1. Surreal Artworks by Yuri Laptev

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    Have a gander at this talented fellow, ladies and gents. I discovered Yuri Laptev on Behance today, and I just had to share his collection of beautiful work with y’all.

    I’m normally not big on surrealism, (if that’s what this is - I’m not also not big on art theory) but Yuri’s work is just so creative, so interesting, that it arrests my attention. I also appreciate his mastery of watercolours, a medium that frightens me to no end. He’s able to control the paints for very subtle yet powerful effects. Excellent work.
    Enjoy! (and click images to see larger!)
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    2 years ago  /  2 notes

  2. Just how bad is everything, anyway?

    Midrangetoilet
    Not sure how much more mileage I can get out of apologies, but here’s another. I apologize for the sparse content on these pages of late, dear readers. Recent events have taken my head out of the game a tad, but I’m back and ready to rock! Rest assured, lots more exciting blib-blabbery from yours truly on the horizon!

    Is the world going to shit? Or is it just our opinion of ourselves?
    Yesterday I shared a video that was designed to inspire people, or at the very least, alleviate their anxiety about the future.

    If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you may have seen it already. The Future is Ours, by filmmaker Michael Marantz, is a simple and entertaining little short, albeit with some very lofty ambitions. It aims not just to get people excited about the future, but to reverse the deep-seeded pessimism humanity has come to associate with its own endeavour.

    This film touches on something that occurs to me often. People almost always assume the worst about our future, despite any concrete reasons for doing so. Oh sure, there is all kind of nefarious activity going on on this planet, and only one species we can point our finger at. All one has to do is take a look at the state of our environment, world hunger, or ‘douchebag du jours’ like Joseph Kony to discourage themselves about the eventual fate of mankind. Much seems bad about our world, and to most, things appear to be getting worse.
    And yet there is no previous model to base our predictions on. We can’t look at any other intelligent species, one that exhibited similar tendencies, and then met its demise. Nor have we yet discovered any intelligent species that failed to do anything but continue progressing during its existence. It might be hard to imagine man continuing on an upward path of social, political, and technological prosperity forever; but then again, we must at least admit that in many ways, imagination is all we have to go on. In predicting our future we have only our own history books to draw upon, and every one of those is only partly written.

    Am I saying that I have some sort of blind faith that man will continue to “push itself forward”, as the film suggests we should? Of course not. One has only to look at how many more apes exists on this planet now than a thousand years ago to be concerned. Combine that with that particular ape’s appetite for energy, and our planet’s diminishing ability to provide it, and things start looking pretty scary. 
    And yet it’s the very fact that I’m cognizant of these dangers, and that most people share similar concerns, that gives me a measure of hope. More on that in a bit. For now, let’s take things spacey!
    Drake-equation
    drawing by Anna Pouncey

    All of these predictions and concerns, and in a way all of our hopes and fears, can be reduced to a single letter in an astronomical concept called the Drake equation. Drake is an equation used to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. Each term in the equation above represents one variable that would be needed to predict the correct answer. These are things like the number of stars there are in the galaxy, or how many of them have planets, or how many of those planets produce life.
    If you’d like a good breakdown of what the equation is and how it works, stop and watch Carl Sagan’s demonstration now. Or for even more fun, try your hand at determining how many green men are are out there yourself, by playing with this handy Drake equation calculator.

    There are many terms in the Drake equation that are difficult to predict, and yet there’s one for which predictions are impossible; that being the last one. Often represented as “L”, it refers to “the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space”, which is really just a nice way of saying “the length of time civilizations exist before they are destroyed, or destroy themselves”.
    Deadplanet

    There is simply no way to know what value to insert for this part of the equation, because as mentioned previously, we have no other samples to study. We’ve yet to find any intelligent species in the cosmos — whether it be living or dead — save our own. If we knew the average lifespan of such species, and therefore the value for L across the universe, perhaps it would alleviate some of our concerns about humanity’s future. If the data told us that intelligent civilizations tend to transcend the normal patterns of extinction found in nature, and instead stretch their survival into cosmic timescales, maybe we could expect the same for our own. 
    And of couse, the opposite could be just as true. Perhaps technology causes species to snuff themselves out sooner than might happen otherwise, or at least more suddenly.

    I bring all this up just to once again hammer home the following: beyond all else, we simply don’t know. I hear all sorts of predictions made with all sorts of certainty about man’s fate, but there’s one thing of which we can be reasonably sure; the more convinced a person is that he can predict what’s going to happen, the less capable he is of doing so.*
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    But this is what fascinates me about humanity as a species, something that Michael Marantz’s film reminded me of. And it’s less about the positive or optimistic message that he portrays, and more about the pessimism that he’s obvious seeking to combat. Lets set aside all the positive things our species creates for a moment, and think instead about the way we focus on our faults.
    Yes, we are a warring, wasteful, sometimes wicked collection of creatures. We can look all around us and see the evidence of our selfishness and cruelty. We over consume, under conserve, and squander our many powers on the truly trivial.

    And yet, who is it you think that is articulating all that criticism? We’ve all seen movies in which some alien species comes down and tells us how we’re getting everything wrong, but those are all written by humans. Every heartbreaking PSA you’ve ever seen, every crusading documentary, every attempt at humanitarianism or environmentalism or emancipation; have all been at the hands of other human beings.
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    We are more than just our own worst critics; we are indeed our only critics. And despite that, we find ourselves being criticized every day. Man is obviously deeply cognizant of its shortcomings, and perhaps this is the self-correcting mechanism by which it will save itself. Maybe it’s the method by which we steer the ship, necessary because that ship is forever sailing through new waters.
    Perhaps this is why Steven Pinker tells us that, at least when it comes to statistical rates of violence, the world has never been a better place to live than right now. Or maybe it’s the reason why 99% of my readers can search their entire group of friends, family, and associates, and not find among them a single person who has hurt more than a fly.** Putting the statistical anomalies that newscasts focus so heavily on aside, the human species seems to be as kind and considerate as ever, if not more so.

    We also see steadily increasing tolerance from generation to generation on issues like sexuality and race. In this latest crop of young humans, we’re even seeing an increased appetite for environmental sustainability. Who knows which issues future generations will decide to combat. Perhaps abuse of the environment will go the way of slavery, or inequal rights for women.
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    Yes our governments and businesses sometimes behave in ways that folks can’t get on board with, but at least some of this stems from their nature as large systems. Modern human civilization, and the institutions that have sprung up within it, are still very new phenomenon. They have evolved organically, and the ones that displease people, or seem the most unfair, tend to get weeded out.
    It’s difficult to argue that democracy for example, with all its faults, is not a vast improvement over the political systems that preceeded it. Perhaps an even better political system will evolve in the decades, or millenia, to come. What we can be sure of however is that no matter how ideal that system might be, there will be human beings whining about its shortcomings.

    But the whining is good. In a way, it’s the very reason why we’re good. Our opinion of ourselves must remain low, lest one day we actually deserve that opinion. It’s not that we don’t have very serious problems, or that anyone should take from this the idea that ‘things will just work out’. Instead we must remain as vigilant and self correcting of our own behaviour as ever.
    Our anxiety about the future should not be alleviated, because perhaps it’s anxiety itself that propels us over the hurdles.


    *I heard about this study at some point in the past, but a half-assed attempt at finding it online fell short. This article will get you started however.
    **Of course I don’t have stats for that. Just flawed, real world interpersonal polling. But you catch my drift.

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    2 years ago  /  0 notes

  3. Measuring the Universe

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    I’m usually reluctant to share content once it’s been seen a certain number of times, and at almost 200,000 views, the following short film is pushing that limit.

    Measuring the Universe from the Royal Observatory Greenwich is such an informative little film however, that it’s worth being late to the party. If you’re new to astronomy and are brimming over with questions about how astronomers ply their trade, this is the film for you.
    Learn about parallax, standard candles, and the doppler effect; all pretty basic stuff, but a perfect appetizer to learning about the stars. For a little more in-depth reading on the subject of how we measure celestial distances, go here.

    Enjoy!

    Credits:
    Design and direction: Richard Hogg
    Animation: Robert Milne, Ross Philips, Kwok Fung Lam
    Music and sound effects: George Demure
    Narration and Astro-smarts: Dr Olivia Johnson
    Producer: Henry Holland
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  4. 'Teen Brain' selected for Imagine Science Film Festival

    Brain-webbanner2
    So yesterday I got a cool e-mail.

    "On behalf of the 2012 Imagine Science Film Committee and our leading sponsors UCD, Nature and Science, we would like to congratulate you! Your film TEEN BRAIN has been selected to be part of the Imagine Science Film Festival in Dublin.”
    Science? Film? A festival for both? And my work is being featured? Yay!

    While I won’t be able to attend the festival myself, two of the producers from Egg Studios just so happen to be visiting Ireland at that time, and will try to stop in. More information on the festival is here. Have a look at my original post on Teen Brain, and of course, the film itself.
    Enjoy!

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  5. How to walk on the moon in 2012

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    I’m pleased to present some more content from friend of the blog and guest writer Greg Enright. Today Greg gives his impressions after reading a book by Apollo 17 Astronaut Eugene Cernan. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!


    Book review: The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space

    Would you like to walk on the moon?
    “Sure,” you reply, “I’d love to. But – ”

    But – let’s face it: you know that the chances of it actually happening are as remote as the moon itself. Or maybe Pluto. There’s no NASA program in place to return to the moon and even if there was, the odds of actually getting into it and rising through the ranks to land a spot aboard one of the flights would be, um, astronomical.  
    Myself, I know the closest I’m going to get is about 38,000 feet from where I am right now, while flying down to Florida to visit Mickey Mouse with the wife and kids. 
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    Despite this sad reality, when gazing up at a nice big full moon on a clear night, it’s hard not to wonder what it would be like. 

    What to do to satisfy this curiosity? 
    There are really only two things you can do: close your eyes and imagine yourself there, like you did back when you were 10, or go pick up a book by one of the few men who amazingly did walk on the moon and then wrote about the experience.

    Unfortunately, none of the Apollo astronauts were writers. They were either pilots or scientists who had spent their lives concentrating on rising to the top of their fields, not on mastering any relatively unnecessary art like prose creation. Many of them, after the Apollo program ended, also tried to distance themselves from their amazing accomplishment as they grappled with the question, “What’s next?”
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    One ghostwritten effort published in 1999 that I just read, however, did offer some lucid insights into what it is actually like to take the elevator up to a waiting Saturn V rocket, get in the Command module, explode off the launch pad, fly to the moon, land a lunar module on its surface and then step out and spend a few days exploring Earth’s desolate but beautiful sidekick. 
    The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space by the Commander of Apollo 17, the final mission of the program, allows the reader to travel along with the author on his two trips to the moon (his first ride, aboard Apollo 9, was a flyby) and an earlier spacewalk that was part of the preceding Gemini program.

    Cernan chronicles his rise from a humble Midwest background to Navy pilot and eventually through the ranks of the U.S. space program. You get an insider’s view of the development of the program and the rivalries among the chosen few who manned the cockpits. He doesn’t shy away from criticizing Buzz Aldrin, for instance, for his apparent petitioning of NASA higher-ups to make him the Commander of Apollo 11 and thus become the first man to walk on the moon, rather than Neil Armstrong. He also wasn’t fond of some suggestions Aldrin put forward while Cernan was doing his Gemini space walk, suggestions that Cernan felt would surely get him killed.
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    He also tells of a few incidents that almost derailed his chances to ever fly to the moon, including a helicopter crash, a softball injury a few months before Apollo 17’s scheduled liftoff and his gamble to hold out for an Apollo Commander’s position by risking a sure-fire spot as a co-pilot.
    Running through the narrative is a description of Cernan’s personal life, from his hilarious tale of finding his future wife in an airport check-in line, to the strain his wife felt while he risked his life flying into space, to tracing his nine-year-old daughter’s initials into the moon’s surface – which will be there forever, by the way. Pretty tough to beat that as a gift from a dad to his daughter! 

    I must admit I had not given enough attention to the Apollo missions that came after the first one to land on the moon (and also the ones before it). I’d never really learned much about the voyagers to the moon that followed Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. It was great to discover  more about one of them and, through his tale, be introduced to the other personalities that were such a huge part of the most amazing exploration mission ever undertaken by the human race.
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    One thing I did know about the astronauts of the later missions, however, was that they were able to spend much more time on the moon than those aboard the first ones. Seventeen’s crew spent 3 days, 2 hours there compared to 11’s 21 hours, 36 minutes. Cernan briefly touches on a question that I always asked myself around this fact: would I rather be Armstrong and go down as the first person ever to walk on the moon, or Cernan and be able to spend more than three times longer up there? He doesn’t really give an answer, but seems simply to accept things as they were and are. 
    I think I’d probably take Armstrong because both his and Cernan’s experiences probably seemed to go by in a blur anyway, and hey, it would be damn cool to be pictured beside Christopher Columbus in all those history books, wouldn’t it?

    So the next time you’re out looking at the moon and feel a bit down because you know you’re never going to make it there, you might want to check out Cernan’s book. You can also consider just how lucky you are, knowing that at least you can read about what it is truly like. Any human being who passed on before July 1969 had to rely purely on their imagination.
    -Greg Enright


    A quick postscript: anyone wanting to see video documentation of Cernan’s Apollo 17 adventure won’t have any trouble by rooting around the Internet, but I feel compelled to provide this video of the spectacular nighttime launch of the Saturn V rocket that took them to the moon – the only one to take off in the dark. Breathtaking stuff.

    2 years ago  /  0 notes

  6. Animating Astronomy: My Talk at the DRAA

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    Hey everyone! A few of you asked for it, so here it is: my talk at last week’s meeting of The Durham Region Astronomical Association. My good friend Stefan Powell attended with me and recorded the proceedings, and here they are.

    I hope you enjoy the talk. I haven’t done a lot of public speaking, so I was admittedly a little nervous, but I think it went reasonably well. 
    Strangely however, I haven’t yet received a call from TED to take this talk national. Hmm, maybe I should check my messages again. 

    To learn more about the saveJWST inititaive, go here.
    Make sure to check out Callum Sutherland’s work at Milky Way Musings.
    Red Flags of Medical Quackery image used courtesy of Sci-ence.org

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    2 years ago  /  1 note

  7. The Science of Flavour in Flight

    Bnner

    This is a great little piece I discovered this morning from Ataboy Studios. In it, Sommelier Andrea Robinson discusses the way that flavours change at 30,000 feet, and how that affects the choices she makes about wine.

    Now, to be honest, I’m always a little skeptical about some of the scientific claims I hear about cooking. I have a suspicion that many such claims are just doing what alt-med weirdos do: using scientific sounding words to dazzle the public. Or they simply overstate the impact of some technique: yesterday I saw something in a cooking magazine that said you should grill chicken on top of pineapple bark, because among other things, the enzymes in the bark tenderize the meat.
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    Oh sure, I can see it tenderizing the bottom 1mm of the chicken breast as it cooks, but beyond that? Think about how dense a piece of meat is. How is this chemical process supposed to penetrate those thick fibres of muscle in the 9 minutes before the juices run clear?
    Alton Brown, the king of culinary experimentation, once did a ‘Mythbusters’ stye episode of his show Good Eats, and ever since I’ve taken sciencey food claims with a grain of salt. You should watch it if you get a chance, here.

    Nevertheless, the piece I’ve featured below might contain some winey wisdom, and it’s certainly a beautiful piece of motion graphics, so have a look for yourself and see if your skeptical eyebrow gets raised.
    Enjoy!

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  8. My Talk at the DRAA

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    Hi folks! A very busy day, so I just wanted to pass on news of my talk tonight in Toronto’s east end. I’ll be speaking at the Durham Regional Astronomy Association’s monthly meeting at 7pm.

    My talk centers around my efforts with the Save the James Webb Space Telescope initiative, and the ways we tell the story of science.
    The event is always very popular, so come early!

    Whitby Library - Central Branch
    Meeting Room 1 A/B
    405 Dundas Street West
    Whitby, Ontario

    2 years ago  /  0 notes

  9. 3 New Props

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    Greetings! Have to go quick today, so here’s a quick look at three new props out of the Goodspeed workshop of horrors. I’ll follow that with some quick shots of stuff I’ve found for the haunted house. 

    Zombie on a Stick
    This is one of a few heads I’m doing to go on stakes in my yard this Halloween. I’m calling him Craig, after Craig Schriber, who’s tutorials I find very helpful and inspiring. They certainly inspired this piece.
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    Hector’s Tombstone
    Here’s another prop named after someone, in this case fellow haunter Hector Turner. Hector makes beautiful tombstones, and by following his tutorials I’m learning some great tricks. I never know what names to put on them though, (oddly, many people don’t want their names on a tombstone until absolutely necessary) so I asked Hector if he minded the tribute. He said he’d be honoured, so off I went.
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    Here’s another I made… not quite as good.
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    Angry Birds

    Finally, here’s a silly little thing I did upon finding a wicker birdcage and some tiny skulls at Value Village. I didn’t do tutorials for either of the above props because I’ve provided links to people who do far better ones, but in this case I don’t think one is necessary. All I did was get some birds from the craft store, paint them black, cut off their heads, bronze the cage, add some moss, etc.
    I also added wings to one of the little guys using leftover feathers from Betty. It will look a lot better once my web shooter is built. I’m going to absolutely smother this thing with webs, and possibly install a little LED inside to backlight the little birdies.
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    Random Garage Sale Finds

    Much to my wife’s chagrin, I’ve been doing a lot of garage sales this summer. Here are some of the finds. (some are from Kijiji)
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    (Yes, that last one is a duck with a racoon skull in place of it’s head, and yes, I realize it’s the best thing ever) 
    Finally, here’s a sketch I did of the costumes we’re making for our actors this year. Click to make larger.
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    That’s it! Happy Halloween! (I say that all year. Sue me)

    2 years ago  /  1 note

  10. Being Ready to Believe

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    Hi folks. It’s been a while since I’ve written on these topics. I’ll explain why in a future post. For now, I’ll only apologize for the hiatus, and offer you another dose of my rambling pseudo-thinkery.

    In certain circumstances, is faith the best answer?

    I just discovered the brilliant voice of Michael Kiwanuka a few weeks back, and ever since I did, his songs have seen regular rotation on the Goodspeed family playlist. I’m in no way a musical person, in that I can neither play an instrument nor carry a tune, but I’ve always been a great appreciator of those who can. Kiwanuka’s singing reminds me of one of my absolute favourites, the incomparable Otis Redding, so naturally I’ve fast become a fan. I don’t know, there’s this ease in his voice that to me, somehow, seems… reassuring.

    Anyway, the other morning I came across this video for his song entitled ‘I’m Getting Ready’, and since it’s a tune about faith, it got me thinking about the ways in which people begin to believe. The video is 3 minutes long, but trust me; even if waiting for what I have to say about it isn’t worth the time commitment, Kiwanuka’s tremendous, mesmerizing voice, most certainly is.

    So there’s not a whole lot left open to interpretation in this video, which I thought was an excellent piece of storytelling. We don’t know what the girl was doing in that car before entering the restaurant, and we’re not sure whether she’s a prostitute or a drug addict or what, but we can clearly see that she’s at a crossroads in her life. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s call her Michelle from here on in.

    Michelle seems to be, just as the lyrics suggest, precisely the sort of person who’s “ready to believe”.* Her desperation is tangible, almost overpoweringly sad. She appears to have few directions in which to turn, perhaps save one. We get the sense that she’s just about to discover God, or at least that Kiwanuka thinks that she should. 
    What suprised me after watching this video was that beyond all else, I found myself hoping that she’d do just that. Perhaps it had something to do with the power of Kiwanuka’s presentation, but I couldn’t help wishing that this woebegone gal would just surrender control of her life to a “higher power”.
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    Now, you know me. I don’t think it likely that an almighty exists. Nor do I, in most cases at least, see the benefit in people believing that one does. The various ways in which religion and faith continue to harm the human endeavour have been well documented. And yet I couldn’t think of a more direct path away from Michelle’s troubles than surrendering herself to Jesus. Or Allah. Or whomever.

    Sure. If she instead sought the guidance of some rational and altruistic human being, she might be just as well off. In fact, if Michelle found the right person, somebody full of patience and kindness and sympathy, I’m sure she’d do a far sight better. Unlike a heavenly father-figure, a real person would have the ability to ask questions, provide input, and monitor progress. But here’s the question: how likely is it that our distressed protagonist would seek out humanly help in the first place?
    Well, she’s make-believe of course, so who knows. I don’t mean to overlook the efforts of people toiling in social work and counselling—however they would tell you that only a portion of the desperate are ever reached. At least when it comes to mental illness, even a country as developed as Canada sees only 68.5% of suspected cases finding their way to treatment. [1] Not that she necessarily suffers from a psychological disorder**—it’s just a group for which I could find numbers—but I imagine the numbers of folks like Michelle who never seek any kind of professional guidance are substantial.
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    For at least a few of these, turning to God might be the answer. I’m not skilled enough a researcher to find data on how often it happens, but I think most of us have heard anecdotes about people who turned around their lives thanks to newfound faith. It’s a fairly common theme, and in some very desperate situations, it might be the only way out.

    Now take it easy, my fellow unbelievers. Am I suggesting that religious counselling should be taxpayer subsidized? Do I mean that faith is equal to psychotherapy or medication as a way to treat certain disorders? Am I saying that someone with a rational mind should surrender some portion of intellectual independence in favour of belief? No, no, and most certainly, no.
    So far as I can tell, people don’t choose what to believe. Any truly skeptical person would have a hard time convincing themselves that God was listening to their pleas, no matter how comforting that prospect be. But by the same token, we must admit that to some, the idea of a world devoid of the supernatural is an unfathomable one. Even if they’re not currently religious, some sort of magic is integral to the way they perceive existence. Rationalists try to articulate knock-down arguments against this kind of thinking, but to many, no such argument could possibly exist.
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    To these people, both in dire circumstances and predisposed to believe in something supernatural, God can achieve that which no well-meaning human ever could. As the ultimate overseer, God possesses the only pair of hands into which one can justifiably, and without shame, turn over the reigns.

    No matter what skills a human counselor brings to bear, they’re still just human. Therefore any token of assistance they offer can always be dismissed as mere recommendation. Yet God is omnipotent, so ceding him dominion over your choices can be thought of as entirely rational.*** Not only does he recommend that you let him take the wheel, according to most readings of religious doctrine, he demands it.
    God doesn’t only answer prayers, but also provides a series of rules by which to live. To love God, to show fealty to him, to simply do God’s will and nothing more, is all that is asked in return. More so than any moral framework, this is what organized religion requires. To someone who consistently makes bad choices, and is suffering from the consequences, this prospect must seem terribly seductive.

    Pray2
    It is this aspect of faith, the complete surrender of self-stewardship, which I can see as having some benefit; at least in a narrow range of circumstances. Yes, abandonment of logical faculty in favour of belief is also very dangerous, but once again, I’m not claiming that faith is any sort of panacea here. Far from it it.
    For the truly desperate however, for those not strong enough to handle the responsibility of making their own choices, turning to God might be the last get-out-of-jail card; the one remaining avenue away from the darkness. To those incapable of writing their own rule-book, finding an already completed one might be entirely welcome.

    Free-thinkers, by the very definition of the term, can offer no equivalent. Nor would they want to. While I don’t relish being thought of as advancing the idea that only smart people reject faith, it’s hard to deny that the faithless tend to be an intellectually independent bunch, if nothing else. They tend to find their own answers, something that people like Michelle seem incapable of doing.****
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    We atheists spend a lot of time describing the beauty of our universe, despite the absence of an omnipotent caretaker. I personally share that outlook. However we must remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that to many, the idea of a Universe without a overseeing sentience is a terrifying one. Probably because it means that the universe, and therefore our destinies, cannot be negotiated. Such fear cannot be simply talked out of such people, no matter how poetically we describe our own comfort with it.

    While I personally find enough beauty in Michael Kiwanuka’s voice to sustain me, it seems apparent that others need the comfort of his words. While I may wish it came from more reasonable sources, to those desperate folks who’s lives have gone off the rails, I won’t seek to deny them such comfort.

    *Or “vulnerable to religion”
    **Perhaps many people in situations like Michelle do suffer from diagnosable disorders like depression. However speaking about such matters is above my pay-grade.
    [1] According to a study comparing the percentage of untreated disorders in five countries. Read more here.
    ***This assumes that you’ve already mistaken faith itself to be rational position, which by definition, it is not.
    ****Nor am I saying that the religions are predominately populated by the weak; only that for the weak themselves, there may be no other choice.
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