Sunday, December 31, 2006

Nature's Holiday

New Year's Day holds a unique honor in American culture, as the only holiday celebrated both in the human and the natural worlds. It is the one time a year we acknowledge that the world turns around us, and not vice versa, where we celebrate the fact that despite our technological and political power, we are yet yoked to the stately dance of the heavens.

Think about it. In ancient times people celebrated events like the first day of winter, the summer solstice, the new moon, the coming of spring, events tied not to a human calendar but to the schedule written upon the very earth itself. Nature records the turning of the years in tree rings and coral growths, in layers of sediment and annual floods. You'll find nothing there about St. Valentine's martyrdom, or the commemoration of our war veterans, or even the birth of the founder of the largest religion on earth; only the steady, measured turning of year over year over year.

And yet, our modern culture largely ignores those deeper rhythms, those core markers on our trek around the galaxy. We march to ephemeral beats like the founding of a nation, or the birth of a president, or the landing of Pilgrims on these shores.

Except on New Year's Day.

On this holiday, unlike any other we officially designate, our nation celebrates something based on nature's clock rather than our own. It is our one chance to stare collectively at the awesome sweep of Deep Time, and I am glad we are here to witness it.

Have a happy new year.


Friday, December 29, 2006

Grand Canyon Creationism

Maybe it's because two of my brothers are geologists, but this story really strikes a nerve with me (hat tip to The Bad Astronomer):

According to this press release from PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), Bush White House appointees are suppressing real science in order to promote creationism. Specifically, at the Grand Canyon National Park, a book is on sale that says the canyon was formed in Noah’s flood. Also, guides at the park are not allowed to answer questions about how old the canyon is, despite scientists’ incredibly detailed and intricate knowledge of the formation mechanism, scheme, and history of the canyon (hint: some of the oldest rocks in the canyon are two billion years old).

This is akin to the National Institutes of Health refusing to discuss what causes epidemics because some religions reject the Germ Theory of Disease, or the American Psychiatric Association giving a "no comment" on psychiatry because Scientologists believe all mental disorders are caused by space aliens. Our Constitution guarantees that you can believe whatever arrant nonsense you want, but if we start bowing to pressure from religious groups to censor scientific facts, then ultimately we will be able to speak authoritatively on absolutely nothing.

It would be one thing if the official position of the National Parks Service were to say something along the lines of "Some religious groups believe the world is only six thousand years old. The vast majority of scientists who have studied the subject, however, have shown that it is much, much older." But that's not what they're being told to say. Instead they're being told they can't discuss the scientific evidence AT ALL!

The next thing you know, your doctor's going to be saying "No comment" when you ask her why your arm is hanging at a ninety degree angle. Some religions, after all, believe that pain is all in your mind, or that the physical is just illusion. Why risk offending those people, just because you happen to think your arm is, you know, broken?

I have been disgusted by a lot of what the Bush Administration has done over the last six years, but I find few things more unforgivable than the willful, deliberate destruction of the scientific method in favor of faith-based belief systems.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Holiday Annieisms

We're finally back from Baton Rouge and recovered (mostly -- cedar fever is killer). I thought you'd enjoy some of the memorable moments from our trip.

Annie (upon seeing that I had already changed into comfy pants): "I can't believe you got into your pants before I did!"

Me: Did you ever think of getting a pet, Mom?
Mom: I don't think I'd be a good home for a dog at this point. Maybe some day.
Me: How about a ferret?
Mom: No, I don't want a bird.

Me (dropping a kernel of dog food on the floor): Ooops!
Annie: Pick that up! That's how we get roaches, and monkeys!

As you can see, the zaniness runs in the family. How Annie caught it without actually being a blood relative is beyond me.

In any event, we had a great time. I definitely don't get to spend enough time with my family. One consequence of not believing in an afterlife is the corollary that this current life is our only shot at getting it right. For me, that means I need to spend more time with and on the people who matter most to me, something I've been dreadfully remiss about in the past.

My only excuse is trying to deal with that blasted monkey infestation. Those little buggers are hard to catch!


Friday, December 22, 2006

An Atheist Says Merry Christmas

What does it mean when an atheist says "Merry Christmas"?

I am not currently the holder of the "I speak for all atheists" gavel (Lenny in St. Louis is hoarding it), but as for me, I mean a lot of things when I say "Merry Christmas" to someone.

First and foremost, I mean it as a message of respect. Even if I am no longer a Christian, I appreciate that you are and that your faith is very important to you. This is a time of love and hope in the Christian faith, and I honor that.

Second, I mean simply that I hope you are happy. Beyond the religious meanings of the holiday in the Church, I just honestly, sincerely, one-human-being-to-another, hope that you're at peace and are filled with a sense of joy. That's a good thing no matter what god (if any) you worship. Being an atheist, I believe that the time we have here on earth is all we get, and it's up to us to make it as positive and glorious as possible. Christmas is just about the best time of year for that, and it gladdens my heart.

Finally, I mean it as an expression of our brotherhood, that I share the season's underlying meaning with you. Just as on any birthday, I take this as a time to reflect on the years that have passed, and to look towards the coming year with hope and anticipation. When the birthday being celebrated is someone's very first, that's even more special, whether that someone is the Savior or just the kid down the street. Hope, love, joy in new birth, that aching desire to protect and nurture a child, pleasure in giving gifts to those we love, all of that is universal to the human condition. I don't have to share your religious doctrine to feel at home with the humanity that undergirds it.

I'll be at home with my brothers and sisters (whether by birth or by marriage), my mother, and my nephews and nieces for the next week or so, celebrating all of that. When we bow our heads and hear the Gospel readings celebrating the birth of Christ, I'll be thinking about the good that Christians have done throughout the centuries. I'll be reflecting on how all of us are there celebrating the very best command Jesus gave us -- to love one another.

Christmas is a season of hope and renewal for all of us, even those of us who are not Christians.

So Merry Christmas from an atheist! May all the joys of the season surround you with love, hope, and compassion.


Thursday, December 21, 2006


I heard a great Texanism today from a co-worker:

She's too stupid to know "c'mere" from "sic'em".

Damn it feels good to be a Texan sometimes.


A Mormon President?

Slate's editor, Jacob Weisberg, has a new column up explaining why he would oppose a Mormon (like the outgoing Republican governor of Massachussetts, Mitt Romney) for President. I find his reasoning extraordinary, and not in a good way.

He begins with the question, "But are you a religious bigot if you wouldn't cast a ballot for a believing Mormon?" Whenever anyone asks a rhetorical question like this, the answer is almost always "yes", yet the person asking it will almost just as surely believe the answer is "no." It's like hearing "I'm not a racist, BUT ..." and you know the odds are extremely high that you're about to hear something that is, in fact, racist. This is just as true for religious discussions as it is for race or sexism or what have you.

And Weisberg doesn't disappoint.

The remaining skepticism on the far right seems to have more to do with doubt about whether Romney has truly and forever ditched his previously expressed moderate views on abortion and gay rights.

Those nutty far righters! Imagine caring about a potential candidate's actual political positions instead of what their stance is on their own religious dogma. The nerve! What's next, looking at how they voted while in office? The horror!

Nor is it chauvinistic to say that certain religious views should be deal breakers in and of themselves. There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist—a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu. Such views are disqualifying because they're dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.

Essentially, Weisberg is saying here that if he thinks your religious beliefs are absurd, you don't deserve to get elected. It doesn't matter what you would do, or how you have voted in the past, or what your positions on actual issues are, the simple fact that you hold beliefs that he considers foolish means you wouldn't get his vote. That's his right, of course, but it strikes me as the very definition of religious bigotry, which we were assured in the beginning is certainly not what the wise Mr. Weisberg is expounding here. I am aglow in the warm embrace of his tolerance.


One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what's the difference between Smith's "seer stone" and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It's Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. The Church of Latter-day Saints is expanding rapidly and liberalizing in various ways, but it remains fundamentally an orthodox creed with no visible reform wing ... It may be that Mitt Romney doesn't take Mormon theology at face value. His flip-flopping on gay rights and abortion to suit the alternative demands of a Massachusetts gubernatorial election and a Republican presidential primary suggests that he's a man of flexible principles—which in this context might be regarded as encouraging. But Romney has never publicly indicated any distance from church doctrine.

This is the passage that really struck a nerve, that made me want to write this reply. Weisberg's basic position is that unless a believer renounces the basic tenets of his faith, he has no place in public office. That Mitt Romney refuses to agree that the founder of his religion was a con man means he is, in Weisberg's eyes, ineligible to hold public office.

Imagine if JFK had been forced to agree that the Virgin Mary story is just a myth. Imagine a Methodist candidate like George Bush being barred from office unless he stated that the resurrection of Christ is "just a story". Weisberg basically argues that only safe, neutered, agreeable religious positions that do not unduly ruffle his notions of rationality and sensibility can be allowed in a candidate.

The questions Weisberg should be asking about Mitt Romney are about his positions on issues that he will influence should he be elected. What is his philosophy of government? Where does he stand on the separation of church and state? What is his proposal for dealing with terrorism? What kind of Supreme Court justices would he appoint? Does he believe in higher or lower taxes, bigger or smaller government, enumerated or unenumerated rights, the scope of the President's power and how that balances against the other branches of government, on and on and on.

What kind of religious undergarments he wears and what he thinks about the veracity of Joesph Smith's magic eyeglasses and hat are somewhere around dead last on the list of things I need to know before deciding whether or not I'll vote for Mr. Romney.

In other words, I couldn't really care less. Until and unless Mitt Romney shows he is irrational or absurd in how he treats real issues facing our nation today, I'll listen with just as open a mind as I would to any other religious candidate seeking office.

"[A]re you a religious bigot if you wouldn't cast a ballot for a believing Mormon?" The answer is yes, Mr. Weisberg. You are a religious bigot.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Wager on Iran

We're planning a buildup of naval forces in the Persian Gulf to ramp up gunboat diplomacy with Iran. I'm going to make a prediction here:

Military action of some sort will take place by the United States against Iran before George W. Bush leaves office.

Whether this will be in the form of special forces covertly entering Iran, a conflict on the actual Gulf between naval forces, or "surgical air strikes against suspected nuclear facilities", I don't know, but I have a strong feeling something is going down before too long.

I say this because of the Bush Doctrine of justifiable preemptive strikes, a loosening of the tactical nuclear doctrine, and the expressed opinion of most of the neocons who advocated for the Iraq war (and who still have influence in the White House) that the solution to the Iraq situation is to actually widen armed conflict into more of the region. Their feeling is that what is required is more invasions, more troops, more attacks, more war, to prove to the Islamo-fascist scum that we really mean business.

We're seeing the same kind of vilification of Iran that we saw in the run-up to the Iraq War, the same kind of drumbeating about weapons of mass destruction, the same kind of cherry-picked intelligence about their nuclear facilities, the same kind of "They're the enemy and we don't negotiate with enemies" rhetoric that began with Saddam shortly after 9-11.

I hope I'm wrong, but I'd be willing to put money on the table that before the end of 2007 we have some sort of military conflict with Iran. I wouldn't even be all that surprised if it got nuclear -- I think Dick Cheney and the Neo-Con Cabal have been itching to nuke somebody for a long time, and Iran or Syria are the most likely targets. I really really hope I'm wrong on that, but like I said, there's very little these people could do that would surprise me any more.


Fox and Friends

My boss is going to be on "Fox and Friends" the day after Christmas, which is great for him and the web site he's promoting. Unfortunately, "Fox and Friends" is the most insipid, foolish, irritating, nonsensical farce among the vast array of insipid, foolish, irritating, nonsensical farces we call morning talk shows.

The sets are bad, the hosts are bad, the production is bad, the stories are bad, the patter is bad, the clothing is bad, it has bad lighting, bad acting, bad speaking, bad looks, bad everything, it's just bad bad bad bad bad bad bad.


Well, maybe not THAT bad, but lord it isn't good. Here's just one snippet to give you an idea of what the show's like.

Sadly, this is pretty typical of the kind of irritating, inane nonsense they produce every single day. It's unreal. "The Today Show" is full of idiots talking about idiotic things too, but at least they don't assault the senses with loud, obnoxious music and a cackling flock of loons.


New York State of Mind

I'm finally back to posting again, apologies for the long delay. I didn't get back home from New York until early in the morning on Saturday, then drove to Houston and back on Sunday for my sister's graduation. More to come in the days ahead, but I wanted to share a few thoughts I had on my trip to the Big City.

  • I was immediately reminded of my favorite Dave Barry quote (paraphrased):
    I recently returned from New York City, where under the Universal Vehicle Code I learned it is illegal to sound your horn except to convey one of the following three Emergency Messages:

    1. The light is green.
    2. The light is red.
    3. I hate you.

  • Riding in a cab in New York City is akin to surfing. You flow around obstacles, surging along with the momentum behind you, constantly feeling as if you're an instant away from toppling into the rocks.

  • Wandering aimlessly down Broadway looking forlorn and helpless is not a good way to hail a cab. Apparently some kind of action is necessary beyond a wistful longing. Who knew?

  • As I passed by Madison Square Garden, I was awed by the thought that this little island already full of millions of people additionally carts in thousands and thousands of more people for huge events like basketball games, concerts, plays, and more every single day. Unreal.

  • The hotel room was $330 a night, which was the cheap rate, and it was about the size of two king size beds. Literally. The layout was pretty chic, though, it reminded me a lot of my nephew Nick's photos of his Hong Kong apartment -- everything in the unique best place for it, without a wasted inch. I like good design, and that room was the quintessence of ergonomic, compact design.

  • It is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip. For a moment there I thought I had teleported myself across the country.

  • Continental Airlines continued its unprecedented streak of never once getting me out of an airport on time or without some other sort of foul up. The plane left New York an hour late, yet we arrived only five minutes late in Austin. Why? The pilot said they had "shortcuts and overages" included in the flight plans because that flight left late so often. Here's an idea -- why not run your airline right in the first place and you don't have to build in slack knowing that you're going to screw it up? Give Southwest a call, they seem to have figured this out nicely. Maybe that's why they make a profit every year.

  • I saw Bill Russell, arguably the greatest center in NBA history, in the New York airport, not three feet from me! I have GOT to get a camera in my phone. I'd have asked for his autograph or something, but he was being escorted by a five foot three inch blond woman who looked like she could've kicked my ass, so I didn't.

  • New York is an amazing place, full of spirit and energy and some of the best food in the entire world, all literally just blocks away. I don't know if I could ever live there, but I can see what makes it appealing to people.

What really struck me during the whole trip is how adaptable humans are. People are just people, wherever you go and however they live, whether it's on a hundred acres in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by donkeys and horses, or in one of the biggest cities in the world where literally millions of people live in a few square miles. But regardless, we all have the same dreams and hopes, the same longing to be free and live our lives as we wish, the same dreads and despairs, the same needs and desires.

It's now where you live, it's what you do with that life that really matters.

Well, that and having a camera phone so you can record your brushes with greatness.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Light Posting

I fly out to New York City tomorrow through Saturday, then am driving to Houston on Sunday to see my big sister graduate from college, so there won't be much posting till Monday in all likelihood. Until then talk amongst yourselves, I'll give you a topic:

Carpal tunnel is neither fish nor roadway related. Discuss.

(With apologies to Linda Richman.)


Monday, December 11, 2006


12/12/06 - edited to add photo.

I got a frantic call from Annie at about 4:30 on Thursday afternoon. I could barely understand what she was saying over the sobs and the tears, but something bad had happened to an animal, and she was on her way to the vet.

I dropped everything at the office and raced out the door. I called the vet on the way, unsure if Annie had been able to contact them, or if they'd understood what was going on. They sounded confused, but at least they were aware she was on her way.

Several illegally crossed red lights and thirty minutes later, I careened into the parking lot and found Annie huddled with our friend Jayne, crying in a corner. Our Australian shepherd puppy, Scout, had been found lying unconscious, tongue hanging out and eyes rolled back in his head. He'd been a little out of sorts that morning, but nothing too bad seemed to be wrong with him. Annie gave him some Maalox, checked up on him a few times, then went into town to do some shopping around noon. Some time in the next four hours, poor Scout got very, very sick, and she found him almost dead when she got back home.

It's difficult to explain to people without pets what having an animal get sick is like. You feel guilty comparing it to an ill child, but that's what the feeling is closest to. Something you love, a living creature you have ultimate responsibility for, another being whom you've had in your life and given your heart to, is hurting and all you want to do is to make it better. At least with a sick child (older ones, anyway), they can talk and tell you what hurts. Animals don't have that luxury. You have to guess at what they're feeling, and try to infer what the best thing to do is.

Ultimately I sent Annie back to the ranch to take care of the other animals and I stayed at the vet's office. They were closing, so they got Scout's vital signs as healthy as they could, then bundled him up for me to go to the emergency clinic in Round Rock. I cranked up the heat in the truck since his body temperature had been so low, and petted him for the whole thirty minutes. I've rarely made the trip so quickly before, but at the same time it seemed I was driving in some kind of eternal dreamscape ... there was a light fog on the highway, and the moon gave everything an ethereal kind of glow. I kept the radio off, thinking the quiet would be better for Scout. When I'd pet his head, he'd sigh and that was the only way I knew he'd not already passed away, something the vet warned me was a real possibility.

He was a very, very sick little dog.

I finally got to the emergency clinic and got Scout checked in. The new vet, like our own, was not optimistic. She estimated Scout had a very small chance of making it; dogs who get that sick that fast rarely pull through. But I was convinced he had to have a chance to fight, I had a feeling he was going to pull through and be all right. I signed the papers authorizing treatment up to a certain dollar amount, but because no one knew what exactly was wrong with him, there was no good way to plan. The vet was just guessing, and admitted as much.

I got back in the truck and left for home, exhausted and lonely and heart broken for Scout and Annie both.

I walked in the door around ten o'clock, and Annie was crashed on the bed. Not asleep, but in that numb state you achieve when all the tears your body can hold have been shed and your brain is locked into an endless cycle of recrimination and guilt. "Did we do enough?" "What if we hadn't left that afternoon?" "Was it something we did, did we cause this?" "Could I have done more, tried something different, been home earlier?"

I think humans have the necessary delusion that we are somehow in control of nature, that we can dominate it and bend it to our will. We need to believe that we have power over life and death, that somehow everything is in our grasp to change, to affect, to dominate. We think if we had just known more, done more, tried more, disaster and tragedy could have been averted.

But we're just kidding ourselves, and eventually a Hurricane Katrina or an earthquake or a heart attack or a deathly ill, powerless little puppy in your care slaps us back out of our denial.

And to our heartbreak, that's what happened to Scout. By the time I got home, the emergency vet had called to say he'd gotten even worse in just the half hour I'd been driving, and we had to face the agonizing decision to have him put down. I talked to the vet myself, and she said she wanted to do a necropsy (like an autopsy, but for animals) to try and figure out just what had happened to Scout. No one likes a mystery when death is involved, and we were all frustrated that we didn't know what had taken that little puppy's life. I could hear the tears in her voice when she talked to me -- I imagine vets, like doctors, take this kind of thing very personally. Annie and I talked and held each other until we finally fell asleep, exhausted and lost.

The next day I had a lunch date planned with my father-in-law George in town, so I went ahead to work. I probably should have stayed with Annie to keep her company, but I'm a guy, and guys aren't supposed to be affected by this kind of thing.

I held the lie together pretty well until I mistook north for south on the map to get to the restaurant, and spent 45 minutes driving around trying to find George. I got so frustrated at one point I was literally pounding my steering wheel with my fists, raging at my idiocy. I felt powerless and incompetent, knowing George was waiting for me and not being able to fix it. Just like with Scout. Someone I loved needed me, and I was failing them.

It's silly, of course. I can't control death any more than I can my sense of direction. But logic and reason have no place in the land of emotions. I eventually found the restaurant and had a nice lunch with George. The vet called on my way home and told me they still didn't know what exactly had killed Scout, but that it wasn't a blockage (something stuck in his digestive system) or anti-freeze or Parvo (a deadly dog disease). Their best guess is that he either had a hyper-sensitive immune system and ate something that is completely harmless to most other animals except him (and his litter-mates -- they all have gotten sick from eating random crap too) or that he got a Parvo-like, unidentified virus.

In any event, she said, there was absolutely nothing anyone could have done for him. His red blood cells had attacked his organs and veins, resulting in massive internal bruising. Nothing anyone could have done would have saved him once he got sick.

In a way that helps, at least with the guilt. But it won't bring him back, and it doesn't help the feeling -- devoid of all reason or logic -- that we should have done something anyway. He counted on us, and at some level we let him down. That we were powerless to prevent it matters not a whit.

This is what it means to be a human, cursed with the ability to see the future, but powerless to change it. At least Scout, like all animals, lived solely in the present. Guilt is not their nature.

That sin, thankfully, is ours alone to carry.

Rest in peace, Scout. We're sorry we couldn't do more, but we promise -- you will be missed.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

We Did This

This photograph (courtesy of the Houston Chronicle and NASA), took my breath away:

It shows the nighttime launch of a shuttle mission (STS-92 to be exact). When I see images like this, what I think is "Holy crap, that's awesome." But the SECOND thing I think is, "We did this." No alien species landed and gave us the answer; Zeus did not reach down, take us up in his hand, and fling us into the heavens; and this wasn't an accident of nature.


Human beings imagined the possibility of flinging ourselves off this planet that gave us birth, worked their butts off to engineer it, shed blood and sweat to build it, and then took their hearts in hand to ride it into the heavens. Human minds wrestled with the rules of the universe, and we conquered gravity. And then we did it again. And again. And again.

We did this.

Be proud.


Nice Work if You Can Get It

With the exception of one two year period when I was working on HeroMachine full time, I've held a job pretty much every day since I was of legal age (16 in Louisiana). Sometimes I held two jobs at the same time. I showed up on time, I rarely if ever missed, and I always did my best. I've been fortunate to have been recognized as an exceptional employee at most of the places I've been. I say that not to brag, but to show how unbelievable I find this little gem from The Washington Post:

For much of this election year, the legislative week started late Tuesday and ended by Thursday afternoon -- and that was during the relatively few weeks the House wasn't in recess.

Next year, members of the House will be expected in the Capitol for votes each week by 6:30 p.m. Monday and will finish their business about 2 p.m. Friday, Hoyer said.

With the new calendar, the Democrats are trying to project a businesslike image when they take control of Congress in January. House and Senate Democratic leaders have announced an ambitious agenda for their first 100 hours and say they are adamant about scoring legislative victories they can trumpet in the 2008 campaigns.

Hoyer and other Democratic leaders say they are trying to repair the image of Congress, which was so anemic this year it could not meet a basic duty: to approve spending bills that fund government. By the time the gavel comes down on the 109th Congress on Friday, members will have worked a total of 103 days. That's seven days fewer than the infamous "Do-Nothing Congress" of 1948.

Now, I realize that part of the job of being a House or Senate member is to go back to your home district and work with your constituents. It's hard to represent them if you don't know what they want, after all. But working 103 days out of the year? Working only three days a week on the rare occasions you actually have to come in? That's downright pathetic.

On the other hand, you can certainly say that the Republicans delivered on at least the "less government" plank in the ol' platform. Where can I get a job like that?


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More Creationist Nonsense

PZ Meyers has a takedown of a recent post by someone named Peter Hitchens in the London Daily Mail. Hitchens is trying to argue that mean ol' scientists are deliberately ignoring the evidence that evolution did not happen, and that (presumably) all life on earth is the result of direct special creation some 6,000 years ago. Meyers' rebuttal is so good I'll post a big chunk of it after the jump.

But Darwinism is all about events that happened when there was nobody there to witness them. And it is also about events which - if happening now - are happening too slowly for anyone to live long enough to see them. It is amazing how many supporters of this theory cannot see the difference between the micro-evolution of adaptation or alteration within species, and the far more ambitious developments of macro-evolution, in my view qualitatively different, which Darwinists believe in.

Oh, bleh…the usual "historical science" canard. That something happens slowly (or too quickly) or distantly (or on too small or too large a scale) so that one person can't sit there and watch it happen directly before his favorite program comes up on the TV is one of the dumbest arguments in the creationist arsenal. It rules out all of astronomy and astrophysics and geology and cosmology and chemistry and anything that involves something more than a naive sense of naked eye measurement. How can you say glaciers covered much of the northern hemisphere? Were you there? No, but I can see the effects of their movement on the modern landscape. How can you say a star is carrying out nuclear reactions and producing new elements? Have you visited one? No, but an astronomer can interpret the spectra he measures. How can you claim that a reaction occurred in that tiny volume? All you see is one drop of clear fluid, and later it's still a drop of clear fluid. Hey, chemists have sensitive devices like chromatographs and NMR gadgets that let them see what your eyes can't.

We can see the effects of history on modern individuals. We can sequence genes, measure protein polymorphisms, follow patterns in morphology and see the record of macroevolutionary changes as clearly in life on earth as an astronomer can track stellar history in a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. That the ignorant are unwilling to read the data is not an argument, but it's one they drag out with annoying frequency.

The whole "If you didn't see it happen you can't know anything about it" school of argument is ridiculous. I'd like to ask one of these people why they don't march right down to the local police station and demand that the entire department be disbanded:

"My house was robbed, they stole all my belongings!"
"Were you there to see it?"
"Well, no ... "
"Then I'm afraid there's nothing we can do, if we weren't there we can't tell anything about it."
"Well bugger!"


Saturday vs. Monday Nights Live

It occurred to me this week that Monday Night Football is to sports broadcasting what Saturday Night Live is to comedy. Every year those pundits "in the know" proclaim that this, finally, is the year that the program will die the final death, putting an end to years of grasping, struggling, lingering illness. Every year the new cast sucks way more than the casts of years past. And each year, some good bits are sandwiched between huge blocks of inane crap.

And yet, both franchises continue on, drawing decent audiences and entertaining a lot of people. In three to five years, those same pundits will look back and say, "You know, the show was a lot better back then than it is now." At some point the "Law of Conservation of Suckiness" should kick in and show that it's a physical impossibility for either of these programs to keep spiraling down in quality every single year for so long -- eventually you'd reach some black-hole-like level of suckitude that would cause the collapse of the universe and everything in it.

Perhaps at some level that's true, and both SNL and MNF have merged in some kind of strange Television Singularity, where they are indistinguishable from each other. I've assembled a little chart showing the comparisons between the two so you can see for yourself if that's the case.

No, I have nothing better to do with my time. Sue me.

ConceptTalented individuals plying their craft in front of a live audience, complete with bone-crushing witticisms and moments of high emotionTalented individuals plying their craft in front of a live audience, complete with bone-crushing hits and moments of high emotion
Opening SequenceAn interminable melange of music and action showing the featured cast for the week that makes no sense and serves to set the audience's teeth on edge.An interminable melange of music and action showing the featured teams for the week that makes no sense and serves to set the audience's teeth on edge.
Best PartsMidway through the show when "SNL News" comes on and you get highlights of the week's newsMidway through the show -- halftime -- when you get highlights of the week's games
Worst Parts"Musical" Guests and the last half hour -- both almost guaranteed to suck"Drop-In" Guests from actors in other shows on the parent network and the last quarter of the game -- both almost guaranteed to suck
Best CastThe first one - Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda RadnerThe first one - Jackson, Cosell and Meredith
Worst CastThe current one (regardless of which the current one actually is).The current one (regardless of which the current one actually is).
Biggest ControverySinead O'Connor ripping up the Pope's picture, saying "Fight the real enemy!"Howard Cosell ripping up Alvin Garrett's ethnicity, saying the African American wide receiver for the Redskins was a "little monkey."


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Drop Kick My Big Balls While She's Gettin' Nailed - A Country Soundtrack

On my way home from the dog training class, riding in the truck with the pooches panting in the crew cab's back seat, trundling past fields of cows while listening to music piped into my cab from a satellite in outer space, having just come home from building a web site serving up videos that include subjects like "How to Make a Halloween Corpse", I had a moment of cognitive dissonance, one of those times when nothing in your existence seems to match with anything else, and your whole reality takes on a disjointed, incoherent aura.

So I did what any self-respecting introspective country nerd philosopher would do -- I changed the channel. And coming in over the airwaves from deep space came the following three country music hits, and everything was once again right with the world.

First was the bluegrass classic, "I'm At Home Getting Hammered (While She's Out Getting Nailed)" by Banjo & Sullivan:

The moral of this story is sad but true,
I love to drink, and she loves to screw
Hobo’s got a better life, out riding on the rails
I’m at home getting hammered while she’s out getting nailed

Immediately following was "Big Balls in Cowtown" by the timeless Bob Wills:
I'll go to Cowtown
I'll dance around
Board up your windows
The big boy's in town
Big Ball's in Cowtown
We'll all go down
Big Ball's in Cowtown
We'll dance around

I'll leave that to you English Lit majors out there to explicate. If you get stuck, ask any fourteen year old boy, he'll fill you in. So to speak.

Finally, my triumvirate of country classics was capped off by the one, the only, "Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life)" by Bobby Bare:

Drop kick me, Jesus through the goal posts of life
End over end, neither left nor to right
Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
Drop kick me, Jesus through the goal posts of life

Make me, oh make me, Lord more than I am
Make me a piece in your master game plan
Free from the earthly temptations below
I've got the will, Lord if you've got the toe

Even if the soundtrack of my life does have to come from outer space because we live so far out in the middle of nowhere we can't even get a decent terrestrial radio signal, I sure do love bein' a country boy sometimes.


Monday, December 04, 2006

The Croc -- er, make that CRACK -- Hunter

I think this is, arguably, one of the greatest newspaper headlines in history:

He was naked, on crack and in alligator's mouth

There is so much awesomeness contained in this one story, it's hard to know where to start. I feel like a fat man standing at the entrance to Buffet Palace, paralyzed by indecision at which delectable delight I should entertain first.

Oh, wait, just today I really was the fat man at Buffet Palace. Those guys get really pissed when you clog up the doorway, incidentally. Just a quick restaurant tip for you kids out there.

Without further ado, I present a few choice morsels (ahem) from the naked crackhead getting eaten by an alligator story:

"The 45-year-old victim, who told authorities he'd passed out nude on the shore after smoking crack cocaine, was rushed to a hospital in critical condition."

I get that he was on crack, but why was he naked and on crack? I'm no expert on crack, though, maybe it's an etiquette thing, like "Don't strike dat pose/'Less you lose all dem clothes", I dunno. I'm sure he had a good reason for being naked, though, so far he sounds like a pretty sharp cookie.
"There's a guy screaming bloody murder over here, 'Help,' in front of the Moose Lodge."
I now see that the headline could have been even funnier if it were "He Was Found Naked, On Crack, and In Alligator's Mouth By a Moose", because everything's funnier with a moose in it, and this case proves it -- think mow much funnier it would be had the alligator been eating a Moose. Then you'd have "Naked Crackhead Moose Found In Alligator's Mouth." Tell me you wouldn't read that story!
About five minutes into the nearly eight-minute call, the operator suggested Mayid tell Apgar to punch the alligator. "I don't know if it's true, but if you punch him in the nose ... it may let him go," Fulman said.

I have this delightful mental image of the scene back at 911 HQ. The operator is surrounded by disbelieving co-workers and passers-by, all staring incredulously at the screen. "No, really, it's a naked crackhead? Being eaten by a gator? Get the hell out!" That would be first, but once the disbelief was done away with I can see them yelling out "suggestions".

"Tell him to lie there like he's dead, the gator will lose interest and go away!"
"Just ignore them, gators can smell fear."
"Tell him stop drop and roll, stop drop and roll!"
"Watch out for the stinger, that's how Steve Irwin got it!"

Exasperated, the operator has to shoot down these idiots one after another, trying to put the heavy-breathing rescuing Moose and desperately pleading naked crackhead out of his head. "That's a bear, a dog, a fire, and a manta ray, you idiots! Shut the hell up!" The problem now, of course, is that he's all inspired. Those were some pretty good ideas, after all, just not quite on target. This is the chance of a lifetime, thinks Mr. 911 Operator, this isn't another case of "There's been a car wreck," or "Help, I 'accidentally' got something stuck in my butt", oh no. This is like winning the freaking 911 Operator LOTTERY, this is the kind of thing you dream about late at night, praying to the powers that be to please, please send you something interesting tomorrow!

THIS IS A NAKED CRACKHEAD GETTING EATEN BY AN ALLIGATOR WHO IS DISCOVERED BY A MOOSE!! This is something you tell the effing GRANDKIDS about. How many times in your life do you get the chance to give someone advice in a situation like this? Not many, that's how many, and by all that's holy, Mr. 911 Operator Man is not going to let the inane exhortations of ignorant bystanders dim his glory, nosiree Bob!

Calm under pressure, steely-eyed and cold-blooded, Mr. 911 Operator Man smoothly toggles the phone, shushing the well-wishers behind him, and Dispenses Advice. "Punch it in the nose," he says, and immediately is blown over by the massed, shouted "THAT'S A SHARK, YOU IDIOT!" from the guys behind him.


Friday, December 01, 2006

Must See TV

I thought I'd take a break from Deep Thoughts (with a nod to my brother Joey, who is probably right when he said "You think too much") and instead tell you about a few television shows you ought to be watching, but probably aren't. The image next to each will take you to that show's home page so you can check it out yourself.

Heroes (NBC, Mondays 9/8c): Definitely my favorite show of the year, "Heroes" features an ensemble cast of characters who are awakening to the fact that they have somehow gained superhuman powers. One of them can fly, another can stop time, another has incredible healing powers, and so on, but they all share one thing in common -- their new powers are as much a curse as a blessing.

This is a network super-human drama that is much more about the "human" than the "super". You won't find any spandex underwear or silly capes, but you will see realistic people trying their best to deal with major upheavals in their lives. A very mature (in the non-sexy sense of the word), moving series that will sometimes leave you gasping at the screen in disbelief, saying "Holy Shit, I can't believe that just happened!"

Daybreak (ABC, Wednesdays 9/8c): Think "Groundhog Day" the movie, but with an LA cop instead of a funny weatherman, and you have some idea of what this show is about. Taye Diggs plays detective Brett Hopper, a good cop who wakes up one day to find he has been framed for murder, his girlfriend is going to be shot, his sister is being abused, his partner is involved in drug deals and is selling him out, and an LA gang is trying to have him killed. To make things worse, he is doomed to repeat this same day, starting over at 6:19 am, knowing everything that happened to him during the previous incarnation of that day.

(How come none of these "never ending day" guys get to relive, say, that night in Vegas where they won ten thousand dollars at poker, got in to the Playboy Mansion, and woke up with three Bunnies the next morning? But I digress.)

What separates this show from the likes of a "Groundhog Day" or a traditional cop show is, first, the superb writing and acting. I really buy everyone in the series as authentic. They also have taken the "repeating day" concept a step forward -- when Hopper is hurt, he wakes up the next day and still has the injury. That's something new in the genre. There are actually several different crises he has to solve before, hopefully, he'll be able to return to a normal life, and that keeps it interesting as well.

If you thought a show about a guy living the same day over and over would get repetitive, rest assured that it surely does not. "Daybreak" has held my interest so far and doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon. A distinctly unusual, and thought-provoking, program.

Friday Night Lights (NBC, Tuesdays 8/7c): At heart this is a nighttime soap opera about the lives of a pressure-filled, successful Texas high school football team. Since I'm not terribly interested in Texas high school football, or high school kids in general, or sports drama, I didn't start watching this show right away. But what the hell, it was on after "Heroes", so I figured I'd give it a chance.

I'm glad I did.

The acting and writing are superb, making for a cast of realistic, believable characters you quickly come to care for. An occasional stereotype rears its ugly head (particularly the "I'm going to the NFL" obnoxious black rapper), but overall I think they do a great job of keeping everything fresh and grounded. I particularly like the relationship between the head coach and his counselor wife, although honestly he's home a lot more often than I think most football coaches can manage.

To give you an idea of the show's range, in the first episode the incredibly successful, talented, good looking starting quarterback suffers a paralyzing injury during a game. He's having to figure out how to live his life in a wheelchair after having been a virtual god in his town. And that's just one of many intriguing story lines. Definitely worth a watch, and don't let the jittery, hand-held, single-camera filming style throw you off too much. It's irritating to me, but I got over it after a couple of episodes.

Mythbusters (Discovery Channel, Wednesdays 9/8c): I'm a Johnny-come-lately to this show, but I love it. Two special effects gurus tackle a set of "myths" every week to find out if they're real or not. Maybe it's just the skeptic in me, but I love it when ideas that have a hold of the public consciousness are put to the test. Plus, they regularly blow stuff up, which is always a big, big plus.

The two main hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, are fun to watch and easy to understand. Their good-natured ribbing adds a lot of warm familiarity to the show, and the nuts-and-bolts approach to building crap that works is a blast. They shoot rubber dummies with high-powered rifles to test Viet Nam sniper stories, drop Mentos into bottles of Diet Coke to test those TV commercials, slap postage stamps on helicopter blades to see if that will really make them crash, on and on and on, always with a maximum of flash and substance combined.

Plus, the way Jamie Hyneman talks reminds me of my friend Trey. And that's always a good thing.

Now you might have noticed that some of these shows are on at the same time, which would in turn cause you to wonder how in the world I watch them all. It's just one more example of why TiVo is the Greatest Invention Ever.

Anyway, if you get a chance, I highly recommend you start watching any of these shows, they all have something unique and special to offer that you just don't find every day.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Choosing Love

My father-in-law George recently held a "commitment ceremony" with his high-school sweetheart Lynn Ellen. They were in love growing up in Lubbock, but broke up in college and each went their separate ways. After seven combined children, several ex-spouses, and more water under the bridge than Niagara, they reconnected and fell in love.

And this past Saturday, they committed in front of their friends and family to staying together for the rest of their lives.

I've known a lot of people in my life, both young and old. Time and again I've seen people choose to embrace the negative, wallowing in fear or sorrow or hatred or anger. My grandfather held a grudge so long he eventually drove to the cemetery where his nemesis was buried and pissed on his grave. My grandmother kept the names of all the people who didn't send her a condolence card when her son died for more than five decades, and never forgave the slights until the day she died.

When I first met George, he was in the same boat. He had a lot of rage and anger still in him, from hurts I'm not qualified to judge, and he was holding on to them with both hands. In relationship after relationship, I saw him pursing women who were not healthy for him emotionally. I think maybe what he valued most in those women was their inability to become truly intimate in a way that would penetrate that rage and hurt. Whether their distance was maintained by being a native Frenchwoman with a non-native's difficulty with English, or wrapping themselves in pretentious modern accouterments, or through nigh-unbelievable amounts of sex, none of them could break through the chains George had put around his heart.

I know a lot of people would just stick with that way of life. Keeping on in your rut is a hell of a lot easier than jumping the track. Once sorrow or rage or loneliness get a hold of you, it's damn hard to let go. Even the roughest garment eventually becomes comfortable, and most people just never bother flinging it off once it's no longer useful.

But then George reunited with his high school sweetheart Lynn Ellen, a woman of love and warmth who by virtue of their long history could cut right past the bullshit.

And he did something truly remarkable -- he chose love.

He could have done what most people -- young or old -- do. He could have just kept on keepin' on, holding on to his old pain and refusing to step into the warmth. But he didn't. At 68 years of age, George Phenix chose to change his course, to unbind his heart and to choose love.

I've rarely witnessed a greater act of courage.

George laughs now, he and Lynn Ellen together, more than I've ever seen before. He has a contentment, a peace, about him that I've not seen in the ten years I've known him. Taking a chance on something new, on letting go of the comfortable (if still painful) hurts of the past, is terrifying, but what waits beyond it can truly transform lives.

May we all -- young or old, man or woman, gay or straight -- be so lucky as to find our Lynn Ellen, and so brave as George to choose love. Thanks, you two, for showing us the way.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Christmas Gift Idea

For anyone out there wondering what to get me for Christmas, wonder no more. Behold the ESG and Freesky Gryphon Flying Wing (courtesy of Popular Science and Gizmodo:

The mission starts when the brave soul wearing this birdman outfit takes a flying leap out of an airplane at 33,000 feet—hopefully equipped with warm clothes and oxygen—and flies the jet wing wherever he's going until he gets to an altitude of about a mile. At that point, somehow our intrepid hero sheds his wing and opens a parachute, letting that wing dangle below him as he floats to the ground.

Pardon me while I drool.


Monday, November 27, 2006

Every Geek Is Writing a Fantasy Novel

Everyone is writing a novel. Housewives have their Harlequin Romances, cops have murder mysteries, and geeks have fantasy novels. None of these are actually written, of course. No, these people are all just writing a book, a state which is far more nebulous and thus not subject to any sort of expectation for actually producing anything.

I, sadly, am no exception.

I've been working on "Exile" for about as long as I can remember. The parts that are written have been re-written multiple times. I've changed voices six times, tenses eight, and plot at least a dozen. I've started at the beginning, the middle, and somewhere near the end. I've draw comic book covers for ten novels down the line and the main character's been everywhere from eight years old to the mid-thirties.

In short, I'm like every other would-be author out there who hasn't actually managed to write diddly-squat.

I'm at a point where I work on it only when I'm really bored, and even then I end up just tweaking the edges while working myself into an existential angst over the tone, the tense, the characterization, the details or lack thereof, the overall voice, the narrative structure, the plot outline, you name it. All of which, of course, gets in the way of actually writing anything. I find it's much easier just to agonize over producing the words I already wrote rather than trying to come up with whole new ones.

I sat down with it again the other day and tried to figure out a new way to avoid actually writing anything new. Thanks to the power of computerized word processing, I hit upon a great plan -- try to lay it out like it was in a real paperback! Why I would need to lay out a paperback when only a third of it is written, I don't know. It's like installing your kitchen appliances when the house isn't even framed.

But hey, it worked -- I killed time, got to feel like I "worked on it", and yet didn't have to come up with a single original word. Pretty brilliant, at least from a slacker's point of view. In any event, I've posted the PDF version of the first chapter of "Exile", my attempt at a fantasy novel, if you're interested in torturing yourself for a few minutes.

Note that you'll need a version of the free Acrobat Reader to view it. Just click here for the latest version if the link above gives you an error message.


How to Create a Digital Pen and Ink Drawing From a Reference Photo

I illustrate everything I produce on the computer, using a Wacom graphic tablet -- it's like drawing on paper with a pen, only the "ink" goes right into the computer. I've talked before about how I draw with Flash, but I thought it might be more interesting to actually see an illustration being created. Thanks to a quick download of Windows Movie Maker, I therefore present the World Premier of the "How to Create a Digital Pen and Ink Drawing From a Reference Photo" video.

The first thing you have to do is to find a "reference photo", a photograph you use to form the base of your drawing so you don't have to come up with everything from scratch. I decided to make a "kung fu" character, so I went to Google Images and did a search for "kung fu". The image to the right here caught my eye -- I liked the stance and the way the pants creased and folded. He looks (no offense) a little dorky, but I knew I could fix that in the drawing process.

The video starts after the image has been imported into Flash (using either the old reliable Cut and Paste or File - Import). I sized it to fit on the canvas and started recording. In real-time this took 12 minutes, though I've doubled the speed so it will only take six minutes. There's no audio, it's visual-only.

Here's the video:

What You're Seeing:

  1. Create a new layer on top of the one holding your image, and draw on that.

  2. Trace the lines you want using a contrasting color -- I usually go for a bright green, it really stands out.

  3. Once you have everything you want to keep traced, hide the image and check to make sure you got everything.

  4. Once you're set, delete the image layer, "select all" (CTRL-A), and group it (CTRL-G).

  5. Draw a white rectangle behind the figure so you can fill in all the interior with white. Break apart the group holding the lines (CTRL-B) and click on the white outside the figure. The goal is to remove all the outside white and leave just the filling.

  6. Some of the interior white probably will be selected, which means there was a break in the solid black outline. Zoom in and close the gaps. Eventually you'll be able to select the exterior white, and delete it.

  7. Select All and group again. Drop in your background element(s) -- in this case a simple black circle. If you want to outline your lineart so it has a white gap between the line and the black background, just use the outline tool.

Here's the finished product:

Hope you enjoyed this brief look into how you can use your computer as a lightbox, pen and ink quill, bristol board, intermediate and finishing illustration desk, all in one!


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Atom Man vs. Superman

Turner Classic Movies is replaying the 1950 serial "Atom Man vs. Superman" this month, and with all the time off for Thanksgiving, I've been able to catch a few installments. What jumps out at me even more than the story and the acting is how much the world has changed since 1950.

The differences begin with the format itself. Serials like this were released in chapters (fifteen of them in this case) and shown before the main attraction at movie theaters. Very few people had television sets, and of course there was no such thing as a personal computer or Playstation, so movies were the only way to see live-action stories.

Think about that for a minute. To get the latest chapter, you couldn't sit at home on your couch, waiting to watch it on television. You couldn't TiVo it, and watch it at your leisure, or check YouTube for the installment you missed. You had to save your money, and make sure you made it to the theater on time or you were out of luck. And you were forced to wait a whole week between chapters, wondering if Jimmy Olson really did get blown up on the artillery range or not. I think it's hard for kids today (me included) to understand the agony of delayed gratification like that, but there simply wasn't any other way at the time.

The basic story is standard comic book fare, full of gruff-talking gangsters, improbable escapes, and very thin plotting. But there's a wide-eyed innocence and relentless energy that makes it fun to watch on its own merits. I can see where "Raiders of the Lost Ark" got the inspiration for its pace and style.

One of the most interesting parts of the serial from a filmmaking standpoint is the use of animation to show some of Superman's more amazing abilities. You'd see Superman crouching down, then leaping up as if launching himself for flight, and immediately the camera cuts to a wider shot showing an animated character flying off into the sunset. It's an interesting, and effective, technique, and not something I knew they'd done as far back as the 50's.

Beyond the movie-going experience itself, I had to laugh at a few bits of unintended humor. Apparently, in 1950 it took only about 20 seconds to drive from downtown Metropolis to deserted hills and scrubland. And clearly, radiation and atomic energy were poorly understood at best. In one classic scene, gangsters show up at the post office, where Superman's X-Ray vision has transformed a box of "special element" nails into -- get this -- polonium. Polonium! The crooks casually pop the lid open on the container filled with one of the deadliest substances in the universe, chuckle at their cleverness, and zip back to their lair. Never mind that they'd be dead men walking, not unlike the Russian ex-spy who recently shuffled off this mortal coil due to radiation poisoning from polonium.

Later, Lois Lane agrees to cart around a load of radium in her purse to keep it safe from Atom Man. That's one way to give your skin that special glow, I suppose, but she'd have been better off sticking with makeup.

If you get the chance to catch any of the chapters being broadcast on TCM, I think you'll get a kick out of it. You're basically getting both a fun super-hero story AND a trip in a time machine, so you can hardly go wrong!


Friday, November 24, 2006

Religious "Market Share"

I like They've got a lot of non-judgmental, empirical data for anyone interested in poking around various world religions. This chart on the percentage of global population each religion can claim is pretty neat:

I'm not sure what the takeaway is from it, I just found it interesting to look at. For instance, you might be impressed that Christianity is the largest religion in the world, or you might be surprised that 67% of the world is non-Christian. You might add Christianity, Islam, and Judaism together to get an overall picture of how the Abrahamaic tradition is faring, or you might mock the Wiccans for being so small in numbers (which would be rude, but hey, you're at home in your underwear in front of your computer, what the hell are a bunch of witches going to do to y-- hey, wait, put that wand down and RIBBIT!!!).

edited to add: Wiccans are not, of course, anything like the witches portrayed in the common lingo for the last thousand years, I was just making an admittedly crude joke. I've known a couple of Wiccans and read about them a lot more, and they seem like a sincerely nice group of people.



Too stuffed with food to post. Too depressed about Texas losing any hope of playing in a BCS Bowl to get out of bed. Summing up ... is all the strength ... I can muster ...

Turkey good. Pie great. Must. Sleep.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Who's the Thanksgiving Turkey NOW, Bubba Geek?!

I can hear you out there right now. "How," you're thinking, "can a mechanically illiterate, redneck coon-ass Cajun in Texas who knows way more about computers than cranberry sauce screw up a Thanksgiving turkey in the most spectacular way possible?" Well first, my friend, you need a new hobby, because clearly you have too much time on your hands.

I can't blame you, though; after all, what other Thanksgiving turkey instructions are going to involve a hacksaw, a bowl of apples, and a used water bottle full of pickling juice? Not too many, I can tell you that for sure, because no one else is this stupid. I mean come on, look at that photo -- clearly, I'm an idiot.

What You'll Need to Brine Your Turkey the Redneck Way

  1. A turkey in some indeterminate state of defrostitude, soaking in cold water to thaw it out faster;

  2. Something heavy to hold down the turkey, because apparently frozen turkeys float. Who knew? If you don't have a bowl full of apples, use any fruit you have lying around the house, or even a smallish dog if that's all you've got;

  3. A used water jug (shown here in its decapitated state);

  4. A tape measure, to make sure the turkey will fit into the jug before you hack it up (real men can skip this step, measuring is for wussies);

  5. A hacksaw, for removing the top of the jug;

  6. A regular saw, for when you figure out a hacksaw won't get the job done;

  7. Kitchen shears, for when you realize that the plastic dust kicked up by the regular saw is not quite the right complement to a delicious defrosted turkey;

  8. A marker for noting on the jug how much water you need to fill it with so that when you accidentally drop the turkey in, as much salty brine/turkey water as possible will splash around the kitchen.
Dateline - Monday Night Before Thanksgiving: After perusing the Internets for some cheery holiday tips, I discovered that I should have started defrosting our enormous 22 pound turkey on ... let's see ... (doing math), carry the two, how many hours per pound?! CRAP! ... yes, apparently August 4th would have been the ideal time to begin thawing this bad boy. I figured this out, of course, on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

Not good.

I left it in the fridge Monday night, as doing math is pretty exhausting and I wasn't up to figuring out just how screwed I was, time-wise, until the next day. Once at work, and armed with the power of Windows Calculator, I discovered that I was more screwed than a child-proof Viagra bottle on Co-Ed Dance Hall Night at the nursing home. I definitely didn't have enough time to defrost that bird in the refrigerator like I had hoped. And yet, leaving it out to defrost at room temperature was, I read, approximately as deadly as dressing the turkey up in a turban and sending it through LAX security with a "Death to America!" bumper sticker plastered to its giblets.

After a bit of frantic browsing, I learned that overnight temperatures on Tuesday night were expected to get into the low 40's or upper 30's. My refrigerator is set just above freezing, and the thermostat in the house is pegged at 71. Logically, if the turkey wasn't thawing fast enough in a fridge, but would thaw too fast at room temperature, then something in the low-40's range would be perfect! Why that'd have to be twice as fast as the fridge and yet twice as safe as just leaving it out. Brilliant!

Immediately upon returning home, I lugged the gigantic lump of frozen poultry out to the back yard, confident that nature had provided me with the perfect temperature to thaw my bird in a timely, but bacterially-safe, manner. Remembering the coyotes roaming about, not to mention our ravenous and very curious
(especially when it comes to unprotected meat) dogs, I realized I couldn't just heave it out in the gravel and be done with it. Luckily, the Ford Motor Company had provided me with the perfect device.

Yes, I put my turkey in my truck overnight to thaw. I am not making this up.

Wednesday morning arrived like an early Christmas, and I eagerly bounded out to the truck to see how things had gone. Unfortunately, it was still hard as a rock. A little squishier, yes, but definitely in some sort of undefined state between solid cube of ice and squishy ready-for-cooking meat. Not good.

Returning to Google, I learned that the ultra-fast method for thawing a turkey is to submerge it in cold water, changing out the containment liquid every half hour to prevent contamination. I, however, was supposed to go to work on Wednesday.

And just like that, a day early, I already had something to be thankful for -- vacation time.

So I stayed home to nurse the turkey. At this point I really didn't know how thawed it was, since the truck is not a precision-calibrated defrosting mechanism, and it had already been in the fridge for a day and a half when it needed five days for full thawitude. How many days in a cold fridge does one night in a chilly half-ton translate to? Frustratingly, Google has no answer to that particular question. Damn the Internet and its foolish tubes!

Feh. I had already tried two of the three preferred methods for thawing a turkey, I figured I might as well go for broke and give the third -- defrosting in a tub of cold water -- a run for its money. You can see how it is that I never come back from Vegas with money. Unfortunately, this still wasn't going to be quick -- you have to soak it for half an hour for each pound of meat, and at 22 pounds it was going to be a long day.

So at that point I had a turkey of indeterminate thawing status soaking in a sink full of water and a large number of hours to fill while it did its thing. Suddenly I had a "Critical Man Problem" on my hands -- there's nothing more dangerous than a man with time to think, domestic chores waiting to be done, and an Internet connection. Because thanks to another trip to Google-land, while waiting on the timer go go off signaling the need to change the turkey's bathwater, I discovered the power ... of pickeling.

Yes, pickeling. "I," I think, "am a genius." Apparently pickling, according to very reputable sites found online, is "the secret" to the delicious nature of restaurant turkeys. How could I not try it, the day before Thanksgiving? What could possibly go wrong -- I mean, come on, I read it on the Internet, it had to be true!

The big problem (literally) was going to be finding a container large enough to soak this massive bird in. It needs to be refrigerated while pickling in the brine, so I couldn't leave it in the sink like I was for the thawing process ... hmmm ... Need ... something ... bigger ... No, no pot is big enough ... can't use the horse feed bucket becase a) Annie would freak out and b) eeeew! ... where am I gonna find ...

And then I saw it -- the empty water jug we use for loose change. Perfect! In a flash I had the coinage removed and was eyeballing the turkey to see if it looked like it would fit. But how to squeeze it into that little bitty hole at the top ... ? Yes -- tools! I have tools! A quick trip out to the garage and I was back with a hacksaw. Wedging the water jug into the sink next to the thawing turkey, I began hacking away. (Or is that "sawing away"? Whatever, it was a hacksaw, either way works, move on Jeff, move on!)

The hacksaw was not a good solution, it turned out. Plastic dust was flying everywhere. And what does a man do when one size of a tool doesn't work out? Say it with me now, men out there -- that's right, you just go get a BIGGER SAW!

Alas, a bigger saw just means bigger hunks of plastic flying around the kitchen. If I didn't get that crap finished quick, Annie was going to come back in and at last have definitive proof that I am insane. I needed to end it, and fast! Casting about the kitchen, my eyes fell on the kitchen shears. Cutting, yes, that's the ticket -- quickly the top of the water jug falls to my clever mechanical engineering and I had my container.

Several hours (and sinks full of water) later, the turkey was ready for the brine. Carefully taking it up, I moved to slip it into my water jug of brackish Thanksgiving love, filled with herbs, spices, sugar, and salt.

Quick science break here: Did you know that wet turkeys are slippery? Well, they are. You have the good fortune of learning about that by reading the internet. I wasn't so lucky, I had to learn the hard way. It turns out brine water filled with sugar, salt, and various spices will, when mixed with turkey juice, splatter in a surprisingly large radius when a mostly-unfrozen turkey is dropped into it at a high rate of speed. I was scrubbing up sticky turkey jizz from as far away as the master bathroom. Blech!

I managed to get the entire contraption, complete with turkey soaking in brine inside a sawed-off water bucket, into the spare fridge. Before I go to bed tonight I'll remove it from the brine and allow it to dry in the fridge, so the skin will get "nicely crispy", according to my Internet sources.

What could possibly go wrong tomorrow, right? I mean, I have it all planned out so carefully --te turkey has gotten incredibly moist, sitting in its hacked-off water-bottle pickling container, it thawed in at least three different ways, and eighteen hungry people are showing up at noon, all relying on me to get the turkey right.


Maybe it's not too late to make a nice meatloaf instead, I wonder what Google has to say about that ...


Monday, November 20, 2006

Re-Framing the ID Debate

The fight against the teaching of evolution has historically -- and successfully -- been framed as "Evolution leads to atheism, which leads to all sorts of moral failings, and so we shouldn't teach it." Alternative formulations of this same thesis are "Science is anti-religion", "Evolution is the same thing as atheism", or "Science vs. Religion". Ed Brayton recently discussed the need for a way to re-frame that debate, and I've been thinking it over for the last few days. I decided to write this post here after irritating Ed by accidentally derailing his thread into some sort of theism discussion. Oops.

Breaking the Chain

One way to change the debate is to take the component parts of the evolution=atheism=evil chain and try to disprove them one at a time. The idea is that if any side of the = sign is wrong, the whole thing collapses. And empirically, of course, the notion that atheism leads to immoral behavior is simply untrue, as a recent study by Gregory Paul of Creighton University concluded. And evolution, much less science in general, is hardly anti-religion, as the existence of millions of God-fearing scientists proves. You can see why this approach would be appealing to skeptics, scientists, and rationalists -- it's very mathematical and logical, and that feels good to people who deal with data all day. Unfortunately, I think it's both unwise and doomed to failure.

It's Not The Facts, It's the Frame

Framing public debates like this doesn't have a whole lot to do with facts and reason and evidence, which I think is one reason scientists are so bad at it. Frames are about feelings and gut-level intuition, touchstones to stereotypes and every-day experience. And the problem with trying to break the chain by disproving either end of the link is that you're essentially agreeing that the overall claim has some truth, validating their built-in feeling that atheism is bad and religion and science are always in conflict.

If you say that evolution doesn't really lead to or mean the same thing as atheism, you're implying that you endorse the second half of the equation -- atheism really does lead to evil. Conversely, if you try to break the chain at the other end by arguing that atheism doesn't lead to evil, then you're implying that the first part of the equation is true and that evolution really does equal atheism. Neither of those positions is good in a country where atheists are more reviled than terrorists. That's right, my lack of belief in your god is worse than Osama Bin Laden trying to blow up your babies. Go figure.

Sometimes They Really DO Conflict

Furthermore, the adversarial relationship between religion and science is pretty well established in the public consciousness, and trying to deny it makes you look like either a fool or a liar. Plus, it cannot be denied that historically, science really has proven dangerous to certain kinds of religious beliefs -- specifically, those that make testable assertions like "The earth is flat," or "The sun revolves around the Earth". It thus seems to me that any attempt to completely deny that science is ever antithetical to any sort of religious belief is doomed to failure and starts the entire debate off on the worst possible footing. (Well, maybe not the worst possible footing -- I imagine spitting in the other guy's face would be worse.)

A Better Way

That is why I would suggest the following approach. When someone claims that "Evolution leads to atheism, which leads to immorality and evil," resist the urge to engage either side of the equation. Say instead that "This isn't about science or evolution versus religion, it's about science versus BAD religion, like a flat earth or geocentrism." This approach has three benefits.

First, you're acknowledging what the listener already believes, that sometimes science really is dangerous to religion. But even while you're affirming that anxiety --
"Is science coming after MY religious beliefs?!" -- you're redirecting it by confining the conflict only to very big, obvious errors. It's a judo move, granting the other side's main fear tactic and then turning it about so that it's not so scary after all. It's not science versus ALL religion, which is silly on the face of it, but about science versus specific bad ideas that everyone knows aren't true.

Second, it allows the listener to understand that we're not talking about YOUR religion, but rather the kind of silly superstition of THOSE guys over there. You're disarming the fight or flight reflex the listener would naturally get if they thought you were trying to attack THEIR religion. You're implicitly getting the listener to feel like you're on their side, and what's at issue is not them or their beliefs but rather that of someone else.

Third, it avoids the entire issue of atheism, which frankly I think is so toxic while being simultaneously irrelevant that it's best gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. Focus, people, FOCUS!

Once you've set the overall frame of the debate in these terms, you can move on to talk about subjects like whether or not ID is science, specific claims about specific organisms, an old earth, etc., but you've changed the basic terms from all religion to only very narrow ideas, and from an attack on their beliefs to the other guy's.

Call It What It Is -- Intelligent Design Creationism

The final recommendation I'd have would be, at every opportunity, to use the term "Intelligent Design Creationism" instead of just "Intelligent Design". "Creationism" has a negative connotation in the public consciousness, left over from the Scopes Monkey Trial. Tying ID to it reinforces the notion that ID is simply traditional Creationism with all the testable parts removed and pretty much nails it down as non-scientific from the get-go.

Again, this is about re-framing the debate, getting it away from the notion that science is attacking religion, or that evolution inevitably leads to atheism. Narrowing the scope of the argument and defining the basic terms in as favorable a light as possible are basic rhetorical techniques that help you get past preconceived notions that essentially have you losing the debate before it begins.

As a final note, this entire discussion is aimed specifically at the attempt of ID Creationist advocates to get their religious beliefs taught as scientific fact in public schools. I don't mind if they want to advocate that approach in their private schools, or in a philosophy/history class, or at home, but it simply has no place at all in a science classroom.


I am SUCH a Great Uncle

Whenever I call my mother to announce a pending new addition to the family, her first question is always "four legs or two?". So far, the answer is always "four", but my niece Hope is a lot better at math than I am (or at least, better at multiplication) -- she just had a two-legged-variety family addition! Say hello to Landon Jones, the newest member of the extended Hebert/Davidson/Jones clans:

I'm not sure where the heavy coat, perfect for shedding hairs into all food surfaces, or the wet nose, or the floppy ears went, but I think maybe that has something to do with the number of legs. I'll check with my mom and let you know.

My niece Hope was in labor for fifteen hours, an almost unimaginable ordeal for someone like me who, you know, doesn't have a uterus or anything. She's such a trooper, and I know she and Benji (her husband) are going to be great parents. Congratulations to them, my sister and brother-in-law (Diane and John), my mom (great-grandmother for now the ... let's see ... doing math, carrying the one ... fourth time), and the rest of the family lucky enough to be there. I hope I get to meet Landon some time soon, he looks like a cool kid.


I Control The Universe!

I learned this morning that I control the universe with my mind.

See, last week at lunch, out of nowhere I said "Wouldn't it be cool if there was a web site where you could punch in your starting location, and it would tell you where you'd end up if you dug a hole all the way through to the other side of the Earth?" We've all wondered that as kids, digging holes in our back yards and thinking we'd end up in China. But China's not THAT big, there's no way we would ALL end up there.

So what do I see this morning on Pharyngula (one of the blogs I read a lot)? A link to a site that shows where you'd end up if you dug a hole all the way through to the other side of the earth!! Do you need any more proof that I control the universe with my mind? I think not.

Just for grins, if you dug a hole through the center of the Earth from Bertram, Texas (out by the barn, to be precise), you'd end up here:

That's right, you'd start out in the middle of effing nowhere, and you'd end up smack dab in the middle of another effing nowhere.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Personal Morality vs. Business Ability

Would it matter to you if you knew, beyond any doubt, that your direct supervisor was cheating on his wife with another employee at the company? Would it make you more or less inclined to work there? What impact would it have on your confidence in his or her decision making ability or authority to lead the company?

Would it matter more or less if instead of it being your direct supervisor, it were instead the CEO of the company? What if the CEO didn't even work at your office, but in another state, for example?

Would it matter more or less if instead of a boss figure, it were someone below you in rank? Say, someone who reported to you? Would you trust them more or less with the work you've given them?

What if instead of infidelity it were some other moral failing, like what if they hated black people, for instance?

I don't have a point here, I honestly don't know what to think about those issues. How much, if at all, should someone's personal life influence our confidence in their ability to run a business? Should I care that the baker down the street likes to be tied to the bed and spanked? Does it make his buns less tasty? OK, maybe that's not the best example ...

Anyway, I'm curious what the ones of people reading this think about the issues. And no, this isn't a "real" issue -- it's just a hypothetical. Neither I nor anyone I work with or know in any way is sleeping around.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Good Comic Book Blogging

For you super-hero fans out there, my mother-in-law (coolest mother-in-law EVAR!) sent me a link to a blog, "Dave's Long Box", dedicated to comic book super-hero craziness. He's her son's boss, oddly, and he's got some really funny stuff in there. Guy Gardner Week alone is worth the price of admission. Of course, being a blog it's free, but you get the idea.

It's got some really good stuff, check it out if you get a chance.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Happy Endings

I apologize for the lack of posts this week. Real life has been kicking my butt -- an ongoing HeroMachine custom project that's due in December has been taking most of my free time, but I've also been in talks with two other companies about integrating HeroMachine technology with their games, and Expert Village has been going like gangbusters too.

Of course, we continue the really important work of dog rescue unabated as well. Or at least, Annie does, and sometimes I lift heavy things. We each do what we can.

Tyler, aka "Brownie"

Dallas, aka "Blackie"
The hardest part of animal rescue besides having to leave behind so many you can't save, is letting go of the dogs you grew to love while you were fostering them. Every now and then, though, you get a great message from the new family and it's all worthwhile. We recently got updates on "Blackie" (now known as Dallas) and "Brownie" (now known as Tyler -- apparently people here just love Texas city names). These were two of the three pups all brought in together a few weeks back who I blogged about. They're both with loving families now, and their new partners were kind enough to send us pictures.

Dog rescue sometimes feels like the old story about the kid on the beach, rescuing starfish one at a time. You know you can't rescue them all, but you try to help those you can. It's nice when, from time to time, the starfish (or at least their families) write back to tell you that yes, they made it after all.

Darn nice, actually.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Oh. My. Spidery. Goodness.

The trailer for the new Spider-Man 3 movie is out. And all I can say is, wow. I feel all funny in my secret place where I'm not supposed to let anyone touch, that's how excited I am about this movie. It looks unbe-freaking-lievably cool.

Spidey's nemesis this time is Sandman, a flowing shape-shifting classic villain from the early days of the comic book. It looks like they're also throwing in the "Venom black costume" plotline of the more recent Spider-Man incarnation AND yet a third element with the Green Goblin's son coming back finally for revenge. I'm a little worried that too much is going on, but I have full faith and confidence in the creative team -- they've delivered two absolutely fantastic movies so far and if anyone can pull it off, they can.

It's amazing to me now, having grown up with super-heroes as a bit of a joke, that they are so mainstream and popular. Even Dungeons and Dragons has become socially acceptable in the form of World of Warcraft. What's a nerd have to do nowadays to be an outcast, I wonder, and how long will it be before THAT takes over the world of popular culture?