastic bins. My inner "J" was off the charts! And while I admit that most city dwellers like myself don't have room for such a tidy separation depot, lots of other Americans do; simply use a corner of your garage, ladies and germs. Even if that's too advanced for you, just separating your empty bottles and used newspapers and doing what you need to do to get these items to your municipal recycling collection area would be a huge step forward.

Wish #4: I wish people would carpool more. It just makes sense. Vehicle emissions are one of the biggest contributors to global warming, and while I'm not saying we should take all cars off the streets, it behooves us to use them more wisely. Plus, it would decrease traffic! A win-win for those of you who otherwise can't use public transportation.

Wish #5: I wish major supermarkets would start restricting what foods are available at certain times of the year. The amount of money spent and carbon dioxide belched into the air trucking out-of-season foods thousands of miles across the continent is just shameful. Not only that, all the time spent in transit means the foods you buy are far from fresh, even if you eat them the day you take them home!

Wish #6: I wish people would stop watching crappy doomsday movies like The Day After Tomorrow. These over-the-top films don't do any good for the dissemination of real science. Don't get me wrong, I am a science fiction fan. But I would bet that most people who go to these slick Hollywood apocalypse flicks come out thinking that whatever the hunky actor playing a government agent just said was real science, since it sure sounded plausible. No, friends, the Statue of Liberty isn't going to be underwater anytime soon. Don't believe the hype!

Wish #7: I wish we would finally get serious about solar energy. The Chinese are starting to make it a priority, and the U.S. is painfully behind in making solar cell technology cheap enough to compete with other fuel sources. We've got another several billion years of sunlight left; let's do this!

Wish #8: Back to food: I wish people would start thinking more critically about where their food comes from. Agriculture is another one of the biggest sources of pollution in the world, whether it's in the form of the chemicals used as fertilizers and pesticides, or in the form of methane burped and tooted out of cattle. I guarantee you if you follow the trail back far enough, it'll make you sick to know what that double Whopper just did to the people, animals, plants, and soil it touched along the way to your mouth.

Wish #9: I wish someone would build a car that could drive 300+ miles on one tank and look awesome in the process. What? It's already been done? Score!

Wish #10: And finally, I wish we would really start teaching our kids what climate change is all about. Let's stop treating this like some political hot-button issue that'll offend people to high heaven and blow up in everyone's face if we actually discuss it in any meaningful way. Climate change is not made up; it is happening, and we've known about it for at least half a century. The kids of today are going to be living with our messed up world for a long time to come. The least we owe them is a basic understanding of what's going on so that they'll be equipped with, at the minimum, an accurate vocabulary with which to continue the discussion with their kids. One idea: It would be great to start some version of the TED talks (which I love dearly) specifically aimed at grades 6-12. That would be sweet!

Friday, October 09, 2009

lady laureates

It's only been a few hours since the Nobel Prize committee gave the world something to talk about with its rather surprising choice of Barack Obama as the recipient of 2009's Nobel Prize for peace. Lost in the commotion are some impressive historical facts: More Nobel Prizes were given to women this year than in any year before, and it was the first time a woman received a prize in the category of either chemistry or physics in 45 years. Congratulations to Elizabeth Blackburn (Physiology or Medicine); Carol Greider (Physiology or Medicine); Ada Yonath (Chemistry); and Herta Müller (Literature), who are pictured clockwise from top left.

Sadly, of course, women trail men by far as recipients of Nobel Prizes. As of today, the ratio of awards won by men to those won by women is a dismal 762 to 40. And there has yet to be a female recipient of the award for economics. But hopefully the 2009 showing is a harbinger of a sea change in that respect. For some perspective, I've put together this chart showing all prizes that have gone to women thus far (click to see full-size version). &infin

Update: Well, I guess I should have waited to post this until today's economics prize announcement, because ladies and gentlemen, we now have our first-ever female winner in the category of Economic Sciences! Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University (pictured at right) shares the 2009 prize with another American, Oliver Williamson for their "analysis of economic governance." That brings the total prize tally for women to five in 2009 and 41 overall. Way to go! I've updated the chart below.