Another ‘What I’m Thankful For’ Entry

Categories: Personal
Comments: No Comments
Published on: 2017.11.23

Like you, I sometimes tire of the clichéd Thanksgiving statements. Family, job, home. I assume you’re thankful for those. Here are some other things I’m thankful for.

* Investigative journalism and the relatively free press in the United States.

* That historians continue to root out old myths and correct them.

* All branches of science and the regular incredible discoveries being made. This year alone: used gene-editing tools to correct mutations in human embryos, discovered a new planet that can possibly sustain life, clinical trials already helping human patients via artificially generated human tissue, successfully reused an orbital rocket, advances in artificial wombs, artificial intelligence learns to play complex games, first detection of gravitational waves, discovery of new species, new male contraceptives, and more.

* Modern conveniences, including mobile phones, internet, digital music — and not-so-modern conveniences that continue to improve, including dishwashers, blow dryers, light bulbs, and so on all the way back to indoor plumbing. I personally lived life for decades without mobile phones and the internet, and don’t wish to go back. And I can’t even imagine living without the older inventions.

* Modern infrastructure. For all the legitimate complaints about city water, road design, city planning, electric power grids, and so on, it is all much better than it could be.

* Silence. I have always enjoyed a good dose of peace and quiet, but fatherhood has made me appreciate it that much more. If you were thinking of getting me something for Christmas, just send me a patch of silence and I will thank you.

The Gut Wants What It Wants

“Happiness is a choice” — I saw this on Twitter recently.

Is it? I was under the impression that happiness is a chemical.

Despite thousands of years of looking, no one has ever found a “soul” or “spirit” inside a human being. And we learned quite some time ago that the heart pumps blood rather than managing emotions. It turns out that what humans once thought of as the soul, spirit, heart, or bowels (at least in the King James Bible) all turned out to be just the human nervous system. Everything we once thought was caused by demon possession is really brain issues.

We learned that head injuries can cause personality changes and why certain foods affect our moods.

Thanks to science, we now know the causes of at least some mental illnesses, and how to mitigate the some of the effects. New studies regularly discover more.

But these tired tropes keep coming.

“Happiness is a choice.”

“The heart wants what it wants.”

And maybe the one that bugs me the most is when a TV or movie character points to his head and then his chest, saying something like: “Not just in here [head], but in here [chest].”

Ever since I realized how utterly stupid it is, I see it all the time.

Our language is littered with these notions, some ancient and some medieval. I’d wager that most of the time we use these words we’re not thinking of the actual meanings. When we say “my heart hurts” after some tragedy, we really mean “I’m overcome with grief”. The problem is that the words reinforce wrong thinking.

More than half the people in our country believe love is a mystical guiding force that brings soul mates together.

On the other hand, most of us might say, these phrases — and even the incorrect underlying beliefs — are harmless. Is anyone actually harmed by believing or saying any of these things? Perhaps not in a tangible way.

I suspect, however, that someone suffering from depression or anxiety could experience an extra bit of unnecessary pressure if they come across the “happiness is a choice” bit. “Oh really? If only I had chosen to be happy, then I would be. Darn it.”

On the third hand, some of these phrases can actually be at least partially true if looked at in a less than literal manner. While I can’t simply choose to get certain chemical combinations produced in my body — to feel happy — I can learn which behaviors and experiences lead to that production. And I can calculate the risk/reward ratio for each. For example, eating a pile of M&Ms makes me happy, but doing it often isn’t good for me. Writing and thinking about these topics makes me happy, and really has no downside, so I engage in it when given the opportunity.

Science continues to learn about the connection between the gut and the brain, and how selective dosing of bacteria can alter behavior and mood — at least in laboratory mice. It wouldn’t surprise me if 20 years from now, a whole host of mood and behavior disorders are regularly treated with bacteria cocktail injections.

‘The Soul Of The GOP’ Is… What Exactly?

This is bordering on ridiculous. Granted, the word “soul” doesn’t appear in the story’s body, but the headline of this Washington Post story proclaims: “Mitch McConnell vs. Roy Moore Is Now A Battle For The Soul Of The GOP”.

Battle For The Soul
Screenshot of Nov. 13 headline in The Washington Post

The story is framed as if Mitch McConnell is the good guy, defending the Republican National Committee against interloper Roy Moore.

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) effectively called Roy Moore a child molester on Monday. McConnell said he believes Moore’s female accusers, apparently including the one who told The Washington Post that Moore initiated sexual contact with her when she was 14 and he was 32. McConnell added that Moore should step aside.”

Well, good for McConnell. Let’s give him a trophy. Or a cookie. No wait. A trophy and a cookie. Because he’s protecting the United States from an accused child diddler — who was once banned from an Alabama shopping mall for “repeatedly attempt[ing] to pick up teenage girls” — according to former mall employees and local police.

But back to that headline and the phrase “soul of the GOP”…

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Four Things

Several topics floated around recently, but nothing I really wanted to write on at length — on the off-chance anyone was wondering: “Why hasn’t Wil blogged lately?”

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Universal Alphabet On A Grid

Categories: Language, Personal
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: 2017.11.04

Part of the packaging for my Joby GorillaPod had the above label, with the same phrase in 11 languages and at least six alphabets.
(Copyright © 2016 by Wil C. Fry.)

In mid-2016, I got to thinking about about the evolution of written languages (I think I was reading The Selfish Gene at the time). Human writing developed from pictographs and glyphs to today’s mostly phonetic systems (where each letter or combination represents a sound). The trend among websites to use symbols in place of words — in order to more easily reach multilingual audiences, certain icons are becoming universally recognized to mean “menu”, “settings”, “share”, “like”, etc. — seems like a backward trend to me.

I began to think about alphabets, and how we simply have to memorize the letters’ relationships with sounds and words. The shape of the letter “A”, for example, doesn’t inherently evoke the sounds that A makes in our language. We just have to be taught that “A” makes any number of sounds, depending on usage — pan, pane, and pauper illustrate three different sounds “A” can make. The same is true for all the letters in all languages (with the possible exception of “O”).

If the shapes themselves have no bearing on the sounds they represent, then the shapes are immaterial. They are also rather random — look at them and compare them to shapes in other alphabets that make the same or similar sounds. Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, Korean (hangul), Latin (ours), and others are different enough to illustrate my point. Any person or group who develops any phonetic alphabet can use any kind or number of shapes if building an alphabet from scratch.

It made me wonder:

What if scientists and/or linguists attempted to design an alphabet from scratch today? What form would it take? How would they begin?

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Stop Saying Robert E. Lee Was ‘Against Slavery’

Colonel Robert E. Lee
This man both owned slaves and ordered them beaten. Additionally, he led armies of hundreds of thousands of men with the sole purpose of defending the institution of slavery. I use “colonel”, because that’s the highest rank he attained in the U.S. Army.

Every single time Robert E. Lee is mentioned in the news, some ignorant-of-history conservative will jump in with the claim: “But Robert E. Lee was AGAINST slavery!” Some will even claim that Lee never owned slaves. They will often add that he wasn’t defending slavery when he led the Confederate armies against the nation that trained him at West Point. “He was defending his state of Virginia.”

I’m not sure why conservatives — especially in the South, but it happens in the North too — lean so hard toward supporting the Confederate States of America, while at the same time insisting that they’re not pro-slavery or racist in any way. But they do. And they often do it without facts.

To clear the air:

• Lee Owned Slaves

First, Robert E. Lee owned slaves. Of this there is no question in historians’ minds. It is well documented that he and his wife inherited a plantation full of slaves (“about seventy”) from his wife’s father, George Washington Parke Custis.

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So Much Winning! (And By ‘Winning’, I Mean ‘Prison’)

Presidential Scandals
This chart, from Daily Kos, compares the number of indictments, convictions, and prison sentences among presidential administrations back through Nixon.

As the Robert Mueller investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign heated up late last week (resulting in arrests this morning), I started seeing a copy/paste comment around social media. The short form is: Over the past 50 years of presidential administrations, there’s only been one prison sentence handed down for Democratic administrations, while there have been something like 90 for Republican administrations. Nowhere did I see any Trumpbots refuting this assertion, which is odd enough in itself (almost any assertion one makes about Trump or Republicans is usually met with fury and obfuscation these days, if not outright lies), but I also didn’t see anyone citing any sources for it.

So I decided to look it up for myself.

Right off the bat, memory tells me that the administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were rife with criminal charges, convictions, and prison sentences, while I can’t think of a single Democratic administration official who was convicted of anything. But I know memory is a funny thing, so I won’t trust it on a charge this serious.

My mission: to determine whether this copy/paste comment is true, and to provide a source-packed blog entry detailing my information.

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How Religion Has Ruined Morality

Celebrate Death
I’m standing under a hideous giant cross that sits atop Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec. In the death cult that is Christianity, crosses symbolize the ancient torture device whereby God had himself killed (temporarily) in order to absolve mankind of the sin he was born into.
(Copyright © 2009 by Marline Fry.)

Religion has ruined morality. There. I said it.

I touched on this subject glancingly on my webpage Morality Without God, but here I want to treat it more directly. I toyed with other headline verbs: hijacked, twisted, stunted, subverted, etc. I think they all fit.

(Please note the three disclaimers/clarifications at the bottom of the entry.)

• Meaning

The first way in which religion has ruined morality is by clinging to a nonsensical, non-standard definition of the word. For example, Catholics can’t even define morality without talking about Creation, Original Sin, “the immortal soul”, God, “sin”, Christ, the Crucifixion, and other topics that aren’t within the purview of morality. Many Americans will be surprised that Islam’s definition of morality is much closer to the actual meaning of the word, at least in the first couple of paragraphs. Even so, Islam’s discussion of it also quickly devolves into unrelated topics: “The Islamic moral system stems from its primary creed of belief in One God as the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe… it is righteousness to believe in Allah…”

Try as they might to use reason to define good or bad behavior, religionists end up coming back to “sin”, believing in a god or gods, and obeying that god or those gods.

(The rest of us use something close to the dictionary definition, which simply talks about standards for right/wrong behavior.)

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#ItWasMe And #MeToo

Categories: Feminism, Personal, Sexism
Comments: 5 Comments
Published on: 2017.10.16

I admit I was overwhelmed yesterday as I began to see a string of #MeToo posts on Facebook — from women I know, women I’m related to, and a few other women that I don’t know in real life but who have befriended me on social media. I was simultaneously proud of them for speaking up and devastated to learn the sheer number who have suffered.

In case you’re living off the grid and haven’t yet heard of this, here’s a bit of background. Popularized by Alyssa Milano’s tweet Sunday afternoon, posting “me too” or #MeToo to social media has spread like wildfire. Milano’s tweet contained this text:

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

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NFL v. Kim Davis: The New False Equivalency

I haven’t done a Silly Meme Saturday entry in a while; perhaps because I now follow fewer people who post silly memes. But I still see them occasionally.

Silly Meme
This meme, while it was intended to poke fun at conservative hypocrisy, rests on a false equivalency between Kim Davis’ marriage license protests and the protests against police brutality and systemic racism by some NFL players.

The meme at right, which I’ve now seen in several different versions, uses a photo of Kentucky Court Clerk Kim Davis. At first, the words typed on the image sound like a conservative soundbite about NFL players protesting police brutality and systemic racism, but then the sentence ends with a twist.

“Thumbs up if you agree NFL players are employees at work and should therefore keep their politics out of… whoops we accidentally used a photo of Kim Davis.”

The power of the meme rests on the assumption that viewers are familiar with both (1) Kim Davis and her refusal to issue marriage licenses, and (2) the conservative trope that “NFL players should stand for the anthem because they’re employees”. The idea is to point out the hypocrisy of conservatives who heartily supported Ms. Davis’ “civil disobedience” but now insist NFL players should just “do their jobs” and “protest on their own time”.

My biggest problem with the meme’s message is that it won’t change the mind of any conservative who holds both those positions, because they don’t see them as dissonant. They believe that Ms. Davis was standing up against “persecution” of her religious beliefs, much like the legendary young Hebrews Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood up to Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who threw them into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a statue he’d made. And they believe the NFL players are being disrespectful to the U.S. flag for no good reason at all — perhaps because they’re “thugs”. So the meme’s only purpose then is to reassure liberals that yes, conservatives are hypocrites, and yes, we were right to criticize Kim Davis and we should probably laugh at her again.

But the whole point of the meme is falsified because its message rests on a false equivalency — an incorrect conclusion that the two situations are somehow similar. The only similarities between the Davis debacle and the NFL players kneeling is that people involved in both are actually “employees”. Let’s look at the differences:

1. Davis was a public servant — employed by a government body at the behest of voters; NFL players are employed by corporations (their respective teams). There have long been differences between public and private sector jobs.

2. Davis’ actions (refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples) directly discriminated against a protected class of people. NFL players’ actions (kneeling or sitting during the pre-game National Anthem) affect no one but themselves.

3. Davis’ actions prevented a group of citizens from accessing a government service they’re entitled to. Kneeling NFL players limited nothing to anyone.

4. Davis’ actions directly contradicted her own job description, which is to provide a government service to citizens. NFL players’ actions were irrelevant to their job description (which is to play football).

5. Davis claimed her actions were religiously motivated, despite zero religions actually saying that (that entry has been in place for three years; no one has been able to name a single religion with a doctrine or rule prohibiting baking cakes for same-sex couples, issuing government marriage licenses to same-sex couples, or otherwise discriminating against them). So she was lying. NFL players notably are not claiming a religious motivation, and in fact didn’t need to give a reason at all, because what they are doing is not illegal.

6. Davis’ entire point was negated by her own lifestyle (her religion condemns her own multiple marriages, as well as homosexuality). NFL players’ points were reinforced by the reaction to their silent protest.

Selected Thoughts On Mass Shootings

Mandalay Bay
This is the Mandalay Bay Resort And Casino, as seen from Las Vegas Blvd in early 2009
(Copyright © 2009 by Wil C. Fry.)

Like you, I’m tired of talking about it. “Mass shootings”. “Lone Wolf”. “Gun Control”. All of it. More accurately, I’m tired of hearing the same old lines. From everyone. Especially the same old lines that have long been debunked.

My friend Richard Barron raised a good point yesterday:

“We can’t just write off these guys as ‘pure evil’ without figuring them out.”

Labeling mass shooters or killers of other types as “evil” (as our president did) is just a safe way to say “not like us” — and that’s where we keep getting it wrong. We look for things in the shooter’s past to show how different he was from me, because no effing way I would ever shoot up a crowd. I’m not evil. We look for reports of domestic violence, torturing animals, or other documented behavior to separate him from “normal people”. And we usually find it. Or at least we find some grievance that caused them to snap. And we pat ourselves on the back, knowing that he’s “not like us”.

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What Would It Take To Convince Me?

Hell Is Hot
A one-woman religious march in Seminole, Oklahoma, used this sign, assuring viewers that “Hell Is Hot”, accompanied by stick-figure drawings of people burning in Hell.
(Copyright © 2003 by Wil C. Fry.)

A question often posed to atheists is: “What would it take to convince you God is real?” It’s asked so often that I assume it’s taught in some hardcore Christian debating school — though I never learned this myself when I was a hardcore Christian.

I imagine each of us would answer differently.

For me, I can’t think of anything that would — by itself — convince me a god exists, though I can think of several things (listed below) that would point me in that direction. I would treat each item as a separate piece of evidence that would build toward a conclusion.

Also, it would depend on which god we’re talking about.

• Which God(s)?

If you’re a pantheist, you don’t have to convince me; I already agree that the Universe exists — we only disagree on the definition of the word “god”. If you’re a deist — believing in an impersonal creator God who set everything in motion but has since moved along — then I say it doesn’t matter. This god makes no requirements of me and doesn’t interact with us at all — it is irrelevant.

But these are not the gods normally asserted; about two-thirds of the Earth’s population claims to believe in some form of YHWH/Allah. Though there are dozens of major disagreements about this God, and hundreds of minor disagreements, in almost all claims He requires much and threatens much. If this God is real, there really ought to be evidence.

The things listed below refer to a God like the one claimed by Christianity and Islam.

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A Secular Humanist ‘Prayer’

Categories: Personal
Tags: No Tags
Comments: 8 Comments
Published on: 2017.10.01

Just Nod If You Can Hear Me
A self-portrait.
(Copyright © 2006 by Wil C. Fry.)

Clearly prayer has an effect on the person doing it, even if there is no effect beyond that person’s body. Prayer calms people, adjusts attitudes, focuses thoughts, and so on. It seems similar to the known effects of meditation or controlled breathing. There is no evidence of any of these actually curing or helping cure any adverse medical conditions, but it is nonetheless obvious that mindful meditation and similar practices have calming, peaceful effects on those who practice them.

I was thinking about this while observing a Catholic repeat memorized lines. The weird thought entered my head that an atheist could be well served by a sort of “prayer” too. Many atheists use some form of meditation, but I wondered about using actual words — especially for those of us whose brains were bent by religion as children.

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If We’re Going To Elect Celebrities Anyway…

Oprah Winfrey with Michelle Obama
(Image is in the public domain.)

Two days ago, media mogul Oprah Winfrey seemed to reconsider a presidential bid — despite saying just a few months ago that she would “never run for public office”. I don’t know what changed, but I can guess: her realization that her qualifications far exceed those of our current president.

Immediately, I began seeing comments on social media (and under the news stories themselves) in this vein: “No! Not another celebrity president! Isn’t one enough?”

It gave me pause because it never made sense to me to disqualify someone simply because they’re already famous.

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What Does ‘Black On Black’ Crime Have To Do With It?

• Question

Why do conservatives insist on mentioning “black on black crime” in the context of discussions about police brutality and systemic racism?

• My Best Guess

They heard/saw someone else say it, and neglected to examine whether it was a great argument. It fit their preexisting notion that black people are inherently more violent and more likely to be dangerous criminals. Therefore it seemed to justify police officers’ irrational fear and over-the-top responses when dealing with random black citizens.

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1992: A Year I Could Do Without

(I won’t be writing or posting 9/11 memorials. I’ve done that before — in 2015, for example — and in multiple poems, including Old New York Photos, Another Ode To The United States Of America, You Can Not Crush Us, Tonight, and possibly others.)

School Photo, 1992
This is my sophomore yearbook photo from Central Bible College, taken some time in the fall of 1992.

Recently, my friend Richard Barron dove into his journals to re-ponder 1992, and it struck home to me that 25 years have passed since that strange and disconnected year in my life. I can’t say for certain that 1992 was the weirdest year of my life so far, but it was indeed weird.

If you know my history, it would not be shocking to learn that the first sentence of my first journal entry of 1992 talked about going to Sunday School, or that that the entire paragraph was about church. The year began and ended with me on Christmas break from Bible college, but those bookends resembled each other very little, and the time between was punctuated with frustration, sadness, poor decision making, and death.

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Population Matters

Stopped traffic on I-35 in Austin, Texas.
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

I’ve tried — and ultimately failed — to avoid the conclusion that humanity’s greatest threat is the increasing numbers of humans.

The latest UN report says that global population growth is slowing, but will still approach 10 billion by 2050 (which sounds like a long way off, but is only 33 years away). India’s population is expected to surpass China’s in the next seven years or so. Sixty percent (4.5 billion) of the world’s people live in Asia, while only 6 percent (361 million) live in North America.

Almost all the population growth in the next century is expected to occur in Africa, with most of the remainder to come in Asia, while Europe and the Americas are expected to remain somewhat flat.

Of course, population figures isolated from other information are simply a curiosity with no real meaning. They must be paired with other information for any impact. For example, note that currently nearly a billion people go to bed hungry each night — about one of every eight humans. And add the fact that about a third of the world’s food goes to waste each year (just a portion of that waste would be enough to feed the 800 million hungry folk).

It’s easy to say that the hunger issue is one of systems, borders, politics, and/or greed rather than the sheer number of humans on the planet. If only we developed better distribution, eliminated the wars and factions that prevent the food distribution, and so on, then we could easily feed everyone. Of course, that’s true, and some are actually working toward those goals.

At the same time, another, more surefire way to reduce hunger in future generations is to produce fewer humans — especially in the regions where people are more likely to be hungry — the very same regions where population is expected to rise the most.

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How Much Do You Know About DACA?

“Who in their right mind can be against DACA?” is my latest question for anyone remaining in my circles that still plans to vote Republican.

Not that anyone from that side will answer. They’ve ignored my previous requests for explanations — for example when I asked about President Trump’s promotion of violence against the news media.

The “Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals” policy, better known as “DACA” is one of the best immigration policies to arise in the United States in all of our nation’s history. Today, Trump administration officials announced they’ll phase it out within six months.

Some facts on DACA:

* about 800,000 people are enrolled
* it affects only people who came to the U.S. as children
* it gives enrollees a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit
* all enrollees must undergo a criminal background check
* all enrollees must be currently in school, or in the military, or must have successfully completed either
* it costs $495 to enroll (every two years)

These are not the disease-ridden rapists and drug dealers that Trump claimed and his base hated. These are high school kids — or employed people who’ve graduated high school and/or served honorably in our military. These are people without criminal convictions. They were largely raised in the U.S. and aren’t familiar with the languages or cultures of the countries Trump wants to send them “back” to. In many cases, they were so young when they came here that they don’t even remember the countries we’re going to send them back to.

What is the problem with DACA then? The only legitimate complaint I’ve seen so far is that it supersedes existing law (source), and therefore shouldn’t have come from the president’s desk but from Congress. But that can’t possibly be a reason to be against the policy itself; it can only be a reason to pressure Congress to sign it into law.

It still leaves the question: how can anyone be against the idea of DACA?

Is it true that everyone with empathy has already left the Republican party? (An online friend asserted this recently.) Do those of you remain revel in the pain of others? Is it a latent sense of white superiority? (I should tell you that many of the DACA enrollees are white.) What exactly is it, then?

Guest Author: ‘How Trumpians Convinced Me’

(This is, to my knowledge, my first entry by a guest author. The original post is here on Facebook, and is reproduced with permission from the author, Anderson Connors.)


Okay, Trumpets, you’ve changed my mind. I now support our president. #MAGA! Here’s how that happened.

I was just minding my own business, writing trollish liberal comments on conservative news sites like I always do in order to get more of that sweet George Soros money, when some very smart Trump supporters began countering me with logic, reason, and pride in our great country. Here are some examples.

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The Elusive Definition Of ‘Life’

Ever since we humans developed language, certain words have had exact and universal definitions. But other words… not so much. Perhaps strangely, some of the most important words/concepts have been the most difficult to define.

Dead As Dirt
This patch of dried mud looks entirely dead. However, a microscope would reveal that it’s teeming with life. And a rainstorm would quickly reveal that other life had only been dormant within it.
(Copyright © 2011 by Wil C. Fry.)

For example, when early humans came up with the first word for “sun”, nobody ever questioned its meaning: “that big hot thing in the sky; the biggest, brightest one”. In every language, through all of history, the meaning of sun only really changed once — when we discovered that “star” and “sun” were actually synonyms instead of two separate things; it’s just that one of the stars is relatively close to us while the others are very far away.

But at the same time, words like “life” and “alive” have elusive meanings that we have yet to precisely define — though many have tried. Physicist Fred Adams (in Origins Of Existence) noted: “Achieving a universal definition of life is unquestionably of fundamental importance, but no such definition has yet been forthcoming.” Adams and others have described characteristics of life, including reproduction, metabolism, and homeostasis, but there is still not a universally agreed-upon definition of life — or what makes something alive and something else not alive.

“Whenever biologists try to formulate definitions of life, they are troubled by the following: a virus; a growing crystal; Penrose’s tiles; a mule; a dead body of something that was indisputably alive; an extraterrestrial creature whose biochemistry is not based on carbon; an intelligent computer or robot.”

— William Poundstone, The Recursive Universe

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Welcome , today is Thursday, 2017.11.23