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?


We're Ready For Your Close-Up, Wile E.

I took our neighbor Ronnie to the truck dealership last night to get their new vehicle. On the way he told me about a harrowing nature encounter he'd had just a few evenings before when his wife, Kathleen, was out of town.

"I was on the phone with Kathleen when I heard coyotes start to yip and howl. That happens fairly often, but this sounded close -- real close. So I went to the door and called for Annie, our little spaniel dog (cute as a bug and about as big), afraid she might be in trouble. When I opened the front door and stepped onto the porch, I looked over to the right where the circle drive is, and standing right there was a big ol' coyote.

"I called for Annie and she came hurtling in like a bullet, between my leg and into the house. The cats weren't but a second behind her, all raised fur and flashing claws. The coyote just stood there looking at us, the howls of its pack from the woods sounding louder than ever in my head.

"I backed slowly into the house, keeping an eye on it, and slowly closed the door. It showed no fear of me at all, or of the dogs or the house lights. It was practically in our front yard, and I'm just thankful it didn't get any of our pets."

That kind of thing happens more often than you'd believe out here in the hill country. There are stories of family dogs carried off for meals, and coyotes ranging right up to front doors. It's getting to the point where parents with little kisd are having to be extra careful.

In some neighborhoods the problem is deer overpopulation. We drove through one area recently and saw dozens of deer -- bucks, does, fawns -- all walking through the streets and front yards like we were in a forest. Well-intentioned no-hunting laws have backfired; with all of their natural predators eliminated, deer have exploded in population and are now reclaiming their territory. Only where there used to be plains and forests, now there are sprawling suburbs.

The one predator that hasn't been wiped out is the coyote. Smaller and smarter than their wolf cousins, coyotes will scavenge on just about anything. They're following their suddenly abundant deer prey into the neighborhoods and have no natural fear of humans any longer.

Out where we live, of course, the coyotes and deer are present simply because there's so much open land rather than overpopulation. But it makes me nervous -- with the horses and donkeys, not to mention the dogs, there's plenty of prey for hungry coyotes and I worry that Annie will find herself in danger some time during a walk or while I'm at work. Luckily donkeys -- even minis like ours -- will fight as a herd against predators, and coyotes generally stay away from them out of fear.

In this case, a half-ass is definitely better than none at all.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

The New SecDef

As you may have heard, the United States of America has a new Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates. To the dismay of many University of Texas and Louisiana State University graduates, he is an Aggie (well, sort of -- he was until yesterday the President of Texas A&M University, but not a graduate).

Texas Monthly has a well-timed profile of him running in the November issue, and I've been reading through it. I like what I see so far. One quote in particular stood out for me:

“Leadership in large public institutions requires a skill set different from the private sector,” Gates told me. “A&M and the CIA have this in common. Professionals in the organization got there before you were there and will be there after you leave. For changes to last, the professionals have to assimilate the changes and make them their own. My time here is finite. I want to build something that will long outlast me.

I like it because it says that Bob Gates is a man who takes the long view. A man who understands how institutions, longer-lived by far than those who occupy their offices, are the surest protections from the excess of power. That's not surprising in someone who lived through the Nixon years, and saw first-hand what happens when an Executive seeks to overreach his authority. I like the quote, because it holds out hope that finally someone in the White House will understand that their first duty is not to security or politics or one man, but rather to the Constitution and the institutions that guard our liberty. Nothing is more precious than that -- Americans have shed blood for it for more than 200 years.

What has concerned me the most about the Bush Administration -- in particular Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzalez, and John Yoo -- is their unrelenting assault on the basic, foundational, structural elements that protect our liberty. Things like freedom of the press, judicial independence, Presidential signing statements essentially overturning laws without a veto, direct violation of the FISA laws (as confirmed by the Supreme Court), circumvention of international treaties like the Geneva Conventions, repeated arguments in court that their actions are beyond judicial review, suspension of habeus corpus.

These are institutions and structures built into the Constitution to protect us from corruption by those in power. "All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely" is no less true today than when Lord Aston wrote it -- men are weak, given to abuse their authority in pursuit of their own goals, whether those goals be good or bad. The temptation when one holds the levers of power is to use those levers to bludgeon the opposition into acquiescence. It is only through the rule of law -- the idea that no one is above the law, that we all agree on the same rules and processes, that the process matters -- that liberty is protected from the willful onslaught of the powerful.

The quote from Gates and his professional history suggest he understands this at a fundamental level. Others have pointed to his Iran-Contra involvement as evidence that he in fact cares only for ends, not means, but the rest of his career seems to belie that. He appears to be a man who cares about institutions, about doing things right, about seeing reality as it is and not as he wishes it were. Those are qualities long absent from this Administration, and I am relieved that, finally, someone appears to be on the way who reveres them.

When our legislators are sworn into service, they pledge to uphold not the Office of the President, or the generals of the military, or even the will of God. They swear to uphold and defend The Constitution. They do so not because it is a document that ties us down, that binds our wings and keeps us weak, but rather because it shields us from oppression, ensures our liberty, and underpins everything that has made this nation great for more than 200 years. I have opposed this Administration largely on grounds that it holds the self-same Constitution in contempt, that it has worked without relenting to weaken it, to build up one branch of government at the expense of others.

In that kind of battle, our liberty is the surest casualty.

I've heard people argue that these concerns are petty, that they can't wait to quit talking about rules and regulations and laws so we can get back to "catching the terrorists". But ultimately this is the most important fight of all. If we surrender the protections of the rule of law, we become no longer a nation of liberty and rights, but of cowards willing to sacrifice anything in the name of safety, in the end doomed to being preyed upon by the most ruthless, base, greedy nature that lurks in all of our hearts.

Freedom of the press. Respect for the rule of law. Separation of Powers. Checks and Balances. Adherence to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. These are the structures that will outlast and protect us, but only if we are constantly vigilant. Outside enemies can kill some of us, they can destroy property, but the only way we lose our American soul is from the inside, if we give it away to those who hunger for power over liberty. I think -- I hope -- that Bob Gates is a man who understands that, and who will fight the good fight both inside and outside this great country of ours. Let's get him to work already, before even more damage is done.

Gig 'em, Bob.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Can't Even Back Up and Down The Driveway

I am an idiot. I know this because on Monday I backed directly into Annie's truck -- I'll explain after the jump.

Not our truck, but close.
Oh I have plenty of excuses.
  1. On Mondays I load the trash cans into the back of the truck, so I couldn't really see out the rear window.
  2. We had a new dog in the garage and I was keeping an eye out for him so I didn't accidentally run him over.
  3. Annie's truck was parked behind the driveway instead of beside me, like it usually is, so I didn't expect it to be there.
  4. And finally, at that hour of the morning I had not yet fully awoken.

Unfortunately, none of those excuses excuse me.
  1. It didn't matter that the trash cans were in the back because I didn't look anyway.
  2. Annie intended to come out and hold the new dog for me, but I didn't wait for her; otherwise I'd not have been worried about him and she would have seen me approaching her beloved 250.
  3. I'm the one who parked Annie's truck behind mine the night before.
  4. And finally, I wake up at that time every day for work.

So as you can see, I don't really have a leg to stand on, and as a consequence Annie now has to drive a rental for a few weeks. You see, what with the trash and the dog and the parking, I backed my Ranger full speed right into her truck's driver's side door. I will say this, though, I have very good aim -- all of the (considerable) damage was done to just that door and nothing else.

To make matters worse, in one of those cosmic examples of bad timing I had, just the night before, confidently explained to Annie how her lack of depth perception is the reason she thinks I'm a bad driver, and that in fact she is the one who's a bad driver. Clearly the anser to that little hypothesis is a big fat "WRONG"!

So maybe I can claim that as my excuse -- it's hard to be a good driver when your foot's in your mouth.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Voting Experience

Annie and I went to vote today, as I hope all of you did. Our precinct station is in Joppa, a town even smaller than our own Bertram. We drove up to a nondescript white building next to a church, where just one beat-up pickup was in the gravel driveway. We walked in next to a freshly-plowed field; I think everyone should have the smell of horse manure in their nostrils on the way to the polling place. It kind of puts the whole thing in the right context, in all kinds of ways.

We were greeted by five nice older ladies who were the precinct captains. They had a crock pot full of something yummy-smelling for later in the evening, and a table full of pens, voter rolls, and snacks. To my surprise, even our tiny little county had electronic voting machines. They were easy to use, but walking away I felt somehow uneasy. This is strange for a technophile like me to admit, but the idea of nothing but a computer chip holding my vote makes me uncomfortable. At least with a paper ballot, you know that all interested parties (including myself) can get together in a room and look at the damn thing to make sure it's what I meant to put on there. But who can sit around and check electrons?

I wish we had some kind of paper trail, it would make me feel much more at ease. After I hit the submit button, for instance, it'd be nice to have a printout showing my vote. I could initial or sign it, then put it in a traditional paper ballot box. After the election, officials from the various parties and state or local government could spot check the precincts to make sure nothing went awry with the voting machines.

Or even better, maybe it's time for the entire country to take a look at an Oregon-style "Vote By Mail" system. The evidence so far is that such systems increase voter participation and information and is easier to verify.

We need to do something, though, because like professional sports, if the participants lose faith in the honesty of the system, the whole enterprise comes crashing down. Ultimately, what keeps the rule of law in force is that all of us living under it have confidence that everything is done on the up-and-up, without deceit or corruption, that we're all operating under the same fair, objective rules. If we lose that faith, then democracy simply cannot work.

After Florida, Ohio, and the myriad of complaints about electronic voting machines already coming out this year -- from both parties -- it's clear to me that we need to figure out a different way. And I think Oregon might already have solved it for us.


More Liberal America-Hating Bastards

Another unhinged, light-years-from-the-center, baby-eating liberal America-hating magazine has chimed in with their opinion that Bush has been a disaster and the GOP deserves to lose. I don't know why we allow these Democrat-loving leftist wingnuts to still publish in this country, they're all traitors who should be taken out and hung for not backing the President. Why just read what these libelous, slanted, whacked-out crazy people have said, blinded by their irrational partisan hatred:

It should surprise few readers that we think a vote that is seen—in America and the world at large—as a decisive “No” vote on the Bush presidency is the best outcome. We need not dwell on George W. Bush’s failed effort to jam a poorly disguised amnesty for illegal aliens through Congress or the assaults on the Constitution carried out under the pretext of fighting terrorism or his administration’s endorsement of torture. Faced on Sept. 11, 2001 with a great challenge, President Bush made little effort to understand who had attacked us and why—thus ignoring the prerequisite for crafting an effective response. He seemingly did not want to find out, and he had staffed his national-security team with people who either did not want to know or were committed to a prefabricated answer.

As a consequence, he rushed America into a war against Iraq, a war we are now losing and cannot win, one that has done far more to strengthen Islamist terrorists than anything they could possibly have done for themselves.

Hold on, what did you say? The magazine in question is "The American Conservative"?

Oh. Oh dear ...

Well they're still traitorous scum who hate America, just like the Democrats and the New York Times and the "Army Times" and the "Navy Times" and the "Air Force Times" and George Will and, and, and ...

You get the picture. More choice excerpts below the fold from the editorial in "The American Conservative" titled "GOP Must Go".

The war will continue as long as Bush is in office, for no other reason than the feckless president can’t face the embarrassment of admitting defeat. The chain of events is not complete: Bush, having learned little from his mistakes, may yet seek to embroil America in new wars against Iran and Syria...

There may be little Americans can do to atone for this presidency, which will stain our country’s reputation for a long time. But the process of recovering our good name must begin somewhere, and the logical place is in the voting booth this Nov. 7. If we are fortunate, we can produce a result that is seen—in Washington, in Peoria, and in world capitals from Prague to Kuala Lumpur—as a repudiation of George W. Bush and the war of aggression he launched against Iraq...

On Nov. 7, the world will be watching as we go to the polls, seeking to ascertain whether the American people have the wisdom to try to correct a disastrous course. Posterity will note too if their collective decision is one that captured the attention of historians—that of a people voting, again and again, to endorse a leader taking a country in a catastrophic direction. The choice is in our hands.

Opposition to this Administration is not restricted to the fringe left, light years from the center. Conservatives -- true conservatives -- have come to recognize what many of us on the other side understood long ago. This President and his feckless administration are as profoundly nonconservative as it gets. Their reckless spending, absurd foreign policy naivete, and unchecked assault on bedrock principles of checks and balances, are a complete betrayal of the traditions of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the brightest conservative minds of the last fifty years.

The next time you hear Rush or Michelle Malkin or Matt Drudge spout off about how crazed, angry, irrational, and out of touch with the mainstream the Democrats are, don't believe it. If Bush has lost even the likes of George Will and "The American Conservative", clearly this is not just partisan politics any more.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Great Moments in Spam

I, like all Americans, get a lot of e-mail spam every day. This one really caught my eye:

Good Morning, unaidable pesthole

I doubt I will be able to resist the allure of such an engaging greeting. Why, we may be face to face with a turning point in the history of salutations! "Good morning, unaidable pesthole!" I'll say to my boss each morning. Success is surely only days away now. Thank you, Spam!


MySpace for Nukes?

One of the most frightening foreign policy disasters facing the world for the last two decades has been the prospect of nuclear material, or knowledge of how to build a nuclear device, falling into the hands of terrorists. One of the major pieces of evidence used to justify war with Iraq was the Nigerian Yellowcake story (supposedly Iraqi intelligence agents were trying to buy enriched uranium from Nigeria, though -- like much else about our intelligence before the war -- this later turned out to be completely false).

So if securing nuclear secrets is so important, why did the US government release documents in Arabic on the Web for anyone to come and take a gander at which contained technical details of Saddam Hussein's nuclear program from before the 1991 Gulf War?

If your major concern as a nation is to keep terrorists from learning how to build a nuclear weapon, why the hell would you publish such secrets on the Web, in the very language of the people you're in a war with?

The fact that George Bush personally ordered these documents to be released over the objections of his own experts (particularly the head of the CIA, no less!) is astonishing. But what's even worse is, he will never be held accountable for it. No one in this Administration ever has to be held responsible for anything ("Donald Rumsfeld's doing a heckuva job!"). The President of the United States personally ordered a set of documents be publicly published which contained information that might help terrorists build a nuclear bomb, and he will never have to pay the price for it. You can bet your ass if the New York Times had done the same thing, conservatives across the country would be calling them traitors and howling for them to be thrown in jail.

Even if you're a Republican, you owe it to your country to vote straight Democrat tomorrow. These incompetent clowns are a threat to our national security. The only lesson they understand or respect is defeat at the ballot box. Hopefully a Republican drubbing tomorrow will give the adult members of the Administration a lever to use to club Bush into not fucking things up any more than he already has over the next two years.

That's assuming there ARE any adults in this administration, something I am seriously starting to doubt. Honestly, releasing untranslated documents you seized from your greatest enemy that you don't know anything about on the web for the people you're at war with to use in building a nuclear device is breathtaking, awe-inspiring, nigh-unbelievable stupidity.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Why Does the Military Hate the Troops?

Yes, the exit is that way ...
When anyone -- Democrat, Republican, Independent, foreigner, liberal, conservative, ANYONE -- has criticized someone in the Administration over the past six years about the Iraq adventure, they have been branded a traitor and a troop-hater. If you criticize the leadership, you hate the troops and want America to fail. Period.

And yet on Monday, in a rare joint maneuver, the Army Times, the Air Force Times, and the Navy Times will all run the same editorial (pasted in full below the fold) calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation.

So does this mean now that the military hates the troops, too? Or is it possible -- just possible -- that pointing out someone in the leadership is an idiot is, in fact, also supporting the troops?

Time for Rumsfeld to go

"So long as our government requires the backing of an aroused and informed public opinion ... it is necessary to tell the hard bruising truth."

That statement was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Marguerite Higgins more than a half-century ago during the Korean War.

But until recently, the "hard bruising" truth about the Iraq war has been difficult to come by from leaders in Washington. One rosy reassurance after another has been handed down by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "mission accomplished," the insurgency is "in its last throes," and "back off," we know what we're doing, are a few choice examples.

Military leaders generally toed the line, although a few retired generals eventually spoke out from the safety of the sidelines, inciting criticism equally from anti-war types, who thought they should have spoken out while still in uniform, and pro-war foes, who thought the generals should have kept their critiques behind closed doors.

Now, however, a new chorus of criticism is beginning to resonate. Active-duty military leaders are starting to voice misgivings about the war's planning, execution and dimming prospects for success.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee in September: "I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it ... and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war."

Last week, someone leaked to The New York Times a Central Command briefing slide showing an assessment that the civil conflict in Iraq now borders on "critical" and has been sliding toward "chaos" for most of the past year. The strategy in Iraq has been to train an Iraqi army and police force that could gradually take over for U.S. troops in providing for the security of their new government and their nation.

But despite the best efforts of American trainers, the problem of molding a viciously sectarian population into anything resembling a force for national unity has become a losing proposition.

For two years, American sergeants, captains and majors training the Iraqis have told their bosses that Iraqi troops have no sense of national identity, are only in it for the money, don't show up for duty and cannot sustain themselves.

Meanwhile, colonels and generals have asked their bosses for more troops. Service chiefs have asked for more money.

And all along, Rumsfeld has assured us that things are well in hand.

Now, the president says he'll stick with Rumsfeld for the balance of his term in the White House.

This is a mistake.

It is one thing for the majority of Americans to think Rumsfeld has failed. But when the nation's current military leaders start to break publicly with their defense secretary, then it is clear that he is losing control of the institution he ostensibly leads.

These officers have been loyal public promoters of a war policy many privately feared would fail. They have kept their counsel private, adhering to more than two centuries of American tradition of subordination of the military to civilian authority.

And although that tradition, and the officers' deep sense of honor, prevent them from saying this publicly, more and more of them believe it.

Rumsfeld has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large. His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised. And although the blame for our failures in Iraq rests with the secretary, it will be the troops who bear its brunt.

This is not about the midterm elections. Regardless of which party wins Nov. 7, the time has come, Mr. President, to face the hard bruising truth:

Donald Rumsfeld must go.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Fat, Drunk, and Stupid

Apparently Dean Wormer was wrong -- you CAN go through life fat, drunk, and stupid. If you're a mouse, anyway:

Study: Fat doses of red wine extract help obese mice stay healthy

I for one will do my part to help extend this critically important study into human trials by continuing to put on weight and guzzle cheap wine. It's the least I can do as a supporter of science.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

Can You Even SAY "Anal Lightning"?

In every marriage there are little things that couples nitpick about. For some, it's which way the toilet paper should hang off the roll, whether the loose end should go in the front or the back. For others it's where you squeeze the toothpaste out.

For Annie and I, one such minor little disagreement is over how to get the water you use to wash your mouth out after brushing. I prefer to cup my hands beneath the faucet. When my cupped hands are full, I bring them to my lips and fill my mouth with water. Annie, on the other hand, shoves her whole head into the sink and guzzles from the spigot directly.

I'm not saying my way is right and her way is wrong. I'm just saying that my way carries absolutely no risk that it will cause lightning to fly out of my butt:

Lightning exits woman's bottom:

October 09, 2006 12:00am
Article from: The Australian

A WOMAN has suffered severe burning to her anus after being struck by lightning which hit her in the mouth and passed right through her body.

Natasha Timarovic, 27, was cleaning her teeth at in her home in the Croatian city of Zadar when lightning struck the building.

She said: "I had just put my mouth under the tap to rinse away the toothpaste when the lightning must have struck the building." She was wearing rubber bathroom shoes at the time and so instead of earthing through her feet it appears the electricity shot out of her backside," a medic told local newspaper, 24 Sata.


Truth From the Gipper

You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man's age-old dream - the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order - or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path," - Ronald Reagan, stumping for Barry Goldwater in 1964.

With thanks to Andrew Sullivan (again). He's giving Ed Brayton a run for his money in the "Most Often Linked To By Jeff" sweepstakes. I find it interesting that the two bloggers I respect and read the most are a deist libertarian and a Catholic conservative. Strange. Clearly baby-eating atheist liberals aren't what they used to be. Sigh.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Picking and Choosing Belief

A discussion is going on in the comments of another thread on this blog, here, about how non-believers pick and choose which portions of a religious text (the Bible in this case) to accept and which to reject. I thought it was interesting enough to bring up on the main page. I'll hide it below the fold for those of you who are uninterested (which I would best is most of you!).

It thus does not seem rational to pull a morsel or two out of the gospels as good advice or philosophy and reject everything else He said and did as a hoax, the words of a lunatic, or fabrication.

You keep coming back to this, and it honestly doesn't make sense to me. Let's say a man says to you, "If you step onto that burning log, you will be burned. Also, I am a bear." This man, clearly, is not a bear. Does that mean you should also disregard his good advice about not stepping on the log?

Even if Christ was not the Son of God, that doesn't mean his Sermon on the Mount should be tossed aside as foolishness -- it contains great wisdom regardless of Christ's divinity. The meek really do inherit the earth sometimes. Being kind to those less advantaged than you is both wise and practical. There's no reason to reject that just because I don't believe he was resurrected. That would really be irrational.

In the end for an atheist, is it just too much to believe, and why is it too much to believe? Are doubts really based on lack of evidence or could there never be enough evidence? How much does one's view of the world and themselves affect an honest appraisal of the historical Jesus? Is there just a pre-established belief it could not have happened the way it says (for whatever personal reason), so theories must be made to explain how it could be fiction? (I've read a lot of those theories, and while they sound like rational possibilities on the surface, there's not a shred of evidence to support them, as compared to all the evidence on the Christian view.) Intellectually then, I find the rejectionist view to be quite thin. Your thoughts?

Christ rising from the dead
The basic question you are asking is, "How does someone pick and choose what to believe and what to reject -- what is true and what is false -- from the New Testament?". I lost my "Speaker for All Non-Christians" badge after the last apostate meeting, so what follows is just my personal method for approaching the issue. Others, obviously, will take a much different approach and probably would think I'm insane for doing it my way.

The guiding principle for most skeptics is the notion that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Claims in the New Testament that are not extraordinary, therefore, do not need a terribly high level of evidence for me to accept them. For example, lots of people who would fit Christ's general description were alive at the time, so I don't have a problem believing he probably lived. It's the extraordinary claims -- his resurrection, that he was the son of god, that he is the only way to get to the divine, that he could heal wounds and raise the dead -- require more evidence than the simple fact of someone saying it was so. It is these claims that require the most picking and choosing, so I will focus on how I go about doing so.

Joseph Smith reading the golden tablets in a hat, from South Park
First, I wonder whether there are examples of other extraordinary claims that would seem to be irrational, and yet which are widely held to be true. And looking around the world, there are lots and lots of examples in the form of various religious faiths. Billions of people believe things that you and I would consider extraordinarily unlikely, and yet they believe them nonetheless. Humans, then, have the ability to believe things that are fundamentally irrational, and to believe them with all their hearts and minds. Given hundreds of examples of religions espousing irrational beliefs, it seems reasonable to propose that perhaps Christianity is in the same boat. Other religions are replete with disciples who carried word of the central figure to the wider world, have religious documents that are extremely consistent and reasonable within their own internal system of logic, and which took place in verifiable historical times (the Koran and the Book of Mormon are two good modern examples). Christianity is not unique in this respect, and thus those strains of evidence are not what I would consider extraordinary. I don't wave away such evidence by any means, they do provide support, but I have to approach them with the understanding that they are not necessarily sufficient to support an extraordinary claim.

Second, I look at how convincing the evidence for the claim is to non-Christians. I take this approach because of the example of science, wherein people of wildly divergent belief systems nonetheless agree on basic scientific principles. You can be Hindu, atheist, Christian, or Muslim and still agree on the age of the earth, for instance. Claims that are persuasive regardless of religious, ethnic, or cultural background have a much higher likelihood of being true, in my experience. Regarding the resurrection of Christ, billions of people around the world have examined the evidence and come away unconvinced. That doesn't mean it's wrong necessarily, but it's obviously not in the same league of convincing as, say, Newtonian physics.

Third, I look at the evidence for or against the specific claim that are not part of the religious canon itself. Regarding Christianity, this would include contemporary Roman accounts, documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls from contemporary Jewish leaders, and other writings from the first couple of hundred years A.D. by various Christian sects (one resource for this I used is Lost Christianities" by Bart D. Ehrman).

Fourth, I try to figure out of there is a non-miraculous explanation for what might have happened. The most likely candidates are later modification to the original text or a natural phenomenon that the witnesses misinterpreted. The modern Catholic church approaches claims of miracles in the same way -- an entire office of clerics is devoted to figuring out which claims of the supernatural are real and which are not, so I don't think this is an unreasonable approach to take.

So let's look at a specific example to see how this would work in practice. I won't go through them all, that would make this even more tedious than it already is.

32 Matthew 27:52-53. "And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many."

Clearly this is an extraordinary claim, hopefully we can agree on that. Surely such an incredible occurrence would have earned loud exclaim and documentation throughout the region, yet there is no mention of it whatsoever in contemporary accounts.


People got up out of their graves and appeared to many, yet not one single person thought this remarkable enough to write down. No journal entry of "Uncle Bosephus rose from the dead today and came by for a chat, it was nice." That's a pretty big obstacle to overcome.

Could there be a documentary mistake of some sort? Looking at, there appears to be evidence that there is. Most scholarship indicates that the early Christians believed not in a physical resurrection but rather a spiritual one. The actual rising of the dead body appears to be a later addition. That seems to be a reasonable possibility. Using Occam's Razor, then, I would tend to accept the simplest explanation as the most likely, and conclude that the dead probably did not rise in massive numbers as described, but that this is a later addition by entities interested in supporting their version of Christianity over competing ones.

I hope that helps explain one way that one person (me) tries to figure out both overall truth of the gospels and how to "pick and choose" what parts to believe and which to reject. I understand that others would look at the exact same evidence and come to the opposite conclusion; such is life. I don't require that everyone have the same belief system I do, and I readily admit that I could be in error not only about this specific example but about the entire edifice. Nonetheless, this is the approach I take, and these are the conclusions I have come to. I didn't start out looking for reasons to disbelieve, but I was willing to go where the evidence led me. And it has led me to atheism. I do not find atheism incompatible with the position that Christ still had wisdom to impart, but I understand how a believer would find that position untenable at best.
I hope you won't begrudge me the lessons that I do take from Christ's life, even if in your eyes I am missing the best parts of all.