Monday, July 28, 2014

Thinking of going all-grain?

Another analysis of the question - and where I stole this image.
I'm a homebrewer, and I wrote several months ago about how I had made the switch from extract kits to all grain kits. Take a look at that particular entry if you want my initial impressions. For this post, I want to give those who are considering going all grain some additional thoughts.


Because I've gone back to extract kits.

I'm not saying that I'll never go all-grain again. I'm not planning on getting rid of my equipment (that a friend gave me for free) but I don't see myself doing an all grain kit anytime in the near future. Maybe if I see a really cool all-grain recipe or I get some sort of brilliant idea where all-grain is the better option, I'll do it again. But I just made an extract kit today, and I've got two more out in the garage for the next couple of batches that I brew.

There are advantages to all-grain. One of them is that the kits are about $10 cheaper. Also, you have more control over the finished product. For instance, if you can control the temperature just right as you mash the grains, you can control whether your beer is more on the malty or sweet side. Oh, and I suppose that if you own a cow, you have a nice treat for her when you're all done with the grains.

The problem is that with more control there are more ways for you to screw something up. Yeah, if you can control the temperature you can control the flavor, but CAN you control the temperature? There are a lot of variables in that alone, one of the most crucial being how warm it is outside as you have them in the mash. (There's some really expensive equipment you can get that will control it precisely if you want.)

Sure, you'll save some money, but you're going to be out there brewing for at least an additional two to three hours, nearly doubling the time you'd normally spend brewing your beer. For me, that was the deciding factor. I figured that two hours was worth ten bucks. I was outside, frustrated in the heat that it was taking so long, and my wife asked me why I was doing that to myself, as I normally seemed much more enthusiastic about brewing.

With the few all-grain batches I've made, I didn't notice a significant difference in quality. I know that I definitely noticed one when I went from a three gallon boil (which required me to add two gallons of water at the end) to a five gallon boil (which required the purchase of an outdoor burner). However with this? The only really noticeable thing was how much clearer my beers looked, but when a beer tastes really good, you kinda stop giving a crap about how clear it is or isn't.

I'm definitely glad that my friend gave me the equipment though. I had been toying with the idea of making the leap to all-grain, but doing so would have set me back a couple hundred dollars. I also had a good time with the few batches I made (with the exception of the last one) and like I said before, I'll probably eventually make another. (Perhaps for my annual pumpkin ale?)

However, if you're on the fence, ask yourself the following questions before you make the leap (unless you have a generous friend like I do):

1. Are you satisfied with the beers you're making?
2. Would you potentially miss $200?
3. Would you rather save some time than save some money?

If you answered yes to all of these, then you might want to just stick with what you're doing.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

But is it a religion?

Want to drive an atheist nuts? Call atheism a religion. You'll probably get some of the standard comebacks like:

Atheism is a religion like "off" is a TV channel.

Atheism is a religion like bald is a hairstyle.

Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position.

My personal favorite analogy, which I remember reading a long time ago on Usenet, said that calling atheism a religion was like saying the following:

You don't have tuberculosis, which means that you have non-tuberculosis, a form of tuberculosis.

I'll admit that I get in a bit of a huff when I hear that atheism is a religion, and those things spring to mind. For me, I find it hilariously ironic when a religious person says it in an insulting way. "You're criticizing religion? Well, you're in a religion too!" Seriously? Your best defense essentially admits that there's something wrong with your position when you accuse the other person of doing the same thing.

Anyway, now that we've covered the standard responses, let's see if I can come up with some original thoughts and unpack this notion that atheism is a religion. First off, I will fully admit that atheists can be just as prone to tribalism as any other group of people. But is tribalism necessarily the same as religion? People can be tribalistic about sports teams, but are we going to say that being a fan of a sports team is the same thing as being religious? I'm not quite willing to go there, and I imagine that both atheist and religious sports fans aren't likely to want to equivocate like that.

I think that my issue with calling atheism a religion stems more from me being a fan of clear language than being an atheist. I've already written a blog post about what atheism is and what it isn't, but in a nutshell, all atheism reveals is how a person feels about whether there is a god or not. There just isn't much to it, if you think about it. There are atheists who believe in ghosts. There are atheists who are skeptics. There are atheists who are humanists. There are atheists who are nihilists. In other words, it's too narrow of a criteria to even call it a belief system, much less a religion.

Part of the problem no doubt comes from the notion that most people in the West automatically associate the question of a god's existence with religion. There seems to be this false assumption that religions all deal with that question, but there are religions that don't give much thought to it at all, and there are some that are completely atheistic, including Taoism, Confucianism, and some forms of Buddhism. You also have some Jews who practice all the religious rituals yet are technically atheists.

Let's take just atheistic Buddhism as an example. If atheism is a religion, then what is their religion? Is it atheism or is it Buddhism? Sounds like kind of a silly question, doesn't it? I'd reckon that most of us would say that Buddhism is the religion and atheism is just one aspect of the religion.

And if atheism is a religion, then does that make theism a religion? I know plenty of people who believe in a god of some sort, but I wouldn't say that suddenly makes them members of a religion or even religious - especially when they don't engage in any rituals or subscribe to any sort of divinely revealed moral code. If you're going to say that atheism is a religion, then it makes just as much sense to say that theism is one as well, but I have a hard time believing that anybody is going to make that particular argument.

Lastly, the part that doesn't sit right with me is that it's kinda like saying that you're going to be part of a religion no matter what. You believe that God came down in the form of man and died for your sins and you need to confess them in order to be saved? You're religious. You don't believe that? You're religious too. What?

Ultimately, my problem is that by simply calling atheism a religion essentially makes the word "religion" pretty useless. I realize that there's some debate as to what might qualify as a religion. There are adherents to beliefs like Confucianism and Humanism who will argue that they're better classified as philosophies rather than religions, and honestly, I kinda side with them. I could probably do a whole blog post on that alone. But the point is that religions usually offer a set of beliefs, not just one. Also, they often involve rituals, authority figures, and revealed knowledge. Many of them also have special days that require special observances.

The simple act of not believing in any of the various gods that have been proposed being a religion? It doesn't include any of those trappings, and I just can't see my way to that conclusion.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Glad I once believed. Kinda.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post where I expressed some sympathy for pastors who are finding that it's tough to get a full-time job in the ministry. If don't know me, and you've never read my blog before, some people might find that surprising because I'm a bit of an outspoken atheist. You don't need to dig too far into my blog to find criticisms of religion and religious belief.

However, and even though I probably don't write about this enough, I do try to distinguish between belief and believer. I don't think that believers are idiots (not any more than any other group of people) and I certainly don't think that they're all malicious (although some people in positions of leadership certainly are).

I didn't get the sense that every atheist feels this way, as I got some of the following comments on Google+:
I don't feel bad. They should've known better than to waste their time on a fairy tale.  
It's like feeling sympathy for a nice confederate soldier or a nice nazi.  
Honestly standing around talking from the text book of religion does not seem that hard.
I'm not in agreement with these sentiments. (Actually, I kinda do feel some sympathy for some Confederate soldiers and a lot of the people who joined the Nazi party - definitely not the higher-ups, but those on the lower levels. Considering that my grandfather was a member, and I probably would have been one too had I been in his shoes, it's not so hard to see why. Anyway, that's a separate point. Click on the link to read my thoughts on that.) I think it's kinda ignorant to reduce what pastors do to "standing around talking" when many of them work for noble, charitable causes, and counsel their church members when they're going through rough times.

And yes, I'm aware that there are pastors out there who are greedy, hypocritical, leeches on society. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the kinds of pastors who find those guys just as appalling as any atheist does.

Basically, after reading those statements, I felt like I should have ended my blog post, where I addressed struggling pastors, as follows (new part in bold):
If, for some reason, you figure that being a pastor just isn't going to happen in this increasingly secular world, I just want you to know that not all of us nonbelievers out there are going to rub salt in your wounds. I'm on your side because you're a fellow human being, and I want to see you use your talents toward making this world a better place. Be warned though that some of us are very eager to kick you in the nuts while you're down in the fetal position.
On the comments section, there was one person who was a bit more charitable and on the same side as me. This person was raised as a Mormon. I don't know about those who were less sympathetic, but I have a feeling that they likely might not have been raised to believe in religion.

While many people go through a bit of an "angry atheist" phase after losing their religious faith, eventually many of us start to settle down and be a little more realistic about our own deconversion. I've said this before, but I don't think that the reason why I deconverted was because I suddenly got smarter. Perhaps I could say that I got a bit more honest about my feelings, and I started to care more about what was true rather than what I wanted to be true, but intelligence had nothing to do with it.

I suppose that this is why I have some sympathy for these struggling pastors. I strongly disagree with the supernatural aspect of what they want to teach, but when I talk to a guy who's working toward stopping child prostitution, I don't feel like this is a guy who's against what I want for the world.

I guess in a strange way I'm happy that I was raised with religious belief because it gives me a bit more empathy toward believers than I might have had originally. I don't think it's such an advantage that I plan on teaching my son to believe in a religious faith just so he can know what it feels like, but I'll try my best to relate to him what it was like for me so he can not feel like religious people are "The Other".

I wrote before about why I don't like tribalism, and I've realized that one of my biggest issues with religion is that it's a form of tribalism. By its nature, it creates an artificial and unnecessary boundary between human beings. Getting away from religious faith was a nice way of getting away from that. Unfortunately, atheists aren't immune to this sort of a thing either.

And just like I wrote in my last post, this is why I find myself gravitating to the idea of humanism. It's kinda the un-tribal tribe, as by its very name it includes all of humanity in what's important. We might have to rethink it if we make contact with an intelligent alien species, but until then it's pretty good.

Being an atheist isn't really much of a thing unto itself, as it just answers one question about one belief. I don't want to see it become its own tribe.

Friday, July 25, 2014

It's tough out there for a pastor.

Despite my negative feelings about religious beliefs, I manage to separate them from how I feel about religious people. I think that most religious people are sincere, and I've tried to make clear on multiple occasions that I don't think that one's faith (or lack thereof) is tied to his or her intelligence level.

Even with that said, some folks might find it strange that I felt some genuine concern for some young pastors out there when I read the article entitled "Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy" on The Atlantic's website. In a nutshell, you've got a lot of young people enter the seminary, oftentimes going into debt, in the hopes that they can make the ministry a full-time job. Unfortunately, this isn't working out too well for some of them, and they're finding themselves having to rely on family for support, or they need to take on a second job.

Let's get a few things straight. I have no love in my heart for guys like Joel Osteen or various other "Prosperity Gospel" charlatans out there. These aren't the kinds of people I'm talking about. Yes, I do not believe what they believe, and while I honestly see the decline of religion as being a positive rather than a negative, that doesn't mean that I enjoy watching people go into debt and/or have to find their aspirations being crushed. I happen to know a few pastors myself, and they're all good and sincere people. They got into what they're doing in order to help people, and in many ways, they do just that.

It was reading Jerry DeWitt's book that gave me a better insight into what a pastor goes through. While his book,  is about his journey from being a pastor to becoming an atheist, there is never this sense that he was somehow a fool, con-man, or any kind of negative connotation that might come up when people think of preachers. He was always doing what he does out of his love for humanity, and I genuinely think that's what's going on with most of these folks who are failing to find steady work as a church leader.

I guess the question now is how to deal with this. It's easier said than done when somebody has already invested so much time into doing a particular job to just "do something else". I suppose some nonbelievers out there are tempted to just say: "Well, that's what you get. Should have wised up before you did all that schooling." If that is the attitude that some are taking, I don't think that it's particularly helpful.

The handwriting is on the wall here though. While anything can change, church attendance is on the decline, and with 1/3 of people under 30 identifying as having non religion, it's not looking like things are going to be turning around anytime soon. I should probably also mention that a lot of pastors out there are also having a crisis of faith. The Clergy Project exists to help priests and pastors who have lost their faith yet remain preaching because they've been in it so long that they simply don't know what else to do with their lives. The goal of the Clergy Project is to help people like them adjust to a new life outside of the ministry.

From my limited experience, I think that most pastors have a lot to offer. Generally speaking, I find them to be great listeners - not many people are good at that. Also, many of them have great speaking voices and know how to address an audience. That's also something that not a lot of people can do. These are talents that most definitely can translate to other jobs out there, from therapists to teachers. A lot of them are good at inspiring people, and that could help with getting people to help out charities and do good works in the community. It would be foolish to dismiss them even if you don't share their faith.

Now, I don't know if my words are going to do much good for any would-be pastors out there. I'm sure that most of them feel that they have a genuine calling, and not in that generic sort of a sense that people might casually use that phrase. They actually believe that the creator of the universe WANTS them to do this, so me talking about being a therapist probably sounds like me missing the point.

I guess if there are any out there reading this, the take away should be this:

If, for some reason, you figure that being a pastor just isn't going to happen in this increasingly secular world, I just want you to know that not all of us nonbelievers out there are going to rub salt in your wounds. I'm on your side because you're a fellow human being, and I want to see you use your talents toward making this world a better place.

(I'm slowly starting to realize that I may, in fact, be a Humanist after all.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

If you can't be wrong, you're probably wrong.

I accept the current science behind anthropogenic climate change and that the world is getting progressively warmer. If the next ten years shows a rapid decrease in average global temperatures, and we see an increase in arctic ice, then guess what? It's wrong.

I accept the science of evolution, and I believe that species give rise to new species through natural selection. If a squirrel is found in the same rock layer as a trilobite, then guess what? It's wrong.

I accept the idea that cars require gasoline in order for them to run. If my wife starts putting apple juice in the tank and gets around town just fine, then guess what? It's wrong.

Everything that I accept about the world is subject to being wrong as far as I'm concerned. There are plenty of things where I don't really give it too much likelihood that it will be proven wrong, but I have enough humility to know that my perceptions can be completely off when it comes to discerning what's true and what isn't. I try my best to determine when it comes things where I have a strong opinion (evolution, climate change, etc.) as to exactly what it is that would make me admit that I'm wrong.

Contrast this with some things which I regard to NOT be true and some of the common attitudes you'll find.

There are people who believe that praying to a deity will bring about a miracle, whether it's being cured from an illness or getting out of some financial difficulty. When the prayer doesn't result in the desired result, do they say that the prayer "didn't work"? That's not my experience. Instead, they backtrack and give excuses. They'll say something along the lines of (and I'm quoting from a Facebook post here) "It (the miracle) just might not happen the way he expected it would." Another response goes along the lines of: "IMO, praises and prayers dont fail, sometimes its manifestations may be delayed or prolly you dont have enough faith" (sic).

You can check out an entire page that addresses why God doesn't answer prayers. The reasons include that maybe YOU don't have enough faith (which makes it your fault, ya know), sin, and he's going to get around to it eventually. Nowhere is the most obvious answer, the one that requires the least amount of assumptions, addressed.

In other words, to people like this, there is no way that they can be wrong. When it works, it works. When it doesn't work, it still works. What would convince me that it works? If it worked at a statistical rate that was better than chance. Until then, these explanations appear to me to be nothing more than cop-outs.

A similar situation is with astrology. When a person matches up with the description of his or her astrological sign, then that's proof that it's working. When they don't, well, you have to look at what stars and planets were ascending at the time of the person's birth. Or you have to look at exactly what day and year the person was born. In other words, if it works, it works; if it doesn't work, then you can still get it to work. From what I know, astrology has no criteria that would successfully debunk it for its adherents. (Which is why it split off from an actual science, astronomy, long ago.)

What would make me believe it? If astrologers could give accurate and specific readings based on whatever information they think that they need. From my understanding, every time it's been put to the test, they have failed miserably, as their descriptions are either spectacularly off or too vague to determine its veracity. See the video below to see how these things go. (And it should be noted that a million dollars is waiting for any of them who can successfully demonstrate their claims in controlled conditions. When somebody collects, I'll change my mind.)

I think that the important question, no matter what issue we're talking about, is to ask yourself whether you care or not whether your beliefs are true. If you don't care, well then, you can just ignore all of this. If you do care, then you have to not only be open to changing your mind, but you have to know exactly what WOULD change your mind.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Weird Al is a genius

Considering the news that "Weird Al" Yankovic has just earned his first number one album, I figured it would be a good time to write that tribute to him that's been gestating in my head for several years now.

Like most people my age, I first heard of "Weird Al" with the release of "Eat It". I was in fourth grade, and I thought that it was hilarious. I remember that a friend of mine had the cassette of his entire album, and he let me borrow it. I liked almost all of the songs, but I had trouble figuring out all the songs that were being parodied, not realizing that many of his songs were originals and were simply funny in their own right. (Apparently sometimes he also does "style parodies", which is what you get with "Dare to be Stupid", a parody of Devo.) 

I don't own many vinyl albums. I probably have about six or seven out in the garage somewhere, but two of them are from "Weird Al": Dare to be Stupid, and Fat. While I haven't picked up every one of his releases over the years, I also have owned Off the Deep End and Alapalooza on cassette. Plus, I just purchased his latest, Mandatory Fun, which is awesome, as an MP3 download. Needless to say, Mr. Yankovic has been a part of my life for about thirty years now, and it's great to see him finally get a number one.

I recall my uncle saying that there wasn't any point in buying a "Weird Al" album, because once you hear the songs a few times and catch all the jokes, the appeal of them is over. It may be true that the line "How come you're always such a fussy young man? Don't want no Cap'n Crunch don't want no Raisin Brain. Don't you know that other kids are starving in Japan?" will eventually stop being funny. (I'll let you know when it is, 'cause that hasn't happened yet.) But there's much more to his music than just the silly lyrics (often about food). 

Let's face it, even if you're a big fan of lyrics, there are times when you're just listening to the music. In this case, the music to "Smells Like Nirvana" is just as enjoyable as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" only there are funny animal sounds thrown around there to put a smile on your face.

More importantly though is when you listen to his originals, you realize that he's a pretty damned good musician/songwriter in general. People tend to overlook this because of the fact that his lyrics are (deliberately) silly, so they take the whole thing as a joke. But there are plenty of musicians out there whose lyrics are (unintentionally) silly, and yet they're taken seriously. Hey, I'd argue that the lyrics to "Achy Breaky Song" are LESS silly than the lyrics to "Achy Breaky Heart". But why do silly lyrics somehow cancel out the cleverness of the music? They don't, but I tend to be of the mind that people don't necessarily listen to music very carefully in the first place, so that explains that. 

Case in point of a catchy song - I'm loving "First World Problems" off of his current album. That's as catchy a song as can be, and there are a lot of interesting things going on if you pay attention.

I'm not the only one who thinks this. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo thought the following about "Dare to be Stupid":
I was in shock. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. He sort of re-sculpted that song into something else and, umm... I hate him for it, basically.

It also should be noted that Kurt Cobain thought that the man was a genius. You gonna argue with Cobain? I ain't. The man has outlasted most of the people he's parodied, and he's proven himself a master of pretty much every single style of popular music - plus polkas. Case closed.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Read these comics - Part III

I like comics. I told you about some before, and I told you about some again. I realized that I left out some really good ones last time, so here are some more recommendations:

Sex Criminals - After I wrote my last list of recommendations, I looked over and saw these comics lying near the computer, and I realized that this was the series that I wanted to write about in the first place, yet somehow I forgot all about it!

Perhaps that's somewhat deliberate, as I also kind of DON'T want to write about it. Giving an overview of the plot makes it sound juvenile and smutty, but I wouldn't be too interested in it if that's all it had going for it. Writer Matt Fraction creates characters that you can both empathize with and care about. Also, it deals with matters of sex and sexual desires like they're normal - because they are. In other words, this one isn't for kids, but honestly? I think that a kid would get a healthier view of sex from this series than he or she would from watching music videos, romantic comedies, etc. - or worse, listening to advocates of "abstinence only".

Okay, so what's it about? It's about a young lady who stops time whenever she has an orgasm. She meets a fella who has the same ability. They figure that they can commit crimes when they do this, but there seems to be some people out there who can do the same thing, and their job is to stop people like them.

Yeah, I know, that sounds dumb. It's awesome though. Chip Zdarsky's art is top-notch as well.

Daredevil - This series recently got a reboot/renumbering from Marvel as Daredevil has moved from his hometown of Hells Kitchen (a neighborhood in New York, not the TV show) to San Francisco.

DD has always been a bit of a second fiddle in the Marvel Universe, as generally speaking, most people who don't read comics recognize him (unless they remember the not-so-great movie).  However, comics fans tend to consider him a pretty important character, as he's continuously had a monthly comic since the mid-1960s.

Since Frank Miller's run back in the 1980s, writers have really put Matt Murdock through the paces, completely destroying his life and then rebuilding it again. Sometimes it's better than others, and with Mark Waid's run on the series, a nice balance has been found of putting the Devil through hell, superhero fun, strong characterizations, and compelling storylines. It definitely has drama, but it's not a big bummer all the way through.

Perhaps the most compelling storyline lately has been the subplot with Foggy Nelson, Daredevil's best friend, and his battle with cancer. I read a lot of comics, and it's rare that one really touches me, but I've found myself setting down some of those issues, sighing, and just taking a moment to soak it all in afterward.

And of course, I must take a moment to compliment the clear storytelling skills of regular artist Chris Samnee. He's the perfect match for Waid's stories.

Starlight  - This isn't a Flash Gordon series, but it might as well be. The main character is Duke McQueen, a man who went to another world and rescued it from it tyrannical leader. Now he's an old man, living an unremarkable life, and nobody even believes that he did what he did. Shortly after his wife passes away, he's revisited by a native of the planet Tantalus, letting Duke know that he's needed once again.

It's a great setup, and the writing by Mark Millar is some of his best and most heartfelt. Goran Parlov's art is great as well, although I would have preferred it if somebody with a style more akin to Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon's creator) was on the book. But then again, perhaps that would have made the tribute to Flash a bit TOO obvious. anyway, I can't complain if it looks as good as it does.

One thing that I really like about Mark Millar's writing is that it's always so accessible. With some comics, I find that I forget what happened in the previous issue, and I enjoy them a lot more when I can sit down and read a whole bunch of them all at once. While Millar's stuff pays off in large doses as well, I always feel like I can pick up the current issue and be right on board with the story.

There haven't been any collected editions of this comic just yet, so pick up the individual issues if you can. Otherwise, I'm sure that a collection will come out eventually.

I should also mention, since I'm writing about what's essentially a Flash Gordon tribute, that the current Dynamite! Comics Flash Gordon series by Jeff Parker and Evan Shaner is shaping up to be a pretty solid read as well.

The Twilight Zone - Rod Serling's creation is given the comic book treatment by writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Guiu Vilanova. Fans of the show will probably dig it, even though it takes some liberties with the format. While the stories definitely have the vibe of a TW episode, they tie into one another. The first story arc has been completed, and we're about halfway through the second one. It's not entirely clear exactly how it's all going to tie together, but it's clear that there is a connection.

The first story deals with a Wall Street crook, Trevor Richmond, who's looking at some serious jail time. In order to avoid his fate, he pays a company to create a completely new identity for him. Not only that, but the company hires a guy to take his place so the authorities don't go looking for him.

In his new identity, Trevor learns that the new "Trevor" is a better man than him, and doing what he should be doing in the first place - taking responsibility and trying to make things right. Of course, this isn't going to stand, and he can't just go on with his new life.

The next story deals with a woman who keeps seeing visions of the future, and the mysterious company from the first story arc plays a more ambiguous part in it all.

Definitely some cool stuff.

Afterlife with Archie - Much like with Sex Criminals, I'm hesitant to actually write about this. The premise sounds stupid when I say it out loud, and honestly, I only bought the first issue as a bit of a curious lark. When I was done with it, my reaction was that it was far better than it had any right to be.

The premise is pretty simple. Do you know the Archie gang? Well, what if Jughead, in an attempt to bring his beloved dog back to life, accidentally unleashes a zombie apocalypse? Oh, and it's not funny.

I think that one of the reasons why this series works is that I grew up reading Archie comics. I already have something invested in the characters, and when things suddenly go so totally horrific, I feel like it's happening to people I care about.

I have a feeling though that this series would work well even if you were totally unaware of the comics or the characters. The publisher very wisely departed from the usual artistic style and got Francisco Francavilla to draw the series.

I've heard from more than a few people who were pretty skeptical at first, but writer Roberto Aguirre has managed to create something that hits a lot of nerves. I don't know how long he can keep this up, but since it doesn't feel gimmicky once you actually read it, I'm definitely on board for now.