Monday, February 26, 2007

Doesn't Being Right Matter at All?

From Andrew Sullivan, a reader posts about Hilary Clinton:

She reflects the most cynical aspect of politics, politics stripped of even the hint of vision. She is the sum total of her calculations, and a prickly and defensive sum total at that. I don't doubt that she is competent in the narrowest sense of the word. But she isn't a leader. We are desperate in our need for leaders right now.

This isn't about Hilary, she just happens to be the subject of the reader's email. And for the record, I think Clinton's position on Iraq has been exactly wrong.

But as I said, this isn't about Clinton, it's about Sullivan's reflexive impulse that how competent or right someone is, is irrelevant. All that matters is that they are "A Leader".

I call bullshit.

If the last seven years have taught us anything, it's that policies do matter. Actions have consequences, and it's not enough to have someone running your country who's fun to have a beer with.

I am coming to the conclusion that there are two types of voters in America, on both the right and the left. One group simply wants someone who's "A Leader". These people don't particularly care how competent the person is, whether they've been right or wrong on various issues, or even what they think about policies. They just want someone to "lead". You've seen it for seven years with the more rabid Bush supporters on the right, and we're getting a healthy dose of it from the left with the almost fan-boy adulation of Barak Obama before anyone has a clear idea just what the hell he wants to do as a politician.

The other group cares very much about policy, about positions, about whether the person in question has been right or wrong on substantive issues. These people care less about how affable or handsome or charismatic the politician is, and more about what they actually do with the power they have.

This is played out in the punditocracy as well, as Radar Online illustrates so effectively. Conservative commentators like William S. Lind, who were right about the consequences of invading Iraq, are marginalized for the likes of the liberal Tom Friedman, who has been as wrong as wrong can be and yet keeps getting pay raises and promotions.

What matters isn't being right, what matters is how good you look while you're being wrong. And that's bad for America, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on. Until we get over this obsession with who's telling us what to do, and start paying attention to what they're telling us to do, we're in for a lot more heartache and disaster.


Bad Super Hero Entertainment

I write too much and too long, a point brought home to me after reading my father-in-law's punchier, newsier style on his "Blog of Ages" site. So here's the short version (with thanks to my friend John for forwarding the original "Ain't It Cool News" story to me):

It's so easy to make bad super-hero entertainment that sometimes I want to ban Hollywood from ever trying to do so again. As just one truly painful example to prove the point, I give you this pilot for a live-action "Justice League" television show, which is so awful it makes me want to gouge out my eyes with a spoon:

The long version is after the jump, but really, that clip about says it all: few things are as bad as bad super-hero entertainment.

I didn't go to see "The Fantastic Four" live-action movie when it came out, which shocked a friend of mine who knows my love for super-heroes. "Why wouldn't a fan want to see everything in the genre?" he asked incredulously.

But that's the point -- I love super-hero stuff so much, it's painful for me to watch it when it's done poorly. It's like loving Bruce Springsteen's music and refusing to go to a "Celine Dion Sings Bruce Springsteen's Greatest Hits" concert -- when you love something, you don't want to see crappy versions of it.

Creating good super-hero fiction, either in comics or on film, is hard. Really hard. It looks easy because hey, it's just guys in tights beating up stuff, but that's exactly where the studios and comics publishers so often go astray -- if you treat it like silly kids' stuff, it's going to suck. Period. The super-hero movies that have succeeded -- "Batman Begins", "Superman: The Movie" and "Superman II", both "Spider-Man" movies, "X-Men" and "X2" -- have done so because they take themselves seriously. You have to understand the genre, you have to love it, and you have to treat it for the unique art form it is.

Classic George Perez "Justice League" style (pencils -- Alex Ross painting)
While the live-action "Justice League" movie referenced earlier hasn't even been written yet, I dread its production exactly because I loves me some "Justice League". I collected the comics series when I was a kid and George Perez gave it his amazingly detailed, action-packed, unbelievably busy style. I even TiVo the animated series, one of the high-water marks in the franchise's history.

As hard as it is to do good super-hero entertainment, it's exponentially harder to do good super-hero TEAM entertainment. Off the top of my head, only the live "X-Men" movie series and the animated "Justice League" have gotten it right. There are a couple of others that didn't suck, but they weren't exactly good either ("Teen Titans", I'm lookin' at you).

X-Mean, a team

Justice League, a team-up
I think the reason "X-Men" succeeds is because "X-Men" was a team book from the very beginning. These weren't established characters artificially thrown together, the very franchise is predicated on their being interdependent. The universe these characters inhabit is hostile to their very existence, and alone they are victims of persecution and hatred. Banding together isn't a fun thing they do on the weekends over a few beers, they do it for basic survival. That's a compelling reason to have super-heroes team up, not on a one-time basis but as a genuine, persistent group. It's not an afterthought or a clever marketing gimmick; in their world, the "X-Men" team exists because without it, its members might possibly end up dead.

Not so with "Justice League", which is more of a social club and branding concept than it is a real team. Trying to invent a reason for Superman to need Batman is crazy -- he's freaking SUPERMAN! Why would Batman, a character whose very core is that of an anti-social loner, spend time in the company of those he would consider to be fools? Green Lantern already HAS a super-team in the Green Lantern Corps, millions of galaxy-spanning heroes of all different alien races who bear the Guardians' rings of power. What the hell is he mucking around with Aquaman for?

"Justice League" is a series not about a team, but rather about a team-up. Team-ups are by nature ephemeral, temporary affairs, which makes it even harder to get a movie-going audience to invest enough emotionally in the characters to accept the fact that they're wearing spandex and capes. Team-ups are based on marketing, teams on need. Team-ups take established characters and bring them together on some pretext, but a team is its own pretext.

Team-up comics were invented by publishers who thought it would be a great marketing idea to put all of their most popular characters in the same book, each established figure brining its own fan base to the table to plunk down their ten cents. It's the "If one is good, ten is better" school of thought, and one that is as irresistible to Hollywood as it was to the original comic books companies who applied the "All Star" concept to their lines.

But sometimes, more is bad. I hope the producers of the new live-action "Justice League" project understand this, and do the hard work necessary to overcome the limitations inherent in the concept. Done well, team-up stories can be extremely entertaining. But done poorly ... well, let's just say I'll have my spoon ready, just in case.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Feng Shuidenfrued

I watch a lot of Home & Garden TV (HGTV), Discovery Home, and The Learning Channel (TLC). I realize this doesn't exactly help beef up my Manly Portfolio, but I like decorating shows -- it's cool to see a living space go from gag-worthy to sparkling. Good design should be appreciated, whether it's on a web page or in a home.

And it doesn't hurt that Tanya Memme, the host of "Sell This House", is a hottie bo-bottie. Youza!

But this morning I realized that there's more to it than that. It's also fun to watch the homeowners squirm as they have to explain why they let their domicile get so dilapidated. "We're lazy" is the most common excuse, but the steely and disapproving glare of the host and/or designer really makes them uncomfortable.

There's a German name for this -- "schadenfreude" -- which means "pleasure taken from someone else's misfortune." Combining that concept with the the ancient Chinese practice of placement and arrangement of space to achieve harmony with the environment called "feng shui", then broadcasting it on American reality television, therefore, gives rise to a newly-coined, Jeff Hebert word for the day:

Feng Shuidenfrued: feng shui·den·freu·de or [fuhng shweyd-n-froi-duh]
satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's interior design misfortune.
[Origin: 2007; coined by Jeff Hebert]


Friday, February 23, 2007

Hobbesian Friday: Soldiers

Now that I am getting older, I realize Calvin is absolutely right -- I think all of us so-called adults are in fact making it up most of the time. We're out here just wingin' it, hoping we're not screwing things up too badly. Life's a lot easier as a kid, when all you've got is black and white.

As far as the substance of this installment, I'm no pacifist. Sometimes violence DOES solve problems, like when someone is coming at you or your loved ones with an intent to kill. Flowers and sunshine wouldn't have beaten Hitler -- there are times when you have no other recourse but the force of arms, and the right thing to do is to fight.

Violence certainly can't solve everything, but it's just as false to claim that it solves nothing.

I should point out, however, that I'm just ACTING like I know what I'm talking about -- that darn Calvin has nailed again!


The Evolving River

I just saw this fantastic picture of the Amazon river posted on this amazing website of aerial photos:

(Warning -- the site is enormous, if you're on dial-up, don't bother. I reduced the size on this particular image to make it less painful, but visit the link for the full resolution version.)

One of the things I like about the photo is how well it illustrates the growing, changing, constantly evolving nature of a healthy, natural river system.

Industrialized nations have largely tamed our rivers, constraining their wandering ways by building up levees and dikes, but wild ones are not naturally static -- they're dynamos of change, even if on our human time scale we tend not to notice. Take a closer look at that photo, with some arrows showing key features:

The water flowing downstream has tremendous force behind it. Powered by gravity and literally tons of mass (both from just the water itself and the various items carried in it), the current carves out the soil of the bank directly ahead of it. Blunted by running headlong into the solid mass, the water turns to one side and continues its journey, curving ever outward.

On the opposite side of the bank, though, the water eddies at a slower pace, and much of the soil, sand, and other particulates carried along in the flow get deposited. The river is carving out a path for itself, like a snake slithering across the dunes, constantly charging forward in one direction and leaving behind a new fresh bank in the other.

Eventually the giant, looping bows in the river get more and more exaggerated, to the point where two of them meet and ultimately break through the bank, forming a new, straighter channel for the river. In the image above you can see the pinch about to happen between the first two sets of red arrows.

Left behind are oxbow lakes, no longer supplied directly by the main waters themselves, orphaned remnants of an earlier time. Some of these oxbow lakes are fed by other sources and remain, but others eventually dry out and all that's left are dry, looping scars -- "meander scars" -- marking out the history of the system in the earth that's left behind. I've marked a few examples in the photo in green.

So the next time you fly or drive over a river, remember that this tame and consistent waterway was once a raging torrent, carving out new course for itself, leaving behind reminders of its former, wilder days until finally it was domesticated by humanity.


Whore Red Trannys, in BERTRAM?!

Eagle-Eye Annie spotted this Craig's List ad posted by someone in our very own little Texas town of Bertram. I think this gives you a pretty darn good idea of the flavor of our home (contact info removed and highlighting added, but the original listing is here):

63 Chevy Longbed stepside - $2100
Reply to:
Date: 2007-02-22, 9:35PM CST

63 Chevy longbed pickup truck, project started, no rust needs new wood bed, have two v-8 engines for this truck, a 327 in truck, needs to replace blown head gasket with auto tranny, or and a Olds 350 Rocket w/ tranny, 4 barrel carbs, painted whore red, bucket seats(electric), fixed for son but he wanted new truck, solid as a tank. Must sell due to nagging wife who does not understand the love for old trucks. Call me only if seriously interested, price is honest offer for work done. Lets talk- xxx/xxx-xxxx or cell xxx-xxxx

* This item has been posted by-owner.
* Location: Bertram, Texas
* it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

PostingID: 283139500

I'm willing to bet what his wife really doesn't understand is his love for whore-red trannys. Well join the club, my friend, join the club.

Which Whore-Red Tranny Is It Again?


Thursday, February 22, 2007


From comes the following teaser headline (highlighted in yellow):

The joke, of course, is that Donald Trump's grave would be the final hole on the golf course (see, graves are holes in the ground just like a golf cup! Hilarious!). There's a problem with the joke, however, because for you non sports fans out there, a golf course only has 18 holes. After checking with some of the most powerful computing devices in the world, I have found that adding 1 to 18 does not, in fact, equal 20. It equals only 19, meaning that The Donald's grave would actually only be the Nineteenth Hole.

My immediate suspicion is that either Mr. or Ms. Headline Writer can't do simple addition, or s/he is unaware that golf courses have only 18 holes, not 19. Either of these seem reasonable since most reporters are completely repulsed by both mathematics and sports.

There are three other possibilities, however, and in the spirit of open inquiry I present them here to you:

  1. Donald Trump's massive ego caused him to build a golf course with 19 holes on it instead of the usual 18 -- "It's uuuuuuuuuge" Donald might have said. The fact that Donald Trump is an egomaniacal freak lends credence to this theory. Unfortunately a quick Google search shows that the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster has only the usual 18 holes.

  2. Sometimes the bar or clubhouse is called "The Nineteenth Hole" by clever golf course designers. However, a quick call to Trump Bedminster Golf Course (yes, I actually picked up the phone and called them -- I'm a sad, pathetic little man) confirms that there is no facility with that name on the premises.

  3. The headline writer possesses a biting, scathing wit, and is slyly implying that the 19th hole would be the grave and the 20th would be Donald Trump, Asshole. This scenario is bolstered by the fact that Donald Trump is, in fact, an asshole.

Frankly, if I were Mr. or Ms. Headline Writer, given The Donald's penchant for publicly eviscerating anyone he thinks has insulted him, I'd cop to the "I can't do math and don't know anything about sports" excuse, because option 3 there doesn't look terribly appealing.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Why I Will Never Be President, Part XXVII

I bet if "Osama bin Laden" were on the list, he'd have polled better than atheists, too. What a bummer!

The guy I feel really bad for, though, is that 72 year old, married-four-times, currently dating another man homosexual Black guy, who was raised as a Jewish woman before converting to both the male gender and atheism. That guy is really screwed.


Shiloh Falls at Sunset

I've started carrying my nice Canon SLR digital camera with me in the truck wherever I go. Last night I turned around after closing the gate in the driveway and took this photo of the house. You can see why people talk about the "Big Skies" in Texas. Coming home to this makes that 45 minute drive really worthwhile.


Are the Stations of the Cross Comics?

The Lenten season has begun for Christians around the globe, the beginning of the most holy 40 days in the calendar that ends with Easter and Christ's resurrection. One of the traditional ways that Catholics mark the death of Christ is by praying through the fourteen Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

So I was driving home yesterday, and the thought occurred to me -- do the Stations of the Cross qualify as comics?

Most people think of comics as those four-color "funnies" printed in the Sunday newspaper, or perhaps as Superman-like tights-wearing super-heroes leaping tall buildings and battling crime in comic books. But those are just instances of certain genres of comics, not the totality of what a comic is.

Scott McCloud, in his seminal work "Understanding Comics", uses this definition for what a comic is:

"Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer"

Under that definition, you find comics in ancient Aztec friezes describing a fight between the Jaguar King and his rival brother. You find medieval European tapestries retelling legendary battles, Egyptian hieroglyphic tales of gathering and threshing wheat to give to their gods, Grecian urns relating the labors of Hercules, indeed you find a startling number of cultures that use sequential art to tell their stories.

Without the prejudice of only the American comic book to limit our understanding, then, let's examine the Stations of the Cross. The individual stations are laid out together (juxtaposed). They are in a deliberate sequence, tracking the death of Christ throughout that long ordeal. They are intended to convey information (this is how Christ was tortured and died), and they mean to produce an aesthetic respons (admiration, horror, reverence, and more).

The key question is whether or not they are "pictorial". I think certainly printed versions of the Stations would qualify, but I am not as sure about the sculptured ones. Can a physical, three dimensional (or at least a frieze) sculpture qualify as pictorial?

If so, then even those kinds of Stations would, I think qualify as comics. In fact, I think it would be fascinating to do a series of comics crafted entirely in sculpture -- I don't know that I can think of a modern example of something like that.

In any event, the next time you're in a Catholic church, take a moment to look at the Stations of the Cross again, and reevaluate how amazing, touching, informative, and pervasive the idea of comics has been for thousands of years.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Alien Idol

I have hidden the truth for far too long. I can no longer deny that I ... this is really tough, ho boy ... I ... am ... an American Idol fan.

It's true. I know, I know, the shame is almost too much for me to bear, too. Take a moment if you need it to recover. I've been watching the show avidly with Annie since Season Two, having just missed Kelly Clarkson and the astonishing "Side Show Bob" hair of Justin Guarini.

Luckily, even though Justin's career didn't make it, his hair lives on thanks to Season Six semi-finalist Chris Sligh:

But what prompted me to finally break my silence was a very alarming fact I discovered thanks to the magic of TiVo ("Best Invention Ever"). Annie had to duck in to the other room for a moment so, being the great husband I am, I hit "Pause" during the final performance of Phil Stacey. Now, Phil seems like a genuinely good guy, and I hope he does well. Or at least, I was hoping he'd do well until the steely hand of FATE guided me to pause the program during his performance, when I saw THIS shocking image:

That's right, "American Idol" contestant Phil Stacey is actually an alien from outer space with strange, compelling, glowing blue eyes! I plan on selling this photo to the National Enquirer for a tidy profit, so don't tell anyone about this, it's just between us, OK? Great! Although I didn't use PhotoShop or any other image editor on this, it's just a digital photo of the paused broadcast, so maybe the Enquirer won't take it ...

Oh sure, it could just be the stage lights showing through, but come on, how likely is that? If the Virgin Mary can appear in a grilled cheese sandwich, which is then sold for thousands of dollars, surely I'm entitled to one lousy photo of a bald-headed, jug-eared, glowing-eyed, reproducing-with-Earthlings former infiltrator of our Navy alien guy! Throw me a bone here, people!


Kid Drawings

Via "Clicked" (a really neat column on MSNBC where the author tracks all of the sites he visits every day and then compiles them into a narrative list) I found this really neat site where professional artists take drawings from kids and work them up into formal illustrations. The results are pretty startling. The images are first-rate and would do any portfolio proud. Here's just one example:

You can see the full gallery at Our culture tends to dismiss children's art out of hand, but I think this site shows that their creativity is the equal (at least!) of any adults. All they lack are the technical tools to bring those visions into a form the adult world can respect. That's one of the goals I had with HeroMachine, to allow kids to borrow the skills of a professional illustrator in bringing their own creative visions to life.

P.S. If anyone from DrawerGeek reads this, please send me an invite! I'd love to be able to participate. Don't make me beg ... OK, fine. I'm begging. Pleeeeeaaaasssseeee!


Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Humanist Jesus?

Andrew Sullivan posted this e-mail from a reader that really resonated with me. I think he sums up how I feel about Christ (and other great religious figures as well). People ask me how an atheist can have any hope for the future, take any joy from existence, or see any point to living at all. This is how. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here's a taste of what I'm talking about:

Humanism then does not reject Christianity, it completes it. Paul was wrong. Our faith is not foolish if Jesus is not literally and physically risen from the dead. We know our faith is true, because we know that death has not defeated him. As a humanist, I do not discard the rich legacy and richness of the Christian tradition, rather I claim to be the true heir to the Christian patrimony. Christians embrace a shallower version of Jesus. I know this because I continue to be transformed by Jesus's love and he continues to inspire my humanist faith - faith that there is yet some good in this earth, that we can all be redeemed by love, and that we should all choose life and should try to live it fully in a spirit of peace and brotherhood with all mankind. It makes no difference to me whether Jesus was born of virgin or rose bodily from his grave after three days. These are signs that the wicked demand because they do not have the heart to see the divine in Jesus and in all of us without such signs.

Fundamentally, what matters to me is people. How we treat each other, the echoes that our good deeds carry forward through the coming years, the kindness and joy we can bring into existence, all of these have meaning and consequence right here, right now, for actual humans. Jesus' greatest commandment was "Love each other as I have loved you." He didn't talk about doctrine, or ritual, or how to build the perfect church. He railed against those who turned religion into a sterile, binding form without substance, focusing his ministry instead on the actual human beings around him.

Prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, fishermen, these are the cast of Jesus' life, and in his choice of companions I see the greatest lesson of all. It is how we treat each other that matters, not which building we walk into on Sundays. If I could sum up what Christ was all about in just two words, it would be this (which also happens to be the essence of humanism):

People. Matter.

I think perhaps that's one reason I find myself hostile towards organized religion, because they seem to manage to forget that lesson far more often than not. They become about ritual, or words, or buildings, and not the people that make up the true body of their church. It sounds bizarre to say it this way, but in my opinion, religion fails when it becomes more about god and less about people.

I first realized this at the age of eleven or so. I had come back from Confession (for the first time in quite some while) and I was filled with joy, a true feeling of oneness with the world. And it was because the Priest had looked me in the eye and said "You're forgiven." I realized that it was because this human being, not a mysterious and ephemeral divinity but this man, had a moment of genuine contact with me that I felt so complete. It is humans that matter, it is humans that touch each other, love each other, hold each other, forgive each other, give each other a reason to get up each day and to try and carry goodness forward one more step.


Friday, February 16, 2007

The Evolution of the Texas Legislature

If you haven't heard about Warren Chisum (R), House Appropriations Committee Chairman in the Texas state House, sending around an official letter to the entire legislature stating that evolution is wrong and that a non-rotating earth is the literal center of the universe, click here for the whole scoop.

What makes this story particularly interesting to me is that Warren Chisum (R) is the grandfather of a woman I work with!

Combine that fact with the Young Earth Creationist at work, and I think I am safe in quoting the inimitable Jack Nicholson from "As Good As It Gets" to describe my little slice of Texas:

Sell crazy someplace else, we're all stocked up here.

Finally, I want to leave you with some choice words of wisdom from "Exposing the False Science Idol of Evolutionism, and Proving the Truthfulness of the Bible from Creation to Heaven... - since 1973 -", references in the original proposed bill:

The following subjects confirm that the Copernican Model of a rotating, orbiting Earth is a factless, observation-denying deception that is the keystone which is holding up all of modern man’s false "science" and "knowledge".

I can't speak for anyone else, but the idea that legislators in two different states now want to pass legislation making such lunacy the law of the land certainly makes my head spin, even if the Earth does not.


Sometimes People Don't Suck

It's easy to get stuck in a negative mindset that people are generally mean and evil. But despite my darker days, I don't think that's necessarily true. I think that when basic needs are taken care of, people who feel like they're part of a community can be extraordinarily kind and generous. It's easy to look at the history of our evolution as a species and see only the "Nature red in tooth and claw" aspect, but it's just as true that philanthropy and empathy are also part of our long genetic history.

I ran across a great example of this today while reading Slate. The article is by Jonathan Alter, titled "Want To Buy My Students a $392 Camcorder?A nonprofit uses the Web to work marketplace magic" and I'll quote the part that really jumped out at me after the fold.

Early on, some well-meaning but clueless Harvard Business School graduates instructed us that DonorsChoose had to automatically take 15 percent off the top of every gift for overhead. Otherwise, the HBS team warned, our organization would never sustain itself. In fact, these gents withdrew a large gift because they thought our business plan didn't work without the automatic deduction. We said we wanted to offer DonorsChoose donors the option of whether to give us additional money for overhead at checkout. If the donor wants, 100 percent of his or her donation can go directly into the classroom, but he or she is also invited to contribute to covering the organization's expenses. The HBS experts said we would be lucky if 10 percent of our donors voluntarily ponied up extra. But they were living in a pre-Web world in which people weren't used to being asked what specific uses their money could be put to. How many of the thousands of DonorsChoose donors give us 15 percent extra to fund ongoing operations? Try 93 percent.

I wanted to post the story first because I think it's a neat idea, really showing how the web can expand that sense of community and bring people together. But I also found it interesting how the first reaction of the Harvard guys was "People will never give voluntarily." Imagine if the board had taken that advice, they never would have known how generous their supporters really are.

I think it's very easy to get caught up in our preconceived notions of how people are going to behave, and all too often we deny them the opportunity to surprise us. Yes, humans are capable of unutterable evil, but also of transcendent kindness and generosity as well. Next time, when I find myself reflexively thinking the worst of someone, I hope I remember this and give them a chance to surprise me, as well.


Hobbesian Friday: Math Atheist Edition

Sadly, this excuse did not work for me in school, either.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007


My suit must be in the wash.

I have gone five days without making a post, which must be something of a record for this blog. Why the long gap? I'm so glad you asked, anonymous internet person who must in some way be different from an imaginary friend, although at the moment I can't think of a reason.

The main problem is that the biggest thing happening in both my personal and professional life at the moment is something I can't talk about publicly yet. I'm under a Non Disclosure Agreement, and if I talk about what's going on it could ruin the entire deal. Since most of my mental and emotional capacity is taken up with worrying about this event, I don't have a lot of energy left over to talk or think about anything else. Which is a bummer. Since this could go on for another two months, however, I'm going to have to figure out some sort of workaround.

My work ethic and creative energy also tend to come in cycles. I went through a hyper-creative spurt a couple of weeks ago and now am, apparently, in a trough. I wish my brain had controls I could understand, so I could peg the volume on "high" or something. I hate being at the mercy of my moods.

At the same time, my day job has gotten to be very frustrating, as my respect and admiration for some of my coworkers continue to plummet. I'm motivated almost entirely by a desire to please those around me, far more so than money or perks. When I lose respect for those around me, my performance suffers dramatically. If you want the best out of me, you have to be the kind of person I admire, respect, and want to make happy. Raises don't do it, trips don't do it, rewards don't do it. I have a psychotic need to earn the respect of those I admire, and it is the most persuasive and motivational coin I have ever encountered. Unfortunately, the flip side is that when I no longer admire you, I have to work a hundred times harder to get the same amount done. Granted, I still get a paycheck and they still get an honest day's work out of me, but it's not my best work and I can't fix it. It's a moral failing of mine, and one which I work at, but I am still unable to circumvent it as well as I'd like.

Finally, I've started to encounter some significant resistance from people in my life whom I love very much about some of the subjects I write about. Being accused of corrupting children because of my atheism is deeply, deeply troubling to me. In essence it's saying "Your very nature is bad for kids." I need to take some time to work through those implications before I can get back to those subjects, which has the unfortunate consequence of making me feel very, very unfunny and unable to see the humor in much of anything, so there goes the rest of what I post about.

I'm sure the cycle will reverse itself soon, as habits tend to do, and I'll be back to the usual posting schedule. I feel confident that both of my readers are waiting with bated breath, but I didn't want to go yet another day with no communication, for my own peace of mind if nothing else. I have a bad habit of retreating into silence when I'm unhappy, another personal failing I am trying hard to correct as I get older.


Friday, February 09, 2007

A Fulfilling Atheism?

Sam Harris has his latest response to Andrew Sullivan in their "blogalogue" up now (click here for the main repository and scroll to the end), and one part in particular jumped out at me. I'll post it below the fold.

I think one of the truly mystifying aspects of atheism for a theist to "grok" is how an atheist can feel any sense of hope or wonder or happiness without what the theist sees as the wellspring of all those glorious feelings -- God. Sam puts it into words very well here, I'll just let him speak for himself (all emphasis is mine):

Finally, let me make it clear that I do not consider religious moderates to be “mere enablers of fundamentalist intolerance.” They are worse. My biggest criticism of religious moderation—and of your last essay—is that it represents precisely the sort of thinking that will prevent a fully reasonable and nondenominational spirituality from ever emerging in our world. Your determination to have your emotional and spiritual needs met within the tradition of Catholicism has kept you from discovering that there is a mode of spiritual and ethical inquiry that is not contingent upon culture in the way that all religions are. As I wrote in The End of Faith, whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now. It makes no sense at all to have one’s spiritual life pegged to rumors of ancient events, however miraculous.


I’m asking you to imagine a world in which children are taught to investigate reality for themselves, not in conformity to the religious dogmatism of their parents, but by the lights of truly honest, fearless inquiry. Imagine a discourse about ethics and mystical experience that is as contingency-free as the discourse of science already is. Science really does transcend the vagaries of culture: there is no such thing as “Japanese” as opposed to “French” science; we don’t speak of “Hindu biology” and “Jewish chemistry.” Imagine a world that has transcended its tribalism—racism and nationalism, yes, but religious tribalism especially—in which we could have a truly open-ended conversation about our place in the universe and about the possibilities of deepening our experience of love and compassion for one another.

I don't fault anyone who finds comfort and a deep love for other people in their religion, but I hope this offers a glimpse about how an atheist can do the same within their own (non) belief. Speaking just for myself, I hope to find a system of ethics and morality which are as culture-neutral as science, as Harris puts it. I doubt we'll ever get there, but it's important to me that we try.


Hobbesian Friday: Changing Beliefs Edition

Ed Brayton from "Dispatches From the Culture Wars", made the following comment on one of his posts regarding "The Blasphemy Challenge" (a very silly and pointless exercise by people on YouTube who proclaim they deny Christ and thus are eligible for eternal damnation):

Exactly my point, thank you (though I couldn't care less who's right about the interpretation of the "don't blaspheme the holy spirit" verse). As I said, I would find a bunch of videos, or better yet essays, on why people left Christianity or what they find unconvincing about it very interesting. That would be an argument. That would be communicating ideas. That would actually be something worth thinking about.

I was looking at the above "Calvin & Hobbes" strip and Ed's comment resonated with me. I think reading such stories would be very interesting for everyone, and so I issue you this challege -- write an essay, comment, video blog post, or e-mail message on the topic:

"Why I stopped believing what I believed before, and now believe this instead."

This isn't really intended to be a "Why I became an atheist" exercise, what I'm most interested in is the process people go through in the course of changing their fundamental beliefs. Maybe you were raised Baptist and turned away from that in favor of Catholicism. Maybe you were raised an atheist and eventually converted to be an Episcopalian. Maybe you were raised Christian and became a Muslim, or gave up on God altogether and settled on atheism.

What I'm interested in hearing is stories of how and why you came to the conclusion that the faith (or non faith) you were raised in no longer was satisfying, fulfilling, or convincing to you. There's already plenty out there about the end of the story, about why you decided that the new belief system was better, but there's not a lot about the first part of it, about how people decide that what they fervently believed before is no longer correct.

Again, this isn't so much a request for conversion stories as it is a request for "de-conversion" stories -- I want to know why you don't believe what you used to any more, not why you currently believe what you do, if that makes sense.

I look forward to hearing what people have to say about it. If I get any submissions (either in comments or via e-mail) I'll compile them and put them into a new category. You can contact me with at if you like, or you can leave a comment here with either your listing or a link to your blog / web page where I can read what you've got to say.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Technology Kryptonite

Even Superman was vulnerable to Kryptonite, so I shouldn't feel shame that I too have a weak spot. In my case, it's not glowing rocks from my doomed home planet that sap my super strength, but rather the simple telephone that destroys my geeky mojo.

When I worked at Dell in Technical Support, I was in "The Swamp", the only (at that time) overnight crew. We took calls on everything Dell sold, from servers to laptops to modems and graphics cards. If Dell stocked it, we supported it. This was in marked contrast to the daytime techs (or "Weenies" as we called them) who could punt all the hard calls up the tech hierarchy and only had to troubleshoot easy stuff ("Yes, the power in the house has to be on for the computer to work, that's not a design flaw").

Hell, I even remember trying to help a guy fix the trackball on his Latitude notebook computer, and I had never even seen a trackball. "Trackball, trackball," I was thinking frantically, searching for an image on the internal web site. "Surely he's not using a piece of sports equipment for a pointing device ... " But I fixed it, along with all of the other calls on equipment I'd never seen before and knew only from spotty and incomplete online tech manuals.

All the other equipment, that is, except for anything involving phones.

Phones are Evil
Phones have hated me for as long as I can remember. In high school I was trying to woo a girl on the phone, and she fell asleep on me. I blamed AT&T and not my sparkling wit. My cell phones keep leaping out of my hands to dash themselves on the pavement, desperate to escape my clutches. I'm on my fifth modem in my home computer as the others keep flaming out -- they hate me, I know it. I even got a vicious cut on my hand once trying to replace one of the little bastards, and although I can't prove it I am pretty sure it was faking an injury and packing a shiv.

My incompetence extends to anything with a phone type of device in it, as well, which has led to some nasty tussles with fax machines. They keep eating my originals, shredding my documents, refusing to transmit, and flash the date at me in defiance of every effort to program them. They're even starting to get proactive on me -- I had a fax machine calling my house every hour for three days once. Tell me that was an accident!

I've learned to accept this chink in my armor over the last decade or so. Just as Superman coats himself in lead to resist Kryptonite rays, or sends a surrogate Super-Robot out to handle the deadly stuff, I too have become adept at negating telephony's nefarious hold. I simply refuse to answer the phone most of the time, under the assumption that if I don't open myself up, I can't be damaged. Letting the cell phone run out of electricity is also a good maneuver -- if it can't ring, I'm at no risk.

Sadly, this entire week I have been held helpless in the thrall of my age old enemy, as the wireless modem we use for Internet access has up and died on us. It took a year for it to figure out it was, in fact, a modem and that it should thus hate me, but it's certainly making up for lost time. In fact its loathing cascaded all the way up the line, knocking out two relay stations further along the chain in an effort to make me buckle. And buckle I have, my friends -- I haven't been able to get online from home in a week now.

I suspect that phones are actually not just my personal technological Kryptonite, but are in fact RED Kryptonite, the variety that has unpredictable effects on the Man of Steel. Once it even made him grow super-fat -- I bet that's what is happening with my phones. Somehow they're not only robbing me of my super tech support abilities, but they've made me put on forty pounds and go bald. If I can blame them for my back hair, too, I'm pretty sure I've got a rock-solid case for a lawsuit against Ma Bell.


Monday, February 05, 2007

iPod Country-Musical Mashup-a-Palooza

When I sing, I don't just limit myself to the notes and the key from the song I'm singing -- that's so repressive. No, being the free spirit I am, I let the notes careen up and down the scale from the original like a drunken man on greased stilts.

And if I can do that with the notes, I asked myself, why not with lyrics as well? Being an agreeable fellow, I immediately saw the wisdom in what I had proposed to myself, and thus I now bring you a new creation -- the first ever Nerd Country iPod Country-Musical Mashup-a-Palooza. I've taken verses from various songs on my iPod and assembled them into an all-new narrative song of drinking, loving, and losing that I feel confident will rocket its way up the country charts.

We move from unadulterated sinful excess, to slow recognition that perhaps his significant other has also strayed, on into acceptance of an addiction problem, eventually into rage, and finally reaching an understanding that the doomed relationship, now broken, is likely not going to be resumed.

Bonus points for whoever can identify the most songs making up this Bubba Tech Frankenstein Monstrosity!

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
Need a little bit more of my twelve-ounce nutrition.
One more helpin' of what I've been havin'--
I'm takin' my turn on the sin wagon.

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!

I'd fall down and say "Come help me, honey!"
You laughed out loud, I guess you thought it was funny.
I sobered up and I got to thinkin'
Girl, you ain't much fun since I quit drinkin'.

Women are irrational, that's all there is to that!
Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!
They're nothing but exasperating, irritating,
vacillating, calculating, agitating,
Maddening and infuriating hags!

Is it still over, are we still through?
Since my phone still ain't ringing I assume it still ain't you.

This started out as just a set of funny lyrics from songs I've been listening to, but then I realized it kind of all hung together. There are five different songs this was drawn from, four country tunes and one from a musical.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Venus Rising

One of the best things about living in the country is the amazing number of stars you can see on a clear night. A close second are the spectacular sunsets we get treated to. Last night night I got the camera out and using a rock on the roof of the F250 as a tripod (get 'er done!) I got this snapshot of Venus rising just after the sun went down.


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Jeff Hebert, Biblical Scholar

Oh my, this is somewhat startling:

You know the Bible 85%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

Granted, the questions are pretty easy, and out of the multiple possible answers, at least one is kind of a joke. I'd wager most anyone with a basic grounding in Western Civilization would do pretty well at this. Either that, or I've done a lot more reading and studying than I thought, and clearly that can't be the case -- when would I have time amid the donkey wrangling and turkey pickling?

(Hat tip to PZ Meyers, another atheist who apparently knows the Bible fairly well -- scary.)


Friday, February 02, 2007

Hobbesian Friday, Wanton Indulgence of Animals Edition

I'm going to try and start a new tradition here at Nerd Country, with the introduction of "Hobbesian Friday". Every week I'll post a favorite "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon that is in some way relevant to current affairs, and maybe post a little commentary on it.

(Click for a larger version)

I'd say this one pretty much sums up me and Annie. Calvin and I stand on a hill, pontificating about various philosophies and our relationship to the rest of the universe, and then start flinging snowballs at passersby as we revert to "Seven Year Old" mode. Meanwhile the much wiser Annie/Hobbes points out that the only true happiness comes from the wanton indulgence of animals (specifically, one presumes, Annie and Hobbes themselves).

It's been so long since "Calvin and Hobbes" stopped its run (more than a decade ago now) that I think we forget just how great it was, on a consistent basis. There's nothing else on the comics page today that even comes close to the level of artistry Watterson displayed day in and day out. These strips are just as relevant, just as funny, just as unique today as when they were published.

I also find the strip relevant to the subjects I cover on this blog. Religion from the historical John Calvin, founder of Calvinism, juxtaposed with purely mechanical political and social engineering from Thomas Hobbes, mixed in with super-heroes, science fiction, dinosaurs, and the absolute absence of any kind of filter between brain and mouth -- me and this blog in a nutshell.

People characterize Hobbes as Calvin's conscience, and there's a lot of truth to that. But he's more -- as in this strip, Hobbes to me represents our animal nature. Not in the negative sense that the modern era has ascribed to that description, but in its best sense -- Hobbes represents all that animals have to teach us, in their wisdom and maturity and single-minded focus on the next meal. They're the perfect couple for showing us what's best (and worst) in our natures, that wide-eyed childlike ability to see the possibilities that lie beyond this thin veil of "reality" and the grounded animal with both feet firmly rooted in the practical now.

Plus, they're wicked funny, and without humor life's just not all that worth it.

I hope you enjoy "Hobbesian Friday" here at Nerd Country. Have a good weekend!


Thursday, February 01, 2007

More Caped Lobotomies

I discovered another passage in the "Batman Lobotomy" chronicles I wrote about the other day. Robin is the one who actually broaches the subject with Batman early in the adventure, on their way to the likely scene of the crime. Maybe it's the smell of fresh air that gives Robin the idea in that hip 1970's convertible Batmobile, or perhaps the sound of the wind whistling through those bat ears finally drove him over the edge, but there's something very chilling about that sweet-faced Boy Wonder just spouting "Frontal lobotomy!" out of the blue like that. Very, very strange.

In any event, I scanned in both passages as further evidence that in some ways, reading comic books really can rot your brain. Or at least, can encourage authorities to come and scrape parts of it out.

And finally, to close out this little frontal lobe caper, I give you the lyrics to the immortal "I'd Rather Have a Bottle In Front of Me Than A Frontal Lobotomy", by Randy Hanzlick

But I'd rather have a bottle in front of me,
Than have to have a frontal lobotomy.
I might be drunk, but at least I'm not insane.


United States of Whatever

Sometimes unadulterated silliness is just what the agonized, introspective, "you think too much" country nerd needs to lighten the mood. "United States of Whatever" is the only song released from the album "Fake Songs", but that's because there never was an album called "Fake Songs". It broke the Top Ten in Australia and the UK in 1999, but I never actually saw the video until today. It cracks me up.