Weekend Coffee: June 3

There are a couple of stories from this past week that I wanted to mention:


• A three-judge panel on the First Circuit Court of Appeals, two of whom are Republican appointees, have struck down part of DOMA, ruling that it violates the Constitution for the federal government to deny benefits to same-sex couples legally married in their home state.

• You may remember a notorious net kook named Dennis Markuze, who engaged in a longstanding campaign of harassment and threats against atheist bloggers (including me). A concerted effort last year finally spurred the Montreal police to take action against him, and he's now pled guilty and received an 18-month suspended sentence. I hope for his sake that he's gotten the mental health help he clearly needed and that this will be enough to keep him from reverting to his old ways.

• As was widely reported, a Pentecostal preacher named Mark Wolford who advocated snake-handling died at 44 after being bitten by one of his pet rattlesnakes. In so doing, he followed in the footsteps of his father, who was also a snake-handling preacher and who also died at very nearly the same age from the bite of one of his snakes.

By all accounts, a rattlesnake bite is a slow and excruciatingly painful way to die, and I don't wish that on anyone. On the other hand, people who delude themselves into believing that religious faith gives them miraculous protection will very often suffer the consequences of that erroneous belief. (After being bitten, Wolford refused medical treatment, instead preferring to rely only on ineffectual prayer until it was much too late.) If nothing else, I hope his death is an object lesson to any others who labor under this delusion.

• An article this week revealed that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, authorized large cash payouts to pedophile priests as an incentive for them not to fight being defrocked. This contradicts Dolan's earlier denials that such a practice ever took place.

The excuse offered by the church is that laicization is a slow, bureaucratic process that takes even longer if the priest resists, and the church is obligated to take care of his needs in the meantime. This is a clear lie, because laicization has happened much faster in cases when the Vatican wanted it to: most notably in the case of Emmanuel Milingo, a Zambian bishop who ordained four married men as priests in December 2006 and was laicized by Vatican decree six days later. And, of course, absolutely none of this explains why the church hierarchy didn't simply call the police, and let the justice system see to the clerical predator's needs while he was awaiting trial.

• Fazil Say, an internationally acclaimed Turkish pianist, may be facing jail time in his home country after being charged with blasphemy, for quoting the epic Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam no less. How much longer can modern democracy exist side-by-side with ignorant medieval norms?

• And just to end up on a brighter note: here's the moving story of a Mormon couple who lost their faith together, and who both benefited greatly from the transition: "We were finally adults, taking our firsts together, learning about each other without barriers... when we left God out of it, we were free to love each other completely, to share the burden of our grief as two individuals with no one else."

Trusting your instincts is lazy: Poker pro Liv Boeree on Big Think Edge

International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to make decisions with the clarity of a World Series Poker Champion.
  • Liv Boeree teaches analytical thinking for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists reactive cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth

"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Yamagata et al.
Surprising Science
  • The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
  • Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
  • Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.
Keep reading Show less

Here's when machines will take your job, as predicted by A.I. gurus

An MIT study predicts when artificial intelligence will take over for humans in different occupations.

Photo credit: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO / AFP / Getty Images
Surprising Science

While technology develops at exponential speed, transforming how we go about our everyday tasks and extending our lives, it also offers much to worry about. In particular, many top minds think that automation will cost humans their employment, with up to 47% of all jobs gone in the next 25 years. And chances are, this number could be even higher and the massive job loss will come earlier.

Keep reading Show less

Horseshoe crabs are captured for their blue blood. That practice will soon be over.

The blood of horseshoe crabs is harvested on a massive scale in order to retrieve a cell critical to medical research. However, recent innovations might make this practice obsolete.

An Atlantic horseshoe crab in an aquarium. Photo: Domdomegg via Wikimedia Commons.
Surprising Science
  • Horseshoe crabs' blue blood is so valuable that a quart of it can be sold for $15,000.
  • This is because it contains a molecule that is crucial to the medical research community.
  • Today, however, new innovations have resulted in a synthetic substitute that may end the practice of farming horseshoe crabs for their blood.
Keep reading Show less