Saturday, March 31, 2007

On Being a Whore

When you live out in the country you learn how to pronounce things differently, which is how I learned I was a whore. And believe me, it's not as glamorous as it's been portrayed in movies, and I should know because today was my "first day on the job", so to speak. It really kills your back, and now I've got callouses on my hands like you wouldn't believe. I got quite a workout, that's for sure, but I came up with some pretty good techniques.

For instance, to really get the most out of it you need to grasp the shaft firmly, then really get your arms and legs into it. Don't be afraid of hurting yourself or you're going to do it wrong, and that's definitely not good.

Other people probably do it differently, I've read and heard about others using toys and devices, and hey, I'm all about everyone living their lives their own way. I don't mean to judge anybody, after all, that's not what I'm here for. But for me, if you're going to be a whore there's really only one good way to go about it and that's the old-fashioned way. I know I'm a lot happier for it, callouses and sore back aside. Luckily I picked the perfect time of year for it, because it seems like everything is just bursting with that Spring spirit, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, that's the update from Nerd Country for today.

Edited to Add: Darn it, spell checker let me down again!

See, out here in the sticks we pronounce it with two syllables -- "HOH-er", and that threw me off. The correct spelling above should have been "hoer". I guess hacking out all those weeds from the lawn wore me out worse than I thought. But there's no way I'm using a Weedeater or gas-powered tiller, if a traditional hoe is good enough for real country boys, it's good enough for me!


Friday, March 30, 2007

Global Warming Denialist George Gilder

I'm not a smart man, but I can tell the difference between a bull and a heifer at ten paces with the best of 'em.

Or put another way, I'm a cranky, skeptical old bastard and my friends like sending me nonsense and foolishness to get me all worked up at the idiocy a perverse humanity seems determined to foist on us.

As an example, I offer the following message from something called "The Gilder Technology Report" sent to me by a colleague, who wondered what I thought of it. Nothing like a rousing game of "Skeptic Bating" to get the blood going in the morning, and being an obliging fellow I dove on in.

First, the actual post from Gilder:

Friday Feature / Politically Correct Science

Gilder Technology Report Subscriber (3/9/07): George, please weigh in on Gore and global warming.

George Gilder (3/10/07): The disabling flaw of the Al Gore movie is that nearly all the details ( Kilamanjaro, the Chad lake, the spread of diseases and on and on) dissolve as soon as you investigate them.
(It s been colder than usual on Kil; the lake is a few feet deep and disappears cyclically; the diseases are unrelated to GW.)

The key to his scientific argument is the famous Academy Award extrapolation of CO2 increases to the skies, as dramatized by his elevator lift scene.

But far from an exponential, CO2 does not even have anywhere near a linear impact on temperatures. If he compared the increase in CO2 not to existing CO2 but to the gyrations of other greenhouse gasses, particularly water vapor, which is 130 times more voluminous, he would have had to crawl along the bottom of the chart with a magnifying glass.

The idea that CO2, which is absorbed by plants and sustains them (to the extent of a 28% increase in foliage in recent years), is a pollutant of any kind will be regarded by future scientists as the looniest notion of our increasingly innumerate media culture. Nick Tredennick did a great short essay on this.

As Richard Feynman pointed out about adjectival "sciences," environmental science probably isn't. It's science for rich upper class dummies like Bobby Kennedy and Sharon Rockefeller who think they should be able to push around current wealth creators because their own wealth is "well seasoned" by time and refined by Ivy "liberal arts." They themselves are intellectual pigmies compared to their forbears in business whom they depend on for their trust fund support and disdain in politically correct fatuities.

A few red flags go up at once upon reading this. Any time someone says something like "nearly all the details ... dissolve as soon as you investigate them", you should be wary. Yes, it's certainly possible that hundreds or thousands of researchers from across the globe are all wrong -- it's happened before -- but if "nearly all the details" really did "dissolve as soon as you investigate them", don't you think that someone else would have noticed it first? Like, maybe, all of those rival teams of researchers out there who are all looking to make their mark, or a jealous colleague who wants to get published first?

You see this kind of claim all the time, whether it's people denying the Holocaust happened, or that Einstein's theory of relativity was wrong, or that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and evolution is a sham -- "All of these so-called experts are wrong in every way and even I, a layman, can easily show you how!" If it sounds like the guy could be on a late-night infomercial hawking spray-on hair, then the odds are good that he's a crackpot.

As I said, though, sometimes it does happen that the one lone voice in the wilderness is right, and The Establishment is wrong. That's why although this kind of over-the-top rhetoric should make you cautious, you still have to pay attention to the actual claims being made. Which is where George Gilder really falls flat.

For instance, he claims that global warming is wrong because it's advanced by liberal, old-money rich people:

It's science for rich upper class dummies like Bobby Kennedy and Sharon Rockefeller who think they should be able to push around current wealth creators because their own wealth is "well seasoned" by time and refined by Ivy "liberal arts." They themselves are intellectual pigmies compared to their forbears in business whom they depend on for their trust fund support and disdain in politically correct fatuities.

Well what the heck does that have to do with anything? Either the data are right or the data are wrong. If increased carbon in the atmosphere causes temperatures to rise, it does so regardless of the motives of those who point it out. If the scientist has skewed the results out of some kind of political or personal agenda, then that will be evident to other scientists who try to recreate the data. Gilder's making an ad hominem attack here, saying that the data is wrong not because the data is wrong, but because he doesn't like the people who published it. And that's not just a formal logical fallacy, it's incredibly stupid. It's like saying "You are wrong that it is raining, and I know this because you're ugly."

Finally there was his statement that:

The idea that CO2, which is absorbed by plants and sustains them (to the extent of a 28% increase in foliage in recent years), is a pollutant of any kind will be regarded by future scientists as the looniest notion of our increasingly innumerate media culture.

Besides the unnecessarily histrionic language, the basic idea he's advancing is foolish. There are all kinds of things that "sustain" us and are necessary for life, but which can become deadly in the wrong concentration. Here, let's try it with another important chemical:

The idea that H2O, which is absorbed by humans and sustains them (to the extent of a 28% increase in global population in recent years), is a pollutant of any kind will be regarded by future scientists as the looniest notion of our increasingly innumerate media culture.

That will be a great comfort to the thousands of drowning victims across the globe, or to people who die of excessive water consumption (it's called hyponatremia). Too much of almost anything can be bad. We need nitrogen in the atmosphere to breathe, too, but too much nitrogen would eliminate all life on Earth. We need and ingest all sorts of trace minerals that sustain us, like iodine and iron, but eating too much of either of those will kill us too. It's just a silly argument. Amounts matter, relative quantities matter, time and location matter. Making a blanket statement like "CO2 helps plants grow so it can't ever do anything harmful!" is silly.

After I wrote all of this as an initial reply to my friend, I decided to do some Googling to find out who this George Gilder guy was. Unsurprisingly, he's not just a crank, but his idiotic takes on technology caused thousands of subscribers to his newsletter to lose their entire fortunes. Even worse (at least in my book), he's one of the co-founders of the terminally misguided and pathologically dishonest Discovery Institute, an organization whose stated goal is to do away with methodological naturalism (i.e. science as we know it).

Now look, I don't know enough about climatology to know one way or another if global warming is real, and if so whether or not it's caused by human activity. But when I look at the people who say that this is correct on both counts, they're scientists and agencies from many different nations, many different cultures, and many different disciplines. They cross the ideological spectrum, and they have hard data and computer models to back up their claims.

On the other side are people like Gilder and Exxon/Mobile, who make idiotic arguments like "But CO2 is a friend to plants!!!1!". "By their friends shall ye know them" isn't the best way to make either science or policy decisions, but I do think it's enough (especially combined with an absolutely dreadful polemical style and logically ridiculous arguments) to show that Mr. Gilder, at least on this issue, is completely untrustworthy.


Hobbesian Friday: Kids Edition

(Copyright © Universal Syndicate)

Annie and I don't have kids of our own, and this causes some consternation among other people. Most people are too polite to just blurt out "Well why on earth not?", but a few hardy souls over the years have gone there. I'm tempted to give either a smart-alec response, like "Well we had a few, but then decided we didn't like them and got Angelina Jolie to take 'em off our hands." Or with something brutally tragic designed to make them back off, like "I lost my testicles in a bad tractor accident."

But mostly I try to be honest. The pat answer I've come up with at this point is as follows:

Being a parent is one of the most important jobs there is. It's so important that we feel if you're not 100% committed to it, if you don't want it more than you've ever wanted anything in your life, then you've no business taking the job in the first place. So far, we don't feel like we want it enough.

The full answer's more complicated than that, of course, but usually that satisfies most people. I imagine in the back of their minds they're thinking "I get it -- you're a selfish bastard." And that's true a little bit, probably. It's also true that the idea of being a parent is scary, and that we're both afraid of some of the trouble lurking in our respective gene pools (alcoholism, schizophrenia, depression, etc.). I think we were both also had some pretty rough spots growing up, and we don't want to visit that on any of our own kids.

But at the end of the day, it really does come down to what I said initially -- being a parent is the most important job in the world, and unless you're willing to treat it like that you don't have any business having kids. And we aren't willing to do that. I respect the hell out of people who do, but we're honest enough to admit that we're not in that group.

We like kids a lot, and love having our nephews and nieces and goddaughters over to visit. We just don't want kids, and we're pretty OK with that decision. Society wants to make it more complicated than that, I think largely due to an understandable fear that if that choice gets too socially acceptable, we'll somehow run out of people to keep civilization going.

To those people, all I can say is "I offered to get a dog instead, and Annie agreed."


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Worst. Logo. Ever.

Courtesy of "Clicked", I bring you a link to "The Worst Logo Ever". It brings whole new -- and disturbing -- meaning to the phrase "Jiggle your mouse":

(Edited: The original image got taken down for some reason, this is an expanded thumbnail.)


Not a Christian?

James Dobson, no longer content with rejecting Christ's admonishments to avoid material wealth and to render political power unto Caesar in his role as head of the immensely wealthy and politically powerful "Focus on Family" group, has now decided to also deny Christ's teaching that "Wheresover two or more of you gather in my name, there too am I" by saying that potential GOP Presidential candidate and Church of Christ member Fred Thompson, is "Not a Christian":

"Everyone knows he's conservative and has come out strongly for the things that the pro-family movement stands for," Dobson said of Thompson. "[But] I don't think he's a Christian; at least that's my impression," Dobson added ...

Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Thompson, took issue with Dobson's characterization of the former Tennessee senator. "Thompson is indeed a Christian," he said. "He was baptized into the Church of Christ."

In a follow-up phone conversation, Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger stood by Dobson's claim. He said that, while Dobson didn't believe Thompson to be a member of a non-Christian faith, Dobson nevertheless "has never known Thompson to be a committed Christian—someone who talks openly about his faith."

"We use that word—Christian—to refer to people who are evangelical Christians," Schneeberger added.

I wrote a few days ago about being careful to not redefine a word like "Christian" into meaninglessness by expanding it to cover basically "anyone nice whom we like", but Dobson is guilty of doing the same thing in reverse. He's decided that he gets to decide who's a Christian and who's not by defining the term downward; apparently it's not enough to believe Christ was Lord, that He rose from the dead, that he was the Son of God, or any of that other nonsense.

No, what's important to Mr. Dobson is that you be an evangelical Christian. All of you who foolishly follow Christ's advice to shut yourself in your room and pray devoutly there rather than braying out your dogma on a street corner, well, you're no Christian. I mean come on, will devoutly praying by yourself and remaining private get a Presidential advisor to visit you and ask for your approval of a potential Supreme Court nominee? I think not.

Catholics, Mormons, Church of Christers, you might as well just turn in your crucifixes, because according to Mr. Dobson you're not really Christians. I bet that comes as a shock to you, seeing as how you were believing Christ is Lord and all. Feel free to take a few moments to recover as you're ushered out of mainstream religion and politics by Mr. Dobson and his Dogma Police. Luckily we atheists will be here to give you a hug -- we've been outside the mainstream for so long we've got the place nicely decorated. It's not so bad, really.

I don't know what's more appalling here, Dobson's utter betrayal of the very philosophies he built his vast political and material fortune on, or his complete lack of shame at claiming to be the keeper of "Family Values" while endorsing the thrice-divorced serial adulterer Newt Gingrich for President at the same time.

Wait, that's no contest -- "Deeply offensive, self-indulgent, arrogant power-mad money whores who blaspheme their god" is definitely more appalling. I never thought I'd say this, because I didn't think Newt Gingrich could ever come off looking morally superior to anyone, but he's really slumming it by sucking up to the likes of Dobson.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

METAPOST: More Tweaking

Still unhappy (the curse of the designer) with the new blog layout, I have introduced a revamped header with some of the elements from the old one, and generally reduced the clutter a bit. I think I'm getting closer.

Plus, Annie missed the pictures of the dogs and other animals in the old header, and if your wife isn't happy, YOU'RE not happy. So now I'm happy. Happier. Getting towards the happy end of the scale ...

Oh who am I kidding, I'll probably change some more stuff tomorrow. Sigh.

Quick American Idol prediction (TiVo-ing it, haven't started watching yet):

Your bottom three will be Chris Sligh, Haley, and the other Chris (the one who doesn't move his neck and sings like Justin Timberlake). Going home? Chris Sligh!


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Conservatives for American Freedom

I know the more conservative readers of this blog will simply roll their eyes and think this is "Just another knee-jerk hysterical over-reaction by a Democrat who wants to undermine Republicans", but at last even conservatives have come to appreciate the warnings long sounded by liberals and libertarians.

This week a group of conservative thinkers has formed the American Freedom Agenda, a group committed to restoring fundamental liberties threatened under Bush's leadership. As Ed Brayton describes the group behind the effort:

It's an interesting group: Bruce Fein, former DOJ official under Reagan and prominent legal scholar; David Keene of the American Conservative Union; Bob Barr, former Georgia Congressman; and Richard Viguerie, who may not be a well known name but is probably the man most responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan and the formation of the modern conservative movement.

This is not a group you can dismiss as America-hating defeatocrats who are nothing more than unhinged Bush bashers, desperate enough to exaggerate any incident into Orwellian proclamations of Doom. These are sober-minded, thoughtful, intelligent, deliberate movement conservatives, who have finally come to share the same understanding as many liberals and libertarians that the Bush Administration has governed in a way that is a genuine and urgent threat to our basic civil liberties.

This group is asking all 2008 Presidential candidates to sign their pledge, which outlines the following ten commitments:
I, (candidate), hereby pledge that if elected President of the United States I will undertake the following to restore the Constitution's checks and balances, to honor fundamental protections against injustice, and to eschew usurpations oflegislative or judicial power.These are keystones of national security and individual freedom:

1. No Military Commissions Except on the Battlefield.
2. No Evidence Extracted by Torture or Coercion.
3. No Detaining Citizens as Unlawful Enemy Combatants.
4. RestoringHabeas Corpus for Suspected Alien Enemy Combatants.
5. Prohibiting Warrantless Spying by the National Security Agency in Violation of Law.
6. Renouncing Presidential Signing Statements.
7. Ending Secret Government by Invoking State Secrets Privilege.
8. Stopping Extraordinary Renditions.
9. Stopping Threats to Prosecuting Journalists under the Espionage Act.
10. Ending the Listing of Individuals or Organizations as Terrorists Based on Secret Evidence.

I will issue a public report annually elaborating on how the actions enumerated in paragraphs 1-10 have strengthened the ability of the United States to defeat international terrorism, secure fundamental freedoms, and preserve the nation's democratic dispensation.

I make a lot of jokes about being a baby-eating liberal, but the fact of the matter is that in the non-partisan sense of the word, I am at core quite conservative. I believe that the Constitution is the greatest template for a government ever devised, and that its principles of freedom, liberty, and suspicion of power (particularly to governmental power) are absolutely vital to a truly great nation. That is the main reason I have, over the last seven years, become so much more actively partisan than I have ever been before -- I believe that the policies of the Bush Administration are the gravest non-military threat to the core principles of the Constitution and individual liberty our nation has ever faced.

I applaud the actions of this group of true conservatives, who recognize that duty to country is far more important than a misguided loyalty to party or person. Long after George Bush is no longer our President, we're going to have to live with the results of his tampering with the fundamental levers of our government.

I would encourage my Republican readers to think about what Hillary Clinton would be like if she could simply wave her hand and dismiss any Congressional oversight, could put you and your family under FBI surveillance with no warrant or recourse to court, could disappear your friends and political colleagues -- even US citizens -- to foreign countries to be tortured without due process or habeus corpus rights, or any of the other items on the list above. This is not an argument that no Republican should have these powers, it's that no President at all, ever, should have them.

Power begets power, and if we let the principles of the Unitary Executive and the removal of checks and balances settle in, we're never going to be rid of them. The time to demand a return to the proven methods of governance that have shielded our nation and our liberty for 200 years and more is now, before our leaders (of either party!) become too comfortable with the garments of power. That is true conservatism.


Monday, March 26, 2007

META: A New Look

I haven't ever been happy with the old look of the site, but also didn't like any of Blogger's default templates. This morning while looking around, however, I found this one, which I think is much, much better. For one thing, it's called "The Hobbit", and how can a fantasy geek who's living in the country NOT use a template with that name?!

But I also like all of the elements around it. I think it's the perfect blending of bubba and techy, which is really what this blog is all about.

Let me know what you think -- if enough people hate it, I can always switch back to the old one.


"I Command You to WANK!"

This may be the funniest post on comics I have ever seen on the Internets. Evil Richard at has compiled some of the greatest accidentally funny comics panels of all time, things that are hilarious today but not in the way the creators intended (except maybe for the Wonder Woman writer, that was one seriously messed up dude). If you only click one link this year, it should be this one. Here's just one sample:

Go to YesButNoButYes now, before I command you to wank again!


Sunday, March 25, 2007

Almost Identical

On behalf of my brother Jimmy (who is easily one of my three favorite male siblings), I am happy to announce the birth to his step-daughter Chrisy of twin baby boys! They are the first twins in our extended family, so that's pretty cool, and of course we couldn't be happier for the whole clan. My brother reports that to be considered identical, twins have to share 9 antigens on a blood test and the boys only share 8. So technically they're fraternal twins, but they're as close to identical as fraternals can get!

Which reminds me of another Annieism, and the occasion is so perfect I can't help but tell it.

We were out with her brother and the young woman he was dating at the time. We'd not met the young lady before, so of course we set to grilling her during the drive to wherever we were going.

"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" Annie asked.

"Just one, I have a twin brother," she said.

"Neat!" Annie said. "Are you identical twins?"

Pause. Pause.

"Well, except for the penis, yes."


Friday, March 23, 2007

An Upcoming Bush Bounce

I generally avoid discussing politics here because, let's be honest, I don't know squat about politics. But I am going to go out on a limb and predict that President Bush's approval ratings will improve over the next 6 months from the currently abysmal low 30's to the still bad but not epic upper 30's/low 40's.

I say that because the Democrats now control the Congress, and so can actually start doing things rather than being forced to just flap their gums. That will give President Bush the opportunity to attack everything they do, and if there's one thing Republicans love, it's attacking liberals. It's practically the entire party platform. If they had a "Make a Liberal Look Like an Idiot" show on television it would have huge ratings.

Oh, wait, they already have that -- it's called "Hannity & Colmes". My bad.

In fact, I will go so far as to say the foundation of the Republican Party is not lower taxes, smaller government, banning abortion, or "defending marriage". It is now, and has been since I've been of age, simply this:

Hating Liberals.

Now the enemy is once again on the radar, and the Liberal Bashing can begin. That will whet the bloody appetite of the fiercer partisans, and bring them back to the fold. You can tell this is true because I have the same qualifications as the guys who get on cable television to analyze this stuff -- none. Not knowing jack squat guarantees me a spot on some 24 hour news channel show. I'm not saying I could make one of the biggies like The O'Reilley Factor or Countdown, but maybe something like The Glenn Beck Show or Paula Zahn, who are desperate for someone -- anyone -- to book as a guest.

Remember, you read it here first -- Bush at 41% by September. You can trust me because I'm ignorant.



The first version of HeroMachine, version 1.0, has been downloaded a total of 444,100 times, making it the 25th most-downloaded file in history on all of Simtel.

In celebration of that feat, I have redesigned to be a little cleaner, meaner, and up-to-date, including an FAQ, a link to my heroic illustration portfolio, and some spiffy new graphic elements.

I never imagined when I laid out the first concepts in Visual Basic in 1998 that so many people would find it a useful and fun little gizmo. That they're still willing to put up with the truly embarrassing artwork in version 1 is a testament to the power of the concept -- give people a way to express their creativity and they'll run with it.

Now if only I'd used that insight to found YouTube instead of HeroMachine ...



I expect to find the occasional bug when cleaning my computer out, but a gnome? That's a little much. Maybe if I post him here he'll quit bothering me.

Actually, this is an illustration I did just for the fun of it a few months ago. I've always wanted to play a gnome illusionist/thief, but never got the chance. I think he's about as cool looking as a two foot tall critter with a big nose can be, but I guess that's not saying much ...


Military Mindreading Computers

Wired Magazine reports:

Since 2000, Darpa, the Pentagon's blue-sky research arm, has spearheaded a far-flung, nearly $70 million effort to build prototype cockpits, missile control stations and infantry trainers that can sense what's occupying their operators' attention, and adjust how they present information, accordingly.

Strangely, as soon as the new systems were turned on and hooked up to actual soldiers, the only thing any of their monitors would show was pornography.


Hobbesian Friday: Maturity Edition

On the possible eve of a compromise bill on Iraq passing the House, and in light of recent debates here over religion and atheism, I think this sums it all up pretty well:

© Universal Syndicate
Click for a larger version.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Punching Darwin in the Face

At a "getting to know you" type of luncheon some time ago, we had a round-robin where everyone had to answer the question "If you could meet anyone, living or dead, from any time in human history, and punch them in the face, who would you choose?" Paris Hilton hadn't yet hit the international celebrity scene in a big way at that point or I assume everyone would've immediately thrown her out there. Instead, most people had fairly predictable responses, along the lines of "Hitler" or "Stalin", some of the worst specimens of evil scum the species has ever produced.

Then we got to a woman who was a recent Biology graduate of a college in Arkansas, who happened to be a Young Earth Creationist (someone who believes the universe is only 6,000 years old and that the Bible is literally true and inerrant). Her answer shocked me.

"If I could punch anyone in the face," she said with an angry scowl, "it would be Charles Darwin."

We were all fairly stunned, and needless to say the topic was quickly changed to something less controversial. But I couldn't let it go. How could someone who'd studied college-level biology a) not understand the fact of evolution and b) have such a strange view of science that punching Darwin in the face would be a good thing? She clearly thought Darwin was a worse monster than Hitler, or Attila the Hun, or Pol Pot, or even Satan.

The more I thought about it, the stranger the answer was. If your beef is with anyone who might suggest that the universe is less than 6,000 years old, why single out Charles Darwin? Why not choose Copernicus, who first opened the door to the idea that the Bible was not inerrant by proving that the Earth is not, in fact, the center of the universe? Why not the first geologists who proposed the shocking concept of geologic age, showing that the universe was not thousands but rather millions (and later billions) of years old? Without that backdrop of deep time, the idea of evolution probably would never have arisen. Darwin was small potatoes compared to those gentlemen, at least as far as threat to a young earth goes.

Yet there's something about evolution that rankles these people at a deep, fundamental, visceral level. Maybe it's the "I ain't related to no monkey!" reflex. Maybe it's just that we are the fundamental subject of biology, and that's personal in a way that geology (rocks) or astronomy (space) are not.

I can understand -- not accept, but understand -- a revulsion about the ideas of Darwin, but why do they hate him, the man, so very much? They don't go around calling astronomers "Copernicans", and yet all who accept that evolution is a fact are "Darwinists". It's not enough to attack the idea, they have to demean and destroy the man.

It's personal.

They go so far as to try and make up all sorts of stories about Darwin to paint him as some kind of racist, hateful bigot, who did unspeakably horrible things. None of it's true, but that hardly matters to them. Even intelligent, educated people like William Dembski deliberately lie and distort history to tar Darwin with infamy. It's like they hate the idea that Darwin proposed so much that their only recourse is to hate the man who first proposed it. They see Darwin as the high priest of a Satanic cult whose only goal is to undermine Christianity, and thus no slur or lie is hateful enough to compare with the evil of his actual existence.

And yet even if they succeeded in tearing him down as a person, what good does that do? Would finding out that Darwin was, say, a child rapist invalidate the theory of evolution? Can they honestly believe that? Do they not understand that observations and facts exist separately from the people who propose them? Calling Einstein a philanderer is not going to invalidate the Theory of Relativity any more than accusing Darwin of being a racist is going to nullify the Theory of Evolution. The very idea is nonsensical.

At the heart of all of the high-minded protests Young Earth Creationists and ID proponents make about naturalism and "teaching the controversy" is the same basic rage and irrationality that young woman exhibited at lunch. This isn't a dry, academic, objective exploration of the world and those who inhabit it. No, this is a primal fight to the death for these people.

So the next time you're in a discussion with them, or you're doing your best to figure out how rational people can possibly believe in such arrant nonsense, keep in mind that their idea of grappling with a challenging concept is to punch the one who proposed it in the face.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Were I still in high school, this next sentence would undoubtedly get me beaten up:

Sometimes I get involved in Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games.

Mostly I keep that information hidden from people, both to avoid any reflexive "beat the nerd to a bloody pulp" reactions and because it's just too hard to explain. If I ever am forced to admit to it, I generally laugh it off and give the same excuse I do when my wife catches me ogling an attractive woman:

"I just do it for the art. Really."

Luckily now that I've actually been published in game supplements, that excuse carries a little weight with regards to the Dungeons & Dragons end of it. I haven't had quite the same luck with the ogling, but I gamely keep tossing it out there.

There is a grain of truth to the art excuse, though. I really do like illustrating the characters and scenarios we find ourselves in during a gaming session. One of the most recent adventures I had the good fortune to participate in was from an early Dungeons & Dragons supplement called "Mystara", run by an online friend of mine by the name of Jeff Mejia. Although the game is now defunct, I had a good time illustrating the player characters. I went for a sort of 1940's pulp fiction / movie serial kind of feel with them, and I was really happy with three of the illustrations in particular, which I'll share after the jump.

First up is Krondak Ironfist, the character I played. He's a good-natured, bad-ass Dwarf with (as the name implies) a mysterious mechanical fist of unknown powers. I liked this drawing a lot, I think it really captured Krondak's spirit.

Next up is Rolmir, the team mage. Young, a little lacking in self-confidence, but eager to try out his new magical abilities, Rolmir was a fun guy to have around. This illustration gives a sense of Rolmir's willingness to brave danger even while afraid.

The leader of our little team of misfits was Troilus, a newly-retired human sergeant from the local army. A sniper with the longbow and deadly with a sneaky knife in the back, Troilus showed more bravery in being willing to lead the team than he ever needed on any field of battle -- the guys were quite a handful.

I wanted to post these drawings partly because I like them, but also as an example of the way I use artwork to help me have a better role-playing game experience. I have an idea of what the character is like in my head, and then as I start to draw him or her, more and more details get filled in. Sometimes by the end of a drawing I have a whole new understanding of that character's motivations and thought processes. Or, sometimes, they just end up with a really neat weapon.

Because in D&D, happiness is a warm vorpal sword.

(Don't feel bad if you don't get that last joke. It means you're normal. Those of us who get it are the weirdos.)


My Life as a Hack

I'm a hack. Half the time when I'm working on something, I have no idea either what I am doing or how it will turn out. When I worked at Dell in technical support, I can't count the number of times I'd tell a customer to do something, while simultaneously thinking "I wonder what's going to happen when they do that?"

The same is true with writing computer programs. I hacked and slashed my way through writing HeroMachine, basically making it all up as I went along. I look back on that code today and I think I must have written it while drunk. "Why the hell did I do THAT?!" I'll think while trying to find something. Just today I fixed a bug in HeroMachine that's been plaguing it for two and a half years. I fixed it, but I don't know why the fix works. It just does. I feel like a Voodoo priest, staring at his collection of chicken bones and wondering what it all means, why it worked, and yet afraid to delve into it too deeply for fear of breaking something else.

I pretty much live my life that way, actually, stumbling from one unlikely scenario to the next. When I see old friends they invariably say "I'd never have imagined you living on a ranch with donkeys and horses." I can only reply, "Neither did I." But that assumes that there was some plan that went off the planned trail at some point, and there never was such a plan. I'm just making it all up as I go along.

Living this way has certain advantages -- every day's a new surprise, you stumble across some things you'd never have experienced otherwise, and all sorts of exciting things can happen to you. It's also very scary sometimes. I don't know what I'll be doing next year, much less fifty years from now.

I'm just a hack, after all. And wherever I end up, I'm pretty sure I'll be standing there, scratching my head, wondering how in the hell I got so lucky to be there in the first place but afraid to look too closely at it for fear of messing it all up.


Heroes in Bertram

Over Thanksgiving this past year we had my new mother-in-law and her family out to the ranch for the big feast. They came from Seattle, Miami, and Hollywood, which was pretty amazing. Considering how much culture shock there is for me coming from Austin to Bertram every day, I can only imagine the kind of cognitive dissonance we unleashed on those poor people.

While combing through the hard drive I came across this photo John Lacy (the one from Hollywood) took of his son Luke, out in the pasture with the donkeys. I like the way the donkeys are standing in almost a herringbone pattern, and the way Luke's bright blue shirt stands out in the yellow grass.

The other cool thing about John (besides that he was a really nice guy and has a wonderful wife and kids) is that he's an actor (here's his IMDB entry), and shortly after coming out to the house he appeared in an episode of my favorite TV show, "Heroes"! I bet the donkeys were hoping they'd get invited for a guest appearance, but apparently Hollywood's got enough asses already to last a while. Oh well, they'll probably be just as happy eating grass.

The other great moment during the visit came from granddaughter, Allison, who's from Miami. She walked out the door after the sun went down, looked up into the sky and, with mouth agape, said "Where did all those stars come from?!" I hope John wasn't offended that she meant the ones in the heavens and not the one from Hollywood, but sometimes being out in Nerd Country has that affect on people.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007


So I was driving home yesterday after a long ten hours of laying out a new user registration interface for our company's web site and on my lunch hour debugging a Flash script that loads up the super-heroes kids have designed online. I left my office, which is just across the highway from the largest computer maker in the world, passed over forty miles of Texas highway, and on the last curve before my house I saw this:

Unlike last week, when I saw a zebra on the side of Highway 29, this time I had my camera with me and was able to take a photo. I swear, sometimes the cognitive dissonance that is my life confuses even me. At this point I'd not have been surprised if the buffalo had iPod ear buds in place.

Just another day in Nerd Country, I suppose. I do wish I'd gotten a picture of that zebra, though, I suspect Annie is starting to think I've gone off the deep end ...


Monday, March 19, 2007

Christian or NeoChristian?

I read a variety of blogs on daily, and recently Rob Knop, one of the new members of the team, posted an explanation of why he is both a scientists and a Christian.

There's just one problem -- according to the beliefs Knop himself claims to hold, he isn't a Christian.

He goes on to say that he does not believe God to be the Creator of the universe, nor does he believe that Christ was bodily resurrected from the dead, nor does he believe that faith in Christ is necessary for redemption. To remove these core tenets of the Christian faith from the definition of "Christian" is to render the term meaningless. We already have words that mean "A nice person who behaves in what I consider a moral fashion", why is it necessary to so broaden the definition of "Christian" to mean the same thing? It's giving up a perfectly useful word and getting nothing in return.

C.S. Lewis addresses this point in "Mere Christianity" (I'm attempting to blog about my thoughts while reading it, but frankly I find the book so tedious and unpersuasive I haven't actually been able to bring myself to write anything much). I think Lewis is exactly right, however, about the danger posed by attempts to broaden the meaning of the term "Christian" too far (emphasis mine):

Far deeper objections may be felt-and have been expressed- against my use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity. People ask: "Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?" or "May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?" Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every amiable quality except that of being useful.

He goes on to compare this attempted broadening of the term to the way "Gentleman" became corrupted to the point of uselessness over the years. It once had a very concrete meaning:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not "a gentleman" you were not insulting him, but giving information.

Eventually, however, people began using "gentleman" not as a statement of fact but a comment on the general moral character of a man, regardless of his status as a landowner. There's nothing wrong with inflating a word's scope, of course, but it does mean that at the end of the day, you've lost the ability to use the word in its original, more concrete sense. Worse, it essentially becomes a completely subjective way of referring to whether or not the speaker likes the subject in question or not:

They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man "a gentleman" in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is "a gentleman" becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A "nice" meal only means a meal the speaker likes.)

This is exactly what is happening with Knop's description of himself as a "Christian" even though he rejects the core tenets of what has traditionally defined Christianity. This is not to say that Knop's not a delightful fellow who lives his life in accordance with the teachings of Christ as he sees them. Clearly, he does. But that no more makes him a Christian than the fact that someone acts gentlemanly means he owns land or has a coat of arms. The word becomes meaningless and useless, as Lewis describes:

A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say "deepening," the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men's hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge.

It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served ... When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.

If someone does not believe the basic doctrines of Christian theology, then they shouldn't be called a Christian no matter how much they admire Christ's philosophy or example. Doing so destroys the utility of the term in return, literally, for no gain whatsoever in information. We'd be throwing away a perfectly good word that can be used factually for a nebulous word that's entirely subjective and free of any content beyond "I think he's a nice person".

I believe we need a different term for people like Knop, who follow what they perceive as Christ's moral example and personal philosophy, but who do not hold one or more of the key tenets of Christianity. I would propose the term "NeoChristian"; it honors the person's belief that he or she is a follower of Christ, but also acknowledges that they reject what is commonly considered orthodox Christianity. Using this term also allows "Christian" to retain its utility as an objective indicator of a factual condition (i.e. "This person holds at least these beliefs").

Of course people differ in what they think those basic orthodox Christian tenets are, but I think historically it's fair to say that the Nicene Creed pretty much sets the standard. Namely:
  • Belief that there is only one true God, and that this God is the creator of the universe and all within it;

  • Jesus Christ is the only son of this God, divine in His essence, of one substance with the Father even though he was a mortal as well;

  • Jesus was bodily resurrected on the third day after His death and will come again to judge us;

  • Belief in the Holy Ghost

So here's my proposed definition of "NeoChristian":

A philosophy based on attempting to emulate and live by the moral example set by Jesus Christ while simultaneously rejecting one or more of the orthodox Christian tenets as laid out in the Nicene Creed of 325 AD.

I realize most people will consider this a pedantic and boring treatment of something that's basically just semantics, but I feel it's important to keep language precise and useful. I think it's confusing and inaccurate for people like Knop to appropriate the traditional use of the word "Christian" to describe themselves just because there hasn't been a common word to describe what they are. I don't know if "NeoChristian" will catch on or not, but we've got to have some kind of term that means the same thing and is acceptable to most everyone. Otherwise we're going to use a perfectly useful word, and have nothing in return.

And yes, I realize some will find the fact that an atheist is addressing the topic as somehow incongruous, but that's exactly why I find it relevant and important. "Atheist" has a very specific meaning -- someone who has no belief in a god -- but it's slowly getting conflated with all sorts of irrelevant connotations. You already see it in the way some theists discuss atheists, it's essentially becoming synonymous with "a very bad, wicked, amoral person" and that's clearly inaccurate. Knop's attempting the same thing, only in a positive direction, trying to equate "Christian" with "a good, moral, upstanding, nice person" and that's just as silly. "Christian" and "atheist" should remain discrete, value-neutral terms that have objective meanings, and not simply ways of saying how you feel about the person in question. If "Christian" is to retain any value as a discrete term, then Rob Knop is not a Christian and it's misleading to label him as one.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Reality TV Meets Nerd Country

Jessica and Nick, and Ozzie and Sharon, eat your hearts out. Because there's a new Reality TV star coming from Nerd Country, and she's a bona-fide hoot.

A hoot owl, that is. Eastern Screech, to be precise, and thanks to some friends of ours this wild owl is the star of her own Internet reality show.

I blogged a few months ago about an "Owl Prowl" led by our Aunt Sharon out here at the ranch. An attending couple named Pat (both the husband and the wife are named Pat, deal with it!) really took a liking to the whole concept, and Pat (not Pat the dental hygienist, but Pat the engineer) in the finest Bubba Tech tradition has now put up his own owl box complete with infrared and visual cameras. And because even that wasn't awesome enough, he took it to the next level by connecting those cameras to the Internet via a SlingBox, so they can check on their avian buddies from any computer in the world.

Now that's kickin' it Nerd Country style!

All I can say is, the project has really laid an egg. In fact, if all goes well it's gonna lay a bunch of eggs! Miss Cleo (that's the owl) has laid her first official egg in what The Pats hope will be a clutch of 3-5. It's pretty amazing to see how far they've run with this idea and it cracks me up that this owl now has a web cam and I don't!

Anyway, head on over to PatnPat's place for more on this cool story.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Why It's Shiloh Falls

The drought has gone on for so long we'd almost forgotten, but thanks to some heavy rains last week we once again have falls here at Shiloh Falls. Here's how the place is looking now that Spring has sprung and the waters are once again flowing. This is one of those things that makes me remember why we live out here at the short end of nowhere.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Hobbesian Friday: Snow Atheist Edition

© Universal Press Syndicate
Click for a larger version

I think this is best summed up by a quote from another Calvin & Hobbes strip, wherein Calvin's dad says "I'm not sure whether your grasp of meteorology or theology is the more appalling."


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Sptting, Child-Humping Llama Available CHEAP!

First the Bertram contingent on Craig's List brought you the "Whore Red Trannie". Apparently either Bertram is just a hotbed for weirdos or Craig's List attracts them like moths to a flame, because today this ad for a llama appeared on Craig's List:

It's time for us to rehome our llama. He will be three in July. Not gelded. Worked some with a halter. He runs with our goats. Large animal. You will need to pick up. Cannot deliver. Caution! Aggressive animal. Doesn't spit unless agitated, however, has attempted to mount young children. Large lovable galoot who doesn't know his own strength. Rehoming fee applies.

So this lovable ungelded large aggressive animal that spits when agitated and attempts to mount young children needs a new home, and they expect someone to pay them for the honor. I just hope I can get to my wallet before some other lucky Bertramite snaps this great deal up!


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

HeroMachine 3: A New Beginning

Since I launched the full version of HeroMachine 2 June of 2004 I haven't wanted to touch the core program at all. I was just exhausted with it mentally and creatively. Yes, I've worked on custom versions for various people, but the program itself has lain fallow for the last two and a half years. I couldn't bear the thought of dealing with it again, and had zero interest in a completely new version.

Finally, two weeks ago I felt the creative fires start to smolder once more.

I emailed the HeroMachine Yahoo Discussion Group about what they'd like to see in a next generation product, and as usual they came through with some stellar ideas that have really gotten me pumped up. For someone who fancies himself a self-sufficient hermit, I'm constantly humbled by how truly creative and innovative people out there can be.

Overwhelmingly, people want more poses and more body styles. It's hard to create a team when all of the characters stand in exactly the same way and have the same build. You're stuck with just the stock bodies I provide, so if you wanted to create a teen or youthful hero, for instance, or a fat or short one, you were out of luck. The constraint on creating more of that has always simply been time -- it takes forever to hand draw each item for each new figure, and it's boring to boot. The fun part is drawing it the first time, the necessity of re-drawing it five times over to get it on all the other body styles is dreadful, mind-numbing stuff. I hate it.

But I think there might be a way around that -- pawn off the body design and posting on the user! I love making other people do my work for me, it's one of the great pleasures in life, and I think I've figured out how to do that with HeroMachine.

I've posted the first test of that concept here (feel free to play around with it, but be warned -- it's very rudimentary), and I'm pretty excited by the possibilities I can see even in this very crude, slapdash effort. I think I'm going to be able to create just one basic body, allowing the user to swap discrete sections of that body in and out to get male or female base figures, humans or robots, that kind of thing. Plus you'll be able to mix and match, so you might have a human torso with robot arms and dinosaur legs or somesuch, each with fitted clothing and items to go on it. I'll still have to redraw items multiple times, at least each one will be different -- a glove on a robot arm looks different than one on a human one.

Add in to that the ability for the user to scale and position body sections, and the possibilities should be pretty amazing. You can suddenly create more realistic dwarf figures, for instance, because you can squash the torso while leaving the arms disproportionately long and beefy, with smaller, stouter legs and a large head.

I created the HeroMachine so that anyone could bring their imagination to life in a character drawing that looked like it was custom-commissioned from a professional illustrator. The constraints of having to fit all of the items into the right place on the figure really cut into that freedom, substituting my judgment and layout for the user's. Finally I can see a way to reduce those limits to almost nil, giving the user virtually complete freedom to pose and construct their illustrations however they want.

I'm getting really, really excited about the prospects for this next generation of HeroMachine. After almost three years, it's nice to have that feeling back again.


Dog Meets Horse

I took this photo shortly after we moved out to the new ranch and the border collies were still very young. I like to imagine that Radar the dog is thinking "Holy crap, you want me to herd THAT?!" Or maybe it's "Holy crap, that's the biggest damn cow I ever saw."

It's always a lot easier to act tough when there's a fence between you and the other guy, but Radar's got the courage to at least give it a go. That's the nice thing about border collies, they don't ever think they're outmatched. I ought to learn something from that, but so far the best lesson I can come up with is "Good fences make good neighbors", and that one's already taken.


"Evil Unleashed", Unleashed!

I used to do a fair amount of freelance work for HERO Games, publishers of "Champions", the super-hero role-playing system. While trying to clean up my hard drive I came across a few illustrations I did for them recently for their "Evil Unleashed" book (for sale here!) and thought I'd share them.

This is the book where these illustrations appeared. Note that four of my drawings made the cover -- woot for me!

Hammerhead was a big, mean, wall-smashing villain in the grand tradition of The Hulk. I wanted something grim, savage, mean, and powerful looking. The color image was all in browns and murky yellows, but I liked the grayscale version better.

Cahokian, meanwhile, is a more calculating villain, deadly with the crossbow and proud of his Native heritage. The hardest part of this illustration was the crossbow -- it took a lot of attention to detail laying it out in Flash, then fitting it into the character's hands. I can't imagine trying to do it all on one piece of paper like in the old days, trying desperately not to flub anything and trashing the whole drawing.


Monday, March 12, 2007

The "50 Most Significant Science Fiction Novels of the Last 50 Years" Meme

One of those infernal Internet memes has been making the rounds, but this one has a redeeming feature -- it talks about Science Fiction books. So below the fold, I'll post the list of the (allegedly) "Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years". The ones I've read before in bold and I'll include a bit of a note for the ones that I think warrant it.

  1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Bar none, the best epic fantasy series every written. Period.

  2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov. I read this one while very young, and it set the mold for what epic, sweeping, visionary science fiction should be.

  3. Dune, Frank Herbert. This was my first exposure to truly "hard" science fiction, which means it has very technical aspects to it that take a lot more thought just to understand than classic "space opera" type sci-fi. I've re-read it probably a dozen times, and it's truly a remarkable piece of visionary, unique writing.

  4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein. I don't "get" Heinlein as much as a lot of people do, and I honestly thought this was just an all right novel. I suspect that its power is largely due to the time period in which it was published, and that in years to come it won't occupy as lofty a place in the hierarchy as it has traditionally.

  5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin. I found this series to be fairly dull, I don't think I'd have it on the list at all to be frank.

  6. Neuromancer, William Gibson. Cyberpunk's landmark novel, this is another one I just didn't really get. It's kind of cool, yes, but awfully hard to read in my opinion.
  7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke

  8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

  9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley. I thought this feminist King Arthur saga to be tough to read through.

  10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury. A classic example of sci-fi as cultural allegory. I think it's honored more for its historical significance than for its inherent value as a work of art, but nonetheless it remains a pretty satisfying read.

  11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe.

  12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. I bought and read this when I was 11, I think, mostly because I didn't know what a Canticle was (but it sounded cool!) and Leibowitz is a neat name. It's certainly a classic, but again not an incredibly fun read.

  13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov. I'll quote Orac on this, as he sums up my feelings on this perfectly:

    I'm a little puzzled why this one is on the list (for one thing, it was published in 1953). It's a solid enough novel and quite readable, but hardly earth-shattering. I can only guess it's on the list because it was the first full-length robot novel that Asimov did in which the Three Laws of Robotics were featured. On the other hand, if you want to include the definitive book about the Three Laws, then Asimov's collection of interlinked short stories, I, Robot would be the one to get.

  14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras

  15. Cities in Flight, James Blish

  16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett. Pratchett is hysterical. You'll be hard-pressed to ever find a funnier, more irreverent writer in any genre, and the fact that it's fantasy just makes the whole thing more fun. If the Monty Python troupe wrote novels, this is what they would be like.

  17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison

  18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison

  19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester. I read this, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it's about.

  20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany.

  21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey. I loved the Pern series growing up. If you can make it through the first 90 pages of this one, you're in for a real treat. I preferred McCaffery's "Dragonharper of Pern" series (same world, different characters) to this one, mostly because of where I was in life when I read it, but definitely one of the biggies in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.

  22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card. I would have ranked this much higher, possibly as high as number one. Whenever someone who's never read a sci-fi novel asks which one they should read to get a feel for what it's all about, I hand them "Ender's Game". I've purchased probably a dozen copies and given them all away at various times to various people, and have read it probably close to twenty times myself. I love, love, love this novel.

  23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson. I was too young when I read this the first time, it's definitely an adult-themed book. Leprosy, rape, despair, it's a lot to slog through. Reading this series was like flagellating yourself with a whip the whole time, very difficult to get through and not terribly enjoyable.

  24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. This is an old-school sci-fi book, and is one of the best at dealing with the repercussions of time distortion caused by relativistic speed.

  25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl

  26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series is one of those rare cases of something being both extremely popular, and extremely good. I'd recommend this series to anyone who wants to get a feeling for what good fantasy writing is all about.

  27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. The next best humorous sci-fi/fantasy author behind Terry Pratchett. Very funny stuff.

  28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson

  29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice. I don't care much for Anne Rice's writing or for vampires. The whole goth thing is kind of lost on me.

  30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin. I need to reread this, because frankly I didn't understand it. I'm trying to remember if I even made it all the way through ... I must have, because I hardly ever leave a book unfinished, but all I can dredge up is a feeling of confusion.

  31. Little, Big, John Crowley

  32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny. I don't know how the heck I missed this book, I love Zelazny ... I need to get my butt over to the book store, pronto.

  33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

  34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement

  35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

  36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith

  37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute

  38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke.

  39. Ringworld, Larry Niven

  40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys

  41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

  42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut

  43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

  44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner

  45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester

  46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein. A much better book than it was a movie. Although the book doesn't feature Denise Richards' enormous .... teeth, so that's a drawback.

  47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock. The classic "dark fantasy" novel.

  48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks. I'm fairly appalled this book is on this list, it's a second-rate rehash of Lord of the Rings in every way. Bad call here, guys.

  49. Timescape, Gregory Benford. I honestly don't think Benford's a very good writer, and this one didn't do much for me frankly.

  50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

I think I probably read a few others on this list, but can't remember for sure -- at a certain point they all blur together, especially since some of them I last read 25 years ago or more. Good stuff, though. Counting them up, I've only read 28 out of the 50, which is fairly disappointing. What the hell have I been doing with my life?!

Much more satisfying is perusing my personal list of the most moving sci-fi & fantasy I've ever read is here on That's a bit different from a "Best of" list, though.


Underwear in your Food?

A new horse trainer came out on Sunday to see how she and Annie got along. She turned out to be a very bubbly, very friendly, very young young woman. After their session we invited her in for some grub and eventually we all three wound up talking about how having dogs impacts your housekeeping.

"The shedding is unbelievable," I said. "It's to the point where I don't know what it's like to eat something without a dog hair in it."

"Yeah, or underwear!" she replied.

There's nothing like that moment of social panic, when you're sitting there having a perfectly wonderful conversation and suddenly the other person says something that just stops your brain dead in its tracks. Did you just hear what you think you heard? Does it mean what you think it means?

Underwear ... in her food?! I'm not the cleanest person in the world, and when I get to cooking pans fly, but I don't think I've ever been so crazily manic that underwear somehow got into the pasta. And don't even get me started on thinking about what kind of marinade we'd be talking about ... eeeeww!

So I sat there, mouth slightly agape, neurons firing off frantic memos to each other -- "What do YOU think she meant, Charlie?" "Fuck if I know, Bill, but make a note not to eat at HER house!" -- trying to imagine just how someone could be so unbelievably slothful as to routinely get their underwear into their food.

Then it hit me -- she was just talking about the messiness of the house in general, not about what specific things might end up as part of dinner. Whew!

Because the thing is, while I love me some fruit, I sure don't want it to be Fruit of the Loom.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Dog Festival

Annie and I attended a doggie festival hosted by the rescue group she's a member of, Austin Dog Alliance. It was a great event, very well attended both by humans and canines. I brought along the camera and snapped a few photos that I thought you might enjoy.

This little guy was dressed up for the pet parade costume contest, but he didn't look too thrilled. No one, especially a little fellow, wants to look like a clown, I suppose.

An innovative entrepreneur brought his lawn-mower-powered kiddie train as well, much to the delight of the human puppies in attendance. I loved the bright colors and the thought that you don't have to go to the zoo to get a decent train ride. As a bonus you get a mowed lawn when you're through, too!

Finally I caught this photo of the incredibly cute ADA puppy Tramp. I like the way he's half in shadow and half out, wondering what all the hubub is about, but trusting in his human partner to keep him safe. Tramp was the star of the day, no doubt, and hopefully he'll find a great permanent home soon. Well, not too soon, I don't think his foster mom is ready to give him up just yet!


Friday, March 09, 2007

Character Illustrations - Hero City

While I was combing through my hard drive to upload the "Toxico" illustration, I came across some others I did last year for the same Uberworld campaign, "Hero City", which is based on a team of supers hired by the Walt Disney Company and themed on their characters. The campaign creator is Rob Rogers, a great guy whose blog you can find over on the ol' blogroll. I thought you might like to see some more super-hero-themed artwork, so without further ado I post them after the jump.


"Mister Toad". I like this one because it's fully painted, without the usual black ink lineart. This was my first crack at such a format.

Josiah Gold, head of the training academy. I like this one because he's just a regular guy, which I don't get to draw very often.


The Thin Dime of History

This post at DailyKos on the death of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. really moved me. It puts our history -- human history -- in real perspective. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I've excerpted quite a bit below the fold, but the whole thing is well worth reading.

In science, a number of metaphors are employed to cast the huge span of deep time into a frame more easily pondered. If the history of life on earth is viewed as the Empire State Building, all of human history is a dime on top. ...

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States' great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you're no more than three away yourself. That's how short the history of our nation really is.

Not impressed? It's only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You're ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.

Sixty life times ago, a man named Abram left Ur of the Chaldees and took his family into Canaan. Abram is claimed as the founder of three great religions. A few lifetimes before that, and you've come out the bottom of that dime. You're that close to it.

The next time you see an obituary in the paper, go ahead and wonder at all the things that person saw in his or her lifetime, but remember that every lifetimes is filled with events just as momentous.



I just completed another character illustration for Uberworld, the Play By eMail super-hero campaign I'm involved with. I think it turned out pretty well. Toxico is a giant, living pile of toxic waste who rampages around the country destroying stuff.

Hey, not all comic book stories can be "Maus", you know? Sometimes you gotta just blow stuff up in vivid four-color pulp stories.

Anyway, here he is in all his glowy, toxic badness:

To be fair, I was greatly inspired by this treatment of Chemo, a somewhat similar villain from the DC Universe.


Great Comic Book Weapons

For a great Friday chuckle, head to Cardboard Monocle and its list of the Top 20 Comic Book Weapons of all time. I'll put my favorite one below the fold, because it's extremely juvenile and likely to offend those with good taste. I have never been accused of having good taste except when it comes to my choice of wife, fortunately, so I'm going to post it anyway.

3 - The Bowel DisruptorTransmetropolitan

Spider Jerusalem’s weapon of choice, even beating out a good old-fashioned boot to the groin. The Bowel Disruptor does pretty much exactly what it sounds like it would with settings that include:

Shat Into Unconsciousness
Unspeakable Gut Horror
Rectal Volcano
And last but certainly not least, Burning Anal Geyser.

While I don’t think the BD is powerful enough to kill, what it actually does might be worse. Much Worse.

Yes, it's immature. And yes, it makes me laugh. I'm a guy, sue me.


Creationists Aren't Stupid

I once made a comment in a thread talking about a friend of mine who is a Young Earth Creationist (people who read Genesis literally and thus believe the universe is only 8,000 years old), saying that he was one of the smartest people I've ever known. Another reader responded with "Then you need to find some smarter friends".

A lot of people in the creationism debate have this same attitude, that clearly anyone who rejects the idea of an old universe is not just mistaken, but clearly mentally deficient. Some of that is just old-fashioned name-calling, denigrating your opponent like any two kids in a schoolyard brawl. But whatever the cause, the attitude that "If you disagree with me you're an idiot" is foolish and inaccurate, and we ought to stop doing it.

Because I stand by my statement that my friend the Young Earth Creationist is one of the smartest people I know. And here's why I say that.

This guy got an almost perfect score on his SAT when he went to college. He graduated with top marks from one of the best liberal arts and sciences schools in the country. He's a polymath and has unbelievable mental recall, storing everything from childhood phone numbers to the exact values of every rare US coin in history. He's got an intuitive feel for numbers that's pretty amazing. He's started multi-million-dollar businesses, asks penetrating questions, and researches topics of interest exhaustively. He has an incredible knowledge of US history as well as the Byzantine Empire. He was a key player on his university's debate team and can argue just about any side of an issue and by the end of the day have you thinking he's right, only to swap to the other side and convince you he's right on THAT one as well.

In short, he has every attribute of brilliance, except for his belief that the Earth is only eight thousand years old. Does that one failure negate everything else and make him an idiot?

Lots of the leaders of the creationist movement have advanced degrees, up to and including Ph.D.s. It takes a lot of work and at least minimal intelligence to achieve that academic level. No, it doesn't confer infallible genius, but it's also difficult to say that someone who's done it is simply a moron. They've got to have something on the ball that your typical resident of the local mental institution doesn't.

No, these people aren't stupid. They're wrong on the facts, they're willfully blind to dissenting information in many cases, they are as capable of lying and distortion and mistaken ideas as anyone, but they're not necessarily idiots just for dissenting with something you believe to be an objective, fundamental truth.

Calling them stupid is easy, but ultimately it's a cop-out. The thought that someone who's as smart as you could come to a conclusion that's so clearly wrong is frightening. It makes you doubt your own understanding, making you wonder if maybe being smart isn't as reliable a guide as you'd hoped. "If smart people can believe something so foolish," the internal thinking goes, "then what if I -- also a smart person -- believe foolish things as well? But surely that can't be, therefore ... he's an idiot!"

I think Michael Shermer does a great job in "Why People Believe Weird Things" exploring different ways intelligence can be used to protect wrong ideas once they've become internalized. In some respects the greatest strengths of a smart person become subverted, "turned to the Dark Side" as it were, marshaled to protect an idea that should have been shot down by them at the very beginning. But the very fact of their intelligence is what makes disabusing them of the wrong idea so difficult.

What he doesn't do -- and this is something I think those on "our side" of the discussion would do well to emulate -- is to dismiss them as "stupid". That kind of reflexive stereotyping precludes rational discussion rather than facilitates it. It's a lazy shortcut, a childish name-calling, and it's also factually untrue. For people who pride ourselves on honest, objective rationality, we can do better.

These people aren't stupid, they're just wrong.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Anybody Out There Tired? Depressed? Fat? Read This.

(The following post is by my wife, Annie Phenix.)

I am a writer. It is in my bones. What you are about to read is the single most important thing I have written in my 40 years of life. It could change your life and I am not selling anything. Well, I will admit to pedaling knowledge.

I have been diagnosed with Hypothyroidism. Basically that means that my thyroid is underproducing and my body reacts negatively in all sorts of fun ways such as: extreme fatigue, low body temperature, thin hair, dry eyes, aching bones, slower thinking, puffy face . . . . I could go on and on.

Why is this important to anyone but me and my wonderful husband who has had to deal with a hypothyroid wife all these years (can a husband get the Nobel Prize for being the Best Husband Ever? If yes, Jeff deserves that prize)?

Because low thyroid is an undiagnosed epidemic in this country. It is estimated that 40 percent of Americans have some degree hypo or hyperthyroidism. I think there are almost 300 million Americans in this country so that means close to 150 million of suffer (needlessly) from this problem. (Sorry folks that is the best math I can do.) That means more people suffer from this problem than suffer from breast cancer or diabetes combined. Please read that statement again.

Did you know that all of your blood – approximately 5 quarts – circulates through your thyroid gland once every hour? What if that puppy wasn't functioning correctly, wouldn't that have a bad impact on your body? It does.

Here is a list of some of the most common symptoms of low thyroid. Yes it also sounds like many other things but perhaps things like fibromyalgia and even arthritis have a foundation in the thyroid? If you have something like arthritis, a low functioning thyroid will only make your symptoms worse. Not everyone has the same symptoms but most have more than a few:

  • Fatigue/lethargy (I felt like a Zombie most of the time—zero energy)

  • General Weakness (I couldn't open packages from the grocery store without help)

  • Dry, coarse skin

  • Slow Speech

  • Swelling of the face and eyelids

  • Coldness and cold skin

  • Constipation

  • Unexplained Weight gain or great difficulty in losing weight

  • Excessive or painful menstruation

  • Sore Muscles or bones (I invented the terms "bone cramps and "tired blood" to describe how I felt)

  • Low libido

  • Depression

  • Headaches

  • Low Resistance to Infections (do you have sinus infections like I did every year?)

This problem seems to affect women more than men and the older you get, the more likely it is that you will have a thyroid issue.

Did you know that if you have zero thyroid, you will go insane? That hits home for me because my maternal grandmother was diagnosed as a Paranoid Schizophrenic in her mid 30s and she lived in that nightmare for 40 more years. Perhaps she could have been helped? What is she just needed thyroid supplementation? How I wish I could reverse time and try to help her! I can't, I know, but if this info helps even one person reading this, that at least makes her terrible suffering not need to repeat in someone else's life.

Here is a simple test to do that you can do at home. I HIGHLY recommend you do this as a starting point and I will tell you why in a second.

Put an old-fashion thermometer by your bedside for at least several days, 10 days are recommended. Before you get out of bed, put the thermometer under your armpit for several minutes, 10 minutes are recommended. Record your temps for at least 5 days. If your temps are on average lower than 98.2, chances are extremely high that you have an underfunctioning thyroid.

The good news is that medicines can help you, even make you feel normal and you can live a highly productive life.

The bad news is that the lab test doctors use to determine your thyroid lever are outdated and many feel they are useless. Many patients feel that the standard medicines prescribed – usually Synthroid or Levothyroxin – do little good and can even do more harm. I am now on Armour, a natural form of thyroid and I feel as though I got my life back.

I got all of my thyroid knowledge first from reading books. I took that knowledge to doctor after doctor but they all literally shrugged their shoulders and said I was one of these things or probably all of these:
  1. perimenopausal

  2. eating too much and exercising too little

  3. depressed

  4. a hypochondriac

NONE OF THESE WAS TRUE. My low body temp should have been an indicator but the doctors are in general behind the times on thyroid issues.

I am on the road to getting well thanks to the internet. It is the first time I have learned to love technology! Other patients helped me help myself to heal. Doctors did not. They removed half my thyroid when they did not need to. Do no harm did not apply to me and it does not apply to seemingly hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide.

Here are some of the best websites to start educating yourself if you want to know more:

Best support groups:
Thyroid Support Groups USA.

Best books:
  • "Living Well with Hypothyroidism" by Mary J Shomon (she is the top guru and top patient advocate)

  • "Solved: The Riddle of Illness How Managing Your Thyroid can Help you Fight and Control: Arthritis, Cancer, Diabetes, Obesity, Heart Disease, Fibromyalgia, Sexual Problems" by Dr. Stephen Langer and James Scheer

There are MANY more great books but these two are excellent starting points.

I said in the beginning of getting my health soap box that this is the most important thing I have every personally written: if you feel like holy hell everyday and even getting out of bed is difficult and you cannot function, nothing else matters in your life. You must get well and I have learned that you CAN get well.

Be well! I can help you and please email here if you have any questions:

P.S. I am "Annie" on this blog which is my nickname and my preferred name.