A Look Back at Thanatophobia

Thanatophobia is an irrational, exaggerated fear of death, not to be confused with the healthy biological imperative that compels most people, most of the time, to avoid dying if they can.  I had thanatophobia for as long as I can remember, up until two years ago, when it started to fade from existence.

Not coincidentally, this is also the period when I put aside those “What if I’m wrong about religion?” questions, stopped calling myself, primarily, an agnostic, and, as an atheist, just stopped worrying about post-death judgment.

We get judged by people enough while we’re alive. Adding eternity to that, on the basis on dubious or nonexistent evidence, is unhealthy.

I also must consider this:  the inevitability of my own death means there is some point in the future beyond which I will never experience panic, rage, pain, or hatred. Beyond that point, there are no responsibilities.

I just blew off an entire weekend. I was exhausted, simply needed to do as little as possible (or I was going to end up in worse shape), and proceeded to sleep for 40 of the next 48 hours. I have a lot of things to do, but I did take the weekend off. I don’t remember much about it because I was sleeping most of that time, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The only unpleasant thing about it was having to re-activate myself for the workweek, and the resumption of responsibility that comes with it.

What happens after we die?

I don’t really know, but I have no evidence that it’s anything like Heaven and Hell as depicted in the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, Robert Heinlein’s Job, and numerous other works.

I once heard James Randi give an excellent answer, in the form of a question:  “What happens to a computer when you turn off the power?”

I now have an answer of my own. The workweek ends. Troubles end. Everything that annoys me, won’t anymore. I’m certainly in no hurry to stop existing, but whether I see a triple-digit age, don’t make it to my next birthday, or somewhere in-between (the most likely of the three), death just isn’t terrifying any more. That should make the process of living the rest of my life more pleasant than if I resumed worrying about what happens to me after that life is over.

My Election Predictions (Obama vs. Romney)

The website www.realclearpolitics.com has a “create you own electoral map” feature, and I used it to make this. I’m going on record with my prediction before the polls open:  a narrow Obama victory, without Florida, in the electoral college. I also predict Obama will narrowly win the popular vote.

Soon, we’ll see how close to right I was when I made this.

“What are we ever going to use geometry for, anyway?”

I teach geometry, so I get asked this question a lot.

Of course, the subject has many uses, from architecture to the study of ziggurats, but I don’t like to focus on tawdry, real-world uses for it. Geometry is far too important to me for its value to be measured in terms of mere utility.

Without the octadecagon and the nonagon, and my curiosity about them, for example, I never would have come up with this pattern:


Was it useful for me to do this? Such a question would miss the point completely. It was FUN to make this, and that’s why I did it. While I worked on it, I thought about absolutely nothing that bothers me. The rest of the world vanished, leaving only a mathematical pattern, and I was completely happy.

I guess one could look at this as a “use,” but — yuck — I certainly do not want to.

“If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain” is utter nonsense.

Why do people say this so much? There’s no voting-requirement clause in the First Amendment.

Those who choose not to vote do, indeed, have a right to complain. So do those who vote for the people who lose.

If ANYONE sacrifices their “right to complain” on election day, it should be those who vote FOR whomever wins — for those are the people who actually put the winners in office!

It bugs me when people say something over and over and over, but never stop to actually THINK about it.

Also, why are we bombarded by messages urging us to vote? I prefer to encourage people to stay home on Election Day. I don’t want everyone voting — especially not stupid people who pay no attention to what’s going on in the world.

I vote. I already have, this year, in fact. If I can ever convince everyone else not to vote, then, well, I’ll get my way on everything, won’t I?

The Google Calendar

This is the Google calendar. I was born in 30 BG, and it is now 14 AG. The calendar used most often in the West has several serious flaws — the lack of a year zero is but one of them. On this calendar, Google Year Zero is the year Google first appeared (1998 CE, on the Western calendar). I offer this calendar to all, as a secular replacement for the multiple, culture-specific calendars we are using now.

Atheists Change

(Originally published June 9, 2012, on a Tumblr-blog — reposted here with some minor editing, for clarity.)

Change is a fundamental part of the human condition. We change until we die, whether or not we have religious beliefs, so, of course, atheists change, just as everyone does.

One can change for the better, or one can change for the worse. I am trying to change for the better.

As you may know, I’m in the middle of a huge political fight, with powerful opponents. I also have a lot of allies in this fight: teachers, union people, our families, sympathetic people all over the place (including some in the local media), angry taxpayers — and this is all going on in Arkansas. A majority of Arkansans are Baptists, with the bulk of the non-Baptists being Christians of other denominations.

Many of my allies are, therefore, people with sincere religious beliefs. How could it be otherwise, here? To offend them, I now see, by being the stereotypical “angry atheist,” would simply be stupid. On the other hand, I am not ashamed of my lack of belief. My “show me the evidence” skepticism is not a secret — and has even been useful in this struggle. “Show me the evidence” is a good response, for example, when claims about a superintendent’s salary are disputed. Arkansas has a strong FOI (Freedom of Information) Act, so I have the means of getting the evidence I need.

We have lawyers to fight in court, we have people taking petitions door-to-door, and it makes sense to do those things one can do well. I spend most of my time on this, therefore, as an Internet activist, since I am accustomed to functioning in cyberspace. This is my preferred environment; it now feels as if I was born here, in fact, although I obviously was not.

It isn’t hard to find past posts of mine about religion which were quite hostile. I don’t intend to delete them, but I am changing my approach — turning into a different type of atheist. Working on a common cause with many religious people naturally has that effect, for I would be useless for this fight if I went around bashing religion constantly. If our opponents “creep” my Tumblr-blogs, they’ll simply find evidence of this transformation. I am not ashamed of it.

Here’s an example of this transformation. I have allies who find prayer helpful, and I used to be the sort of atheist who would instantly ridicule such an idea. This is not true any more, for I have realized now that I was simply incorrect, before, about sincere prayer being a useless activity. Prayer really does help these people keep their spirits up, in this situation, through boosting morale, and I have my own, secular ways to keep my own morale high. There is no need for me to pretend to pray with anyone (which is all I could possibly do, of course). I only need to respect their right to pray, which I believe they do sincerely, alone and in groups. Of course, these allies talk about prayer at times, post about it on Facebook, etc. — and when they do, I have learned, after many years, something important: how to shut up. This is something I needed to learn, anyway. I have developed such respect, to a greater degree than I had it before — out of political necessity, at first, I admit. As this goes on, though, I’m simply changing because I want to. I think these are changes for the better, and, since I like the way this is going, there is no reason for me to try to fight these changes — only to understand them.

This struggle is changing me, and it certainly is not easy to go through this, for any of us. I am certain it is changing all of us, not just me. While I am learning to work cooperatively with religious people, by setting aside differences which have become irrelevant, some of them are probably experiencing a similar phenomenon, from the other direction. It is no secret here that I am an atheist, and, yes, that has rubbed some people the wrong way in the past. Some of those people are now among my closest allies. I never saw this situation coming. Neither did they. My guess is that some of them are as surprised to be working cooperatively with an open and unashamed atheist as I am by the changes I have described.

This is Arkansas. My Tumblr co-blogger is in Utah. Unless we move, we’re not escaping religious people in these two highly-conservative, very religious parts of the United States. This isn’t California, nor is it Europe. These are facts, and facts are ignored at great peril. Where we live, peaceful co-existence of the religious with the non-religious is a goal that makes sense, and we have found a way to do it, in the middle of a storm. Yes, the atheists among us can, to use John Lennon’s phrase, “imagine no religion” all we want … and, at times, I do. In our areas, however, it would be delusional to forget that this is merely a fantasy, at least in our lifetimes. Should I ever want to escape religion in my environment, I have accepted that I will need to move, for I can’t get all these churches around here to move, nor do I have the right to expect them to. I am grateful that the world now has highly-secular areas I can move to, of course. This was not always the case.

I’m walking carefully, along a very thin line, but my eyes are wide open, and I can see clearly.

Speculation Related to the Johnson Solids

Consider all possible convex polyhedra which have regular polygons as faces. Remove from this set the five Platonic Solids:

Next, remove the thirteen Archimedean Solids:

Now remove the infinite sets of prisms and antiprisms, the beginning of which are shown here:

What’s left? The answer to this question is known; it’s the set of Johnson Solids. It has been proven that there are exactly 92 of them:

When Norman Johnson systematically found all of these, and named them, in the late 1960s, he found a number of other polyhedra which were extremely close to being in this set. These are called the “near misses.” An example of a near-miss is the tetrated dodecahedron:

If you go to http://www.software3d.com/Stella.php, you can download a free trial version of software, Stella 4d, written by a friend of mine, Robert Webb, which I used to generate this last image. This program has a built-in library of near-misses . . . but it doesn’t have all of them.

Well, why not? The reason is simple: the near-misses have no precise definition. They are simply “almost,” but not quite, Johnson Solids. In the case of the tetrated dodecahedron, what keeps it from being a Johnson Solid is the edges where yellow triangles meet other yellow triangles. These edges must be ~7% longer than the other edges, so the yellow triangles, unlike the other faces, are not quite regular — merely close.

There is no way to justify an arbitrary rule for just how close a near-miss must be to “Johnsonhood” be considered an “official” near-miss, so mathematicians have made no such rule. Research to find more near-misses is ongoing, and, due to the “fuzziness” of the definition, may never stop.

I’ve played a small part in such research, myself. I’ve also been asked how much I’ve been paid for doing this work, but that question misses the point. I’ve collected no money from this, and nobody gets involved in such research in order to get rich. Those of us who do such things are motivated by the desire to have fun through indulgence of mathematical curiosity. Our reward is the pure enjoyment of trying to figure things out, and, on really good days, actually doing so.

I’m having a good day. I’m looking at the Johnson Solids in a different way, purely for fun. I have found something that may be a blind alley, but, if my fellow geometricians show me that it is, that won’t erase the fun I have already had.

Here’s what I have found today. It is not a near-miss in the same way as the tetrated dodecahedron, but is related to the Johnson Solids in a different way. Other than a “heptadecahedron” (for its seventeen faces) it has no name, as of yet:

How is this different from traditional near-misses? Please examine the net (third image). In this heptadecahedron, all of these triangles, pentagons, and the one decagon are perfectly regular, unlike the situation with traditional near-misses. However, some faces, as you can see in the 3-d model, are made of multiple, coplanar equilateral triangles, joined together. In the blue faces, two such triangles form a rhombus; in the yellow faces, three such triangles form an isosceles trapezoid. Since they are coplanar and adjacent, they are one face each, not two, nor three. The dashed lines are not folded in the 3-d model, but merely show where the equilateral triangles are.

Traditional near-misses involve relaxation of the rules for Johnson Solids to permit polyhedra with not-quite-regular faces to join a new “club.”

Well, this heptadecahedron is in a different “club.” To join it, a polyhedron must  fit the criteria for “Johnsonhood,” except that some faces may be formed by amalgamation of multiple, coplanar regular polygons.

My current subject of speculation is this: would this new club have an infinite or a finite number of members? If finite, it will, I think, be a larger number than 92. If finite, it will also be a more interesting topic to study.

I don’t know, yet, what answer this new problem has. I do know I am having fun, though. Also known: no one will pay me for this.  No one needs to, either.