Sunday, June 30, 2013

Church for atheists?

My dad likes to relate a story of a discussion that he had with some religious people one time.  They asked him if he believed in God, and he said yes.  They asked him if he believed in Jesus, and he said yes.  They asked him if he believed that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected, and he said yes.

So why, then, they asked him, did he not go to church?

My dad's response?  "I own a boat, but I don't belong to the yacht club."

Basically, the point is that my dad's just not much of a "joiner".  I never knew him to be a member of any kind of organization, and the older he gets, the less communal he gets.  He lives on a ranch out in Oak Run, California, which is famous for the fact that you've never heard of it before and you probably wouldn't have if you weren't reading this blog entry right here.  If you want to get there, you need to drive out to the middle of nowhere where you find a road that goes for a mile to get to a place in the dead center of nowhere.

I don't know if I'll ever do the same thing when I'm older, but I have inherited his basic reluctance to join any sort of a group.  When I was a believer, I didn't go to church regularly.  I didn't belong to any clubs in high school or college, and I had zero desire to join a fraternity.  I'm a homebrewer, but I don't think that I'm going to join the homebrewer's association near me anytime soon.

I've read recently about some atheist groups who are working to create "atheist churches", which would essentially act as a weekly meeting for nonbelievers.  No doubt there are a lot of these going on already, but they don't necessarily feel the need to label it a "church".  This makes me wonder a couple of things:  1.  Would I go to one if it were near me, being the outspoken atheist that I am? and 2.  Are atheist "churches" even necessary?

The first one is easy; no, I probably wouldn't.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Do we have people who are constantly pushing their religious agendas here?  I suppose so.  Still, I haven't heard of any movements to teach creationism at our public schools, so it's obviously not as bad as some places.  Are there "You're gonna burn in hell!" Christians here who make nonbelievers feel marginalized?  I suppose so, but they're pretty easy to avoid.  Most religious people here are pretty cool and aren't interested in intruding on the lives of everybody else.  Most of my friends are nonbelievers, and with my believer friends, there really isn't a problem.

This is what leads me to the second question.  If I lived in The Bible Belt, I might feel a bit different, and I'd want to join some sort of organization in spite of my usual reluctance.  I'm currently reading Hope After Faith by Jerry DeWitt.  He's a former pastor who lost his faith and is now trying to create basically what you'd call an atheist church, and he's doing it right there in Louisiana, where he has had to explain to people the difference between being an atheist and being a Satanist.

DeWitt has an interesting style, and I think that he has the potential to reach a lot of people who might be turned off by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  When you listen to the guy, you can tell that being a pastor is something in his blood.  He's got a real warm and fuzzy approach.  Not so strangely, he reminds me of Jim Shields, a man I jokingly refer to as "my pastor".  I once had the pleasure of having dinner at Jim's house, and I attended his church service at Sanctuary Ministries, which I wrote about some time ago.

While I obviously disagree with his theology, there was something about the man, as he has a disarming, welcoming personality, and I found myself talking about the kinds of things that I might not normally discuss with somebody until I had gotten to know them really well.  I do think that being a pastor is something that definitely requires a certain talent if you want to be a good one.  I imagine that if I was a person of faith, I'd want somebody like that, where I could feel as though I could talk to Jim like I would a family member.

While I obviously haven't met Jerry DeWitt though, the interviews I've seen of him give me the impression that he has that same sort of charisma.  I recently started following him on Facebook, and while it might seem a bit cheesy to some, I really liked the status he wrote this morning:  "You know what I think? I think the world IS enough! Be on the lookout for something to enjoy TODAY..."  I've been sick the last couple of days, feeling sorry for myself, and it gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start thinking about the good things in my life.  I couldn't help but think that DeWitt is basically doing the same thing that he did as a pastor, only appealing to a different audience.  And I think that this is an audience that doesn't have enough people like him to reaffirm what's good about life, at least, not in the way that he's going about it.  I've found some particularly inspiring words from Richard Dawkins, like the one where he talks about how lucky we are all to have even been born in the first place, but it doesn't have that same quick, gut-level reaction that DeWitt's words do.

While church was never really for me, I'm not so arrogant as to think that it serves absolutely no purpose.  I think that for a lot of people, leaving the faith isn't just simply about believing one thing or another.  For some people, it's as extreme as being completely torn away from their friends and family.  For others, it's about losing a sense of community that is important to them.  If you watch the video below, you'll see a woman who was moved to tears by DeWitt - not just his message, but his style, as she came from a similar Pentecostal background.  Somehow I doubt Christopher Hitchens could have pulled off the same trick.

So, while an "atheist church" might not be for every atheist, I'm starting to think that maybe they are necessary for some of them.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Monsters University review

I'm a big Pixar fan, but I must confess that I didn't see Cars 2.  I suppose that I might one day, but the fact that the first one isn't exactly my favorite (I still liked it) and that it received some pretty poor reviews, I didn't feel  like I was in much of a hurry to watch it.  I did see Brave though, and while I liked it, it didn't do all that much for me.  Like some other fans no doubt felt, I worried that Pixar was falling into a slump.  Perhaps the problem though was that expectations got REALLY high after Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3.

I've really gotten a lot of mileage out of my Pixar blu-rays since my son, Logan, was born.  He has seen most of them - some several times now.  He's not quite three years old, but he'll sit down and watch a whole movie from beginning to end.  This got my wife and I to thinking that he'd probably be ready for his first trip to the movie theater.  The trick was that we not only wanted to find something appropriate, but we wanted something that we wouldn't mind sitting through ourselves.  (And trust me, after seeing the previews for some of the animated movies coming out soon, there are quite a few that I would definitely mind watching.)

Thankfully, this summer brings us Monsters University.  We figured that would be a good one for the obvious reasons, but also because both my wife and I enjoyed Monsters, Inc. Not only that, but Logan has watched that one quite a few times, so he's familiar with the characters.

I was definitely impressed, and it was a lot better than I thought it would be.  I'll even go so far as to say that I liked it more than the original.  I thought that the jokes were better and the character development resonated more than the first one.  While the story basically followed a fairly by-the-numbers plot, there were a lot of inventive situations, fun visual gags, and likeable characters to get me invested in what was going on.

While the first film focused mostly on Sully (the big, blue one), this movie centered on Mike (the green one with one eye).  In the first film, he's the sidekick to Sully, but in this one, we find out that he's really the one who's responsible for Sully's successes.  I know some people think that a kid's movie is somehow a lower art form than movies for grown-ups, but I would venture that his personality is more fully-realized than some of the characters in movies aimed at people my age.

The plot involves Mike's dream of being a "scarer", a monster who frightens little children in order to harness their screams.  Why harness screams?  Because their energy powers the Monster world.  His major problem is that he's just not scary; however, he has the determination and drive to be the best in his class.  Sully, on the other hand, is really scary, but he doesn't study and has no sense for the more subtle aspects of being frightening.  He has one really ferocious growl, and that's it.

They start off not liking one another too much, but they find themselves working together to get back into the scare program when they're both dropped from it.  This involves them and a bunch of other misfits entering "The Scare Games".  Like I said, the plot feels like one you've probably seen before in other college movies, but the folks at Pixar really make it all seem fresh by taking advantage of all the possibilities that this fictional universe has to offer.  Also, I appreciated the message of how we should accept our limitations in life but not let them stop us from achieving greatness.

I found myself to be really engaged in this movie, mostly due to the characters.  Even better, my son liked it, and he did really well for his first experience.  There were only a couple of times where we had to tell him to be quiet as he yelled out at the screen.  (We're the type of crazy parents who actually try and correct behaviors like that instead of just letting our kid keep doing it.)  He was also getting antsy as we waited for the film and had to sit through all the previews, as I'm not sure he was really clear on what was happening.  But once he saw that familiar Disney logo, followed by the Pixar one, and then good old Mike from one of his favorite movies, he was really into what was going on.  This was definitely a good choice - and as a bonus, my wife's parents came along, and they seemed to really enjoy it as well.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Samuel Adams is playing catch-up

I think that one of the ways to tell the difference between a beer geek and a beer snob is when you talk about Samuel Adams Boston Lager.  Beer geeks like myself think it's a fine beer.  While it might not be our favorite, we'll never turn it down, and we'll be more than happy to have one at the bar if the only other options are Bud/Miller/Coors.  Beer snobs snub their noses at it.  You know, since it's not a high-alcohol, dark, or heavily-hopped ale, it's not good.  Never mind that it's intended to be a session beer, where you can knock back a few without getting plastered, or drink it as a perfect compliment to just about any kind of meal.  Many beer geeks even got introduced to the world of craft beer through Sam Adams, and I know that for me, it was a regular in my fridge when I first started getting into it.

I've only had one of their beers that I thought was bad, and that was the Cranberry Lambic that used to come in their Winter mix pack.  (They seem to have wisely stopped including that one.)  The Cherry Wheat was much better than expected but not good enough to keep around the house.  Other than that, from their Boston Ale to their Honey Porter to their Blackened Lager, everything they made was a pretty solid example of the style.

Still, I haven't bought a whole lot of Sam Adams lately, no matter which style we're talking about.  The primary reason is that most of the beer I drink is my homebrew.  Still, I like to pick up a little something here and there when I go to Costco (where the beer selection went from decent to crappy to excellent in the few years I've been shopping there).  However, the kinds of things that catch my interest are more along the lines of what a brewery like Stone is doing.  If you're not familiar with them, their most ubiquitous offering is Arrogant Bastard.  I remember trying that one when I was a noob, and while I was able to finish it, I couldn't exactly tell you that it was something that I liked a whole lot.  I tried one again recently though, and gosh darnit but it was tasty.  I've also recently enjoyed their Imperial Russian Stout, Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, and the Cali-Belgique.  These are all pretty bold beers, and definitely not for the type who might say:  "Oh sure, I love craft beer!  I drink Blue Moon all the time!"  (Nothing wrong with Blue Moon, even though they hide the fact that they're made by Coors, but that's a pretty easy-drinking beer.)  If you like that kind of thing, then Stone is the brewery for you.

There are, of course, other interesting breweries out there, like Dogfish Head, where you never know what craziness they'll come up with next.  The wifey and I had the good fortune to eat at one of their restaurants when we were back East last summer, and I got to try quite a few of their beers.  The food was pretty good as well.

I wonder if other beer geeks are like me though, as we're trying some of the bolder, more experimental styles that the craft breweries have to offer.  I wonder this because I finally bought something from Sam Adams today - my first time in a while.  It was their Small Batch mix pack, which contains a Barleywine; a dark ale with cocoa, chipotle peppers, and cinnamon; a Gingerbread Stout; and a Sahti.  They all sounded interesting, but it was the Sahti that got me to buy the mix pack.  For those of you who don't know, it's a Finnish style, and it's not exactly a style that you see around a lot in California.  I don't know of any craft breweries who even make one.  It's nice to say that even though I live in the suburbs, I have access to many styles of beers from all over the world, but this is the first time I've seen that style.  I'd tell you what I think, but it's currently cooling in my fridge.

Sam Adams has really been catching my attention lately, so it's not so surprising.  Shoot, now that I think about it, I'm lying when I say it's been a while since I bought any, but I don't want to go back and fix what I wrote.  I picked up a six pack of their IPL - instead of an India Pale Ale, it's an India Pale Lager.  Sounded too interesting to pass up, and while I probably couldn't figure out on my own that it was a lager and not an ale, it was a pretty darn good beer.  Aside from that, I've been tempted to pick up some of their other mix packs, as the varieties that they're offering are getting more and more interesting.  At a party recently, I had their Maple Pecan Porter, and I'll be damned if that wasn't one of the best porters I've ever had.  It has me curious to pick up their next Fall mix pack, as they have a Pumpkin Ale in it.

When craft brewers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada were starting out, it was good enough that they were making beers that were actually, you know, good.  Seems like now they have to be interesting as well if they want to compete in this marketplace.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Not only do I not believe it; I hope it's not true.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about anti-theism.  In it, I went over how not only do I not believe in any gods, but for the most part, I'd be in opposition to them if they were real.  I briefly went over Christianity and why I wouldn't want it to be true, but I hinted that it would be worth following up in another blog post all together.  So, for those of you who have woken up at the crack of dawn every morning since then, I finally give that particular explanation, but as usual, I need to get a few things out of the way first.

For starters, I am fully aware that there is a difference between what I want to be true and what is true.  The two ideas are separate, but not necessarily mutually exclusive.  For instance, I don't want to believe that zombies are real, and lucky for me, they don't seem to actually exist (yet).  Also, I want to believe that chocolate exists, and the candy aisle and my gut both provide some pretty sturdy evidence that it exists.  However, I also would really like to believe that aliens built some of the ancient wonders of the world, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

Secondly, I don't know if this is true for all atheists, but it certainly was the case with me, and I reckon it's probably true for others as well.  I stopped believing before I stopped wanting to believe.  In fact, it was my desire to believe that probably kept me as a believer for several years before I finally just couldn't do it anymore.  I even remember having conversations with Christians where I would say, "Well yeah, that sure would be nice if it WERE true that Jesus died for my sins, but..."  Eventually though, I came around to being really glad that it wasn't true.

Lastly, I realize that different Christians think different things.  Some of them are so slippery in their conversations that it's almost impossible to nail them down on exactly what it is that they DO think.  For the sake of this, I'm just going to go with the basic Christian theology that no doubt covers the majority of believers.

I'm probably not going to say anything that hasn't been said before, and it'll come off as a poor-man's Christopher Hitchens, but hopefully I can put it all into my own words:

1.  You're living in a dictatorship.  No matter how you slice it, we are subject to a cosmic dictator.  You have no say in how the universe is run, and if you don't like the way that he's doing things, then you have absolutely no way to petition him to change it.  If you think that no loving being could possibly allow for anybody to go to hell - TOUGH.  If you think that instead of picking some ass-corner of the world to reveal his message it would have been better to pick a more influential and populated part of the world - TOO BAD.  Who are you to question God?  And this is exactly the kind of thing that I hear in my exchanges with Christians.  When I even get them to admit that something doesn't make sense, their response is often: "Well, what place do I have questioning the creator of the universe?"  Screw that noise - you have a brain, and if this God gave it to you, then you have an obligation to use it.  Just like North Korea, the Soviet Union, etc., you have no place to question anything; you just have to trust that the most powerful one is gonna take care of things.

2.  Might makes right.  This relates to the last point.  Why is God right no matter how screwed up his laws and actions seem to be?  Because he's infinitely powerful.

3.  You're a slave.  Why did he create you?  To worship and serve him.  Fantastic.  Not only that, but you're not even good enough to be that.  Don't believe me?  Do a Google search for Christian praise songs with the phrase "not worthy".  In other words, you suck, but God will love you if you completely devote yourself to him.

4.  The only way to be happy is to develop Stockholm Syndrome.  Instead of speaking out against this horrible being, you have to defend him.

5.  You don't know what love is.  I have a son.  I love him.  I'd do anything, including sacrificing my own life for him.  I wrote a blog post where I told the story of how my great-grandfather did exactly that.  A Christian commented:  "There was one father who sacrificed his son so that we could live forever with him." as though it was somehow relevant to what I wrote.  See, here's the problem - the story of William Johnson and the story of Yahweh/Jesus is THE EXACT OPPOSITE.

A better comparison would have been if William had thrown his son into the lawn mower so he could forgive people for doing things that they couldn't help but doing due to the simple fact that they're fallible.  Oh, and William would also have to be omnipotent and with the ability to create a completely different scenario where nobody even had to die or suffer in the first place.

6.  God doesn't take responsibility.  He could stand to read some Spider-Man comics and learn that "With great power comes great responsibility."  The thing is this - if you're omniscient and omnipotent (never mind the fact that these two ideas are contradictory) then EVERYTHING is your fault.  When questioning basic Christian dogma and why there needs to be suffering in the world, I have actually had Christians say to me:  "Well, what was God supposed to do?"

I don't know.  He's God.  He should be able to figure it out.  Make me omnipotent and I'm on the case.  Until then, if there's nothing else he could do, then as old Epicurus said:  "Then why call him God?"

7.  Just think it through.  I love watching Christians go in circles on this one.  Why did Jesus have to be sacrificed?  So we could be forgiven for our sins.  Who needs to forgive us for sins?  God (Spoiler alert - he is Jesus).

And if we don't sin, do we not need forgiveness?  But everybody sins.  And why do we sin?  Because we were born with original sin.  Yet somehow, Christians will tell us that we have free will, even though it's impossible for us to not sin.  So, God creates a problem (Yes, he created it - see the power/responsibility thing) and then offers a solution.  He's like a divine L. Ron Hubbard.

I think that it would make for a good story if Jesus and Yahweh were completely separate beings (as some early Christians believed) and Jesus stepped up, on the behalf of humanity, to be sacrificed in order to appease the wrath of a capricious/hateful god.  That would take the Prometheus myth and do it one better.  But once you make Jesus and Yahweh one and the same, it just gets stupid, and if it's true, God is insane.

This whole bit gives me a headache just thinking about it.  So, I'm gonna stop now.  I don't expect to convince any Christians as to how messed up this whole thing is (see the Stockholm Syndrome thing).  If any of them do comment, it'll probably just be the usual hemming and hawing where they will deny what I said by giving a convoluted explanation that basically just amounts to what I said, only more obfuscated.

I figure it's just going to reaffirm the convictions of my fellow nonbelievers, and while it's good to check into differing points of view every now and then, sometimes it feels good to know that the problem isn't you - it's them.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

My last gay marriage post?

It's been some time since I've written on the whole gay marriage issue, but when I started on this blog, I wrote about it frequently.  I also found myself debating with anti-gay marriage people quite a bit, finding myself getting rather upset.  I'm not sure if it was their inability to see how completely unfair their stance was or whether it was their inability to see how completely illogical all the anti-gay marriage arguments are.

I figured that I'd write about it again today since apparently something or other happened involving gay marriage that's pretty significant.  For those living under a rock and cannot access Facebook, The Supreme Court of the United States made two major rulings regarding the issue.  The first one was that the "Defense of Marriage Act" (Was there ever a title more Orwellian?) is unconstitutional.  Apparently, there's something about the U.S. Constitution where you're not allowed to discriminate against other people.  The other ruling was in regards to California's Proposition 8.  If I understand it correctly, the ruling wasn't so much that Prop 8 was unconstitutional, as that had already been determined by another court.  The ruling had more to do with the fact that those who were appealing to have the ruling overturned basically didn't have a legal leg to stand on - mainly because it would have no impact on their lives.  So, that puts the final nail on Prop 8's coffin.  (Please feel free to comment and correct me if I've goofed up the details here.)

I'm not sure why I've been so passionate about this issue.  I'm  not gay myself, and if I am, my denial is REALLY deep.  There isn't anybody close to me who's gay.  I guess the closest I get to that is I have some students of whom I'm fond who are gay, and I've made a few friends online who are gay as well.  (I've even had them - yikes! - in my house, where they pressed their gay agenda on to my son; now he likes watching Tinkerbell movies on Netflix.)  I guess I just don't like it when people are being treated unfairly.

Obviously, this isn't the end of this issue.  There are still states with laws against it.  There are still homophobes out there.  But this is pretty significant, and it's pretty hard to imagine that the wind is going to start blowing in the other direction on this issue.  The genie might still have a couple of feet in his lamp, but his head, arms, and legs are out - he ain't gonna go back in there.  Shoot, even Newt Gingrich has admitted that there's no turning back on this issue, and he said that before the Superior Court's ruling.  (He had said years ago that this whole gay marriage issue was a temporary sort of thing that would eventually go away.)

You'll forgive me if I'm feeling a bit smug right now.  My past entries on this issue were always full of assurance that we were on the winning side of this issue, and I cannot imagine how anybody could see it otherwise.  To those who continue to be against it, let me assure you that your lives will not change at all.  If the definition of marriage to you is "one man and one woman" then more power to you.  As far as I'm concerned, that's the definition for me as well, but unlike you, I don't care how other people define it.  But let's stop talking about "redefining" marriage and the changing of "traditional" marriage.  This is an institution that has been redefined over and over again.  Was there a dowry involved in your wedding?  Was the father really "giving away" the bride as though she was a piece of property or was it just a nice thing to have him take part in the ceremony?  And for Pete's sakes, if you're going to talk about "Biblical" marriage, then shut up and actually read The Bible and find out what that really means, because it isn't what you think it is.  To sum it all up though, it was put best by a fella named Dave Holmes, who wrote on his Twitter account:  "As we celebrate today, let's spare a warm thought for our opponents, who have lost absolutely nothing."

My son, Logan, is going to be three years old.  He's going to see what will no doubt be his first wedding in a year.  It will be between a man and a woman, but I like to hope that in his lifetime, he'll see ones between couples of the same sex.  More importantly, I hope that when he's told that there was once a time when gay people couldn't get married, his first reaction will be complete incredulousness - kinda like the one I felt when I first heard about black people once having separate drinking fountains.  I couldn't even fathom why, much less how, that could even be true.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

World War Z Review

If there's one thing that I cannot stand, it's people who think that a movie adaptation needs to be exactly like the book.  Movies and books are two different art forms, and while sometimes what works in one works in another, that's not always the case.  Probably one of the best examples of a movie adaptation is To Kill a Mockingbird, and I think that a lot of people would agree with me on that.  However, if you're familiar with the book like I am after having taught it for over ten years, you know that the movie really cuts out a lot of stuff.  There's a fantastic chapter with Ms. Dubose, a character who only gets one short scene in the movie, that's basically a mini story-within-the-story.  While it's good reading, it's a good thing that they didn't include it in the film, as it would have simply slowed down the pace and gotten the audience involved with a character who wasn't going to have any major role in the main story.

This all brings me to World War Z.  I read the novel a few years ago, so it's not exactly fresh in my mind.  When I heard that they were making a movie, I wondered how the heck they were going to pull that off.  It doesn't read like a straight-ahead narrative.  It's written as an oral history, as humanity is on the verge of making a comeback after a devastating war against the undead.  It doesn't follow one character's arc throughout, and while maybe it would work as a miniseries that featured different characters in every episode or two, it would be pretty awkward and confusing as a straightforward adaptation.

In other words, I had no problem with the idea of them changing things around and focusing on one character.  The fact that Brad Pitt was going to be playing him was a plus in my book as well.  For me, the important thing is when it comes to a movie adaptation is whether they get the main point of the story across or not.

So, do they do that?  Kinda.  The story contains the usual zombie tropes, and all of that is there in both the novel and the movie.  However, the novel ends with a sense of hope.  You don't feel as though it's all over, but there seems to be a sense that humanity will pull through in the end.  The movie does that, although in a very different manner in which the book does.  Personally, I think that the movie makes a good choice (I'm deliberately trying to be vague here in order to avoid major spoilers).  If they did it the way it was done in the book, it would have made for a terrific action scene, but ultimately it would have suffered from the same problem as the end of Man of Steel - lots of devastation with little audience investment in what's going on.  The movie brings it all to a more personal level, which is what a movie should do.  After you've spent so much time with a character, you want the ending to focus on him.

For the most part, the movie definitely feels like it exists in the zombie apocalypse that Max Brooks created for his book.  Sure, the differences between that and other undead stories (The Walking Dead, George Romero's Dead movies, etc.) are pretty slight, but this has its own vibe to it if you've seen your fair share of zombie flicks.

As for how the movie is overall in terms of quality, I'd rate it as an above-average action film.  It's definitely more of that than a horror film, but it definitely has a few good scares in it.  My wife and I commented on how we found ourselves holding our breaths through several scenes.  If you're really into zombies, catch it in the theater - at least, you will be entertained.  If you're only somewhat interested in them, give this one a rental.  While it's nothing spectacular, I wasn't bored for an instant, and there are some genuinely original bits of imagery that I haven't seen in another zombie movie.  Plus, the CGI actually enhances the story, and I only marveled at it after the fact - I didn't sit there and think to myself:  "Look at all those CGI zombies scaling that wall."

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why do good?

I realize that I'm running the risk here of coming off as "Look how truly wonderful I am" with this post, but I'm genuinely trying to explore an idea here, so if it comes off that way, I apologize.  I've been putting it off for months now, partially out of fear that it might come off as bragging, but I've decided to finally go for it - part of it was inspired by a post made by Justin McRoberts on his blog.  Please note that I'm not writing this as a sort of counter-point or retort to his.  It's just that the subjects are related, and while my thoughts might contrast with his, this is not intended to be a rebuttal.  Okay, enough with the preamble:

Several months ago, I was going for a walk through my neighborhood park, and as per my usual routine, I had my son Logan in the stroller and my dog Freyja on a leash.  (I think it's better that way than the other way around.)  Right as we got in, we came across an older fella who had fallen down on the ground.  There was a teenage kid trying to help him get back up, but it looked like he could use some assistance.  So, I went  to help the old guy out.  A couple of women who were jogging in the park assisted as well.

Basically what we had was the two ladies took my dog, we had the old guy push the stroller with one hand (to help steady himself) while taking his other arm and putting it over my shoulder.  The teenager walked on the other side, helping to correct the old guy as he would occasionally lose his balance.

There's lots more to the story, as the old guy wanted to drive home, and I had to prevent him from getting into his car while we waited over an hour for emergency services to show up.  Maybe one day I'll fill in the gaps, but suffice it to say, my son was witness to his father and a bunch of strangers helping an old guy out.  Honestly, I'm not too sure that Logan was really aware of just what was going on though.  It's hard to tell with little guys (He's going to be three in August, and he was closer to two and a half when this happened.)  Basically one of the ladies was playing with him while I was getting ready to physically restrain the old guy from getting into his car.  Logan didn't seem too concerned about it one way or another.

Flash forward to a recent incident at Logan's preschool.  A little girl fell off her bike.  Logan's reaction was to help her up and call for a teacher to assist.  He then walked the girl over to the bench to sit down and asked the teacher for some ice for the girl's wound.

While I think this is awesome, I suppose it's not too strange.  I'm sure he had seen the teachers behave in a similar fashion, so he was probably emulating them in some way.  And who knows?  Maybe something did penetrate his mind when I helped that one old guy out.  It's hard to say, but what made him want to go and help that little girl out in the first place?  From what I understand, it's not like all the kids were rushing up to her assistance.  The teacher even commented on his behavior as it wasn't the kind of thing that she sees often in kids his age.

But even if he is emulating behavior, which is something that's common of pretty much every mammal of which I'm aware, I can't help but think of another story involving him.  This goes back to when he was a bit younger, and those with little ones know, a few months can make a huge difference, but this was when he hadn't even reached two years old yet, and it involves another walk in the park.

Sometimes, Logan likes to get out of the stroller and explore.  On one of these occasions, we came across an elderly Asian man who was gathering acorns.  Logan walked up to see what was going on and tried talking to the man.  The man just smiled a bit, but couldn't make out Logan's jibber-jabber.  So, he continued to gather the acorns in a plastic bag that he had on the ground.  Logan then took it upon himself to go looking around for acorns and place them in the man's bag.  The man smiled, but didn't talk much (out of being laconic or having a limited English vocabulary, I'm not sure).

I spent about fifteen minutes watching Logan assist the man.  Sometimes his acorns were rejected, as obviously the guy wanted them to be of a certain quality, but for the most part, the man kept what my son found for him.  While I don't like to rush Logan when he's exploring, eventually I do want to get going - especially during the summer months when the heat keeps rising - so I finally said it was time to get going.  When we departed, Logan just waved goodbye (and got one in return) and climbed back into his stroller.  He didn't want to take any of the acorns with him, which is what I feared.  He just wanted to help the guy out.

I have no explanation where I can point to the behavior of myself, my wife, or anybody else who's close to him that puts that incident into perspective.  He didn't know that man, and it was unlikely that he would confuse him with any of his relatives.  He also had never been around somebody who gathered acorns either.  He simply observed what the guy was doing and decided that he'd be of assistance.

Perhaps I've got new-dad syndrome or something, but I have to say that with both incidents, I have two thoughts:  1.  I'm really damned proud and 2.  How do I nurture this behavior and not screw it up?

The second thought is probably what occupies my mind the most.  While I cannot explain his behavior in terms of simply emulating what he's seen, I still have no problem with attributing it to a natural explanation.  We human beings are a communal species.  Since we don't have the strength, speed, or camouflage of other mammals, we had to work together in order to survive.  Just as you see our fellow primates doing things that benefit the group and/or other individuals in the group, being helpful is a trait that makes us more likely to survive.  Sure, some people are more altruistic than others, but the point is that you see that more often than you see people stabbing each other in the back; otherwise, we wouldn't have gotten very far.

In other words, I do not find it any less wonderful and heartwarming to see my son's behavior and point to evolution as the reason for why he has it in him.  And no, do not substitute the word "random" for "evolution".  That could be another blog post, but suffice it to say, evolution is pretty much the opposite of being random - we inherited these traits because they helped us to survive.  It's what makes us human beings, and some of us get more of the really beneficial traits than others.

When I think of why I helped out that one old guy who fell down, it's not that I did a lengthy analysis in my head as to why I should help.  I suppose if I already saw several people walking him to a bench, I'd probably just go:  "Looks like they've got this covered."  I know that I've certainly done this in the past, as I've watched others help people in need, and I basically just kept back because I figured by that point, I'd just start to get in the way.  But with this one, at that moment, it looked like if I didn't do something, that teenager wasn't going to be able to help the guy.  If I have to think about it, I did something for the simple reason that the thought of me living in a world where old men can fall down and just lie there is a particularly horrid one - no doubt partially because one day I could very well find myself as an old man who falls down in a public park.  Still, the thought of a little girl falling down and not being helped bothers me as much.

But just as my son's behavior was instinctive, so was mine.  I'm the same product of millions of years of natural selection, and I belong to a species where for the better part of our history, helping one another meant the difference between our survival or us joining the dinosaurs.  This is why we humans even have a notion of what's good and what's bad in the first place.  I know that some people like to look to a supernatural and/or religious reasoning, but from what I've sussed out, those sorts of answers only add an unnecessarily convoluted layer to something where we already have an explanation that doesn't require it.

I also know that some people would find my explanation to be "sad" (actual word used to describe my point of view by some religious believers) or maybe even lacking a sense of amazement at the world.  I dunno.  When I think of my son helping a man pick up acorns, and I realize that this instinct can be traced back to our hunter/gatherer ancestors who had to help each other to continue the species, I feel amazingly connected to the rest of humanity.  When strangers have helped me out, they acted out of the same instinct that I did.  Who knows?  Considering that we're all related if you go back far enough, it could be that Logan was returning a favor from millions of years ago.  If that doesn't give you a sense of awe at who we are and how we got to be here, then I don't know what does.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Should you homebrew?

Sometimes when I have an idea for a blog, I'm not sure whether I've already written it, or it just contains ideas that I've either thought about or talked to people about so many times that it feels as though I've written it down.  So, maybe I've done this before.  If I have, you can go ahead and demand a refund.

With that said, there might be some folks wondering whether they should get into homebrewing or not.  My answer to them is:  Yes.  Oh God, yes.  Sweet, merciful Jeebus, DO IT!  Go out, now!!!  Buy a kit and start making beer!  Why are you sitting around like an idiot reading this when you could be making beer?

Ahem.  Allow me to try a more nuanced approach.

I've been homebrewing for about six years or so now, and it doesn't look like I'll be giving it up anytime soon.  Sometimes, while sharing some yummy brews with friends, they express some interest in trying it out for themselves.  However, it's a bit of an investment in both time and money.  I remember when I was first contemplating the idea of whether to start or not, my biggest worry was that I would buy the kit, brew a couple of batches, and then it would sit and collect dust until I finally decided to get rid of it.  Some homebrewing friends of mine told me that this wouldn't happen when I finally got around to tasting my homebrew, and that was one of the deciding factors for me to go ahead and give it a shot.  Also, I got a book from my sister-in-law about the hobby that finally convinced me to take the leap.

Realize that when it comes to making your own beer, you have a lot of options.  The cheapest one seems to be the Mr. Beer kit.  I have never used it myself, but I've checked out some online reviews.  It seems as though it's possible to make some pretty decent beer with it, but you won't have a whole lot of control of what you can get.


From my own experience, I started with a kit than ran me about $200 (which included everything I needed to brew, ferment, and bottle an entire batch).  That kit used extracts instead of all grain, and I would boil 3 gallons and then later add 2 gallons of water for a 5 gallon batch.  After doing that for a couple of years, and making some really tasty brews, I invested another $200 for an outdoor burner, a wort chiller, and a 7 gallon kettle.  With that, I continued to use extract kits, but I'd boil all 5 gallons at once, and my windows weren't all steamed up from brewing inside anymore (and my wife wouldn't complain about the smell, either).  As I said, the beers I made before were good, but there was a significant upgrade in quality when I went this route.  Supposedly there's another upgrade if I ever switch to all-grain, and I just might do that someday, but as of right now, I'm pretty happy with what I'm getting.  Plus, I just might invest in kegging my beer instead of bottling it one day.

So, here are some things to consider if you're thinking about making your own beer:

1.  Do you like beer?  Duh.  Don't even consider it if you're not a fan of beer, or if you just like to have one every once and a while.  If you like to have at least one beer a day, then this is a good starting point.  If you can't imagine dinner without a beer to compliment it, then that's even better.

2.  Are you an alcoholic and/or binge drinker?  This isn't for you.  It takes at least three weeks for a batch to be ready for drinking, and you're just not going to be able to get your fix quick enough.  This is for people who like to sip and enjoy their beer - you know, those who value quality over quantity.

3.  Do you like to cook - especially for others?  In other words, do you take pleasure in making a meal, sharing it with others, and watching them enjoy what you created as much as you do?  This is similar.  Part of the fun of homebrewing is sharing your brews with others.

4.  Can you follow directions?  I had a few people tell me about how they ruined their first batch and/or couldn't seem to ever get it right.  Pretty much any kit you get is going to tell you how it's done.  If you can follow directions, you'll do fine.  I even goofed up a couple of steps on my first batch, and it still turned out okay.  I can't imagine how deliberately those folks must have completely ignored the directions.  Don't get me wrong, I've had some bad batches before, but I think it's safe to say that I'm at a 90% success rate at least.

5.  Does your taste in beer lean toward ales?  Ales are easier to make because for the most part, you can just do them at room temperature.  The good news is that you have a really great variety of beers you can make when it comes to ales, from Hefeweizens to Stouts to Belgian Tripels.  It is possible to do lagers, but it would involve buying a lot more equipment up front, and from what I understand, if you want to make a really clean-tasting macro-lager like a Bud, you're going to have a hard time.  The big breweries are able to get their beers to be so consistent because they have a hell of a lot more money invested in their equipment than you ever will.

6.  Do you like expensive styles like Belgians?  Here's the thing - I don't recommend getting into homebrewing to save money on beer.  I suppose that after doing it for a while, you'll eventually wind up spending less money per beer.  With that said though, if you're the kind of person who's shelling out $4-$8 per bottle for some imported Belgian ales, then you might want to try making your own.  I've made some pretty excellent Belgian Pale Ales, Dubbels, Tripels, and Saisons.  The kits are slightly more expensive than your average American Pale Ale kit, but when you're making 5 gallon batches, it evens out.  (Expect to pay about $40-$50 on a Belgian kit as opposed to $30-$35 for a standard Pale Ale.  One batch yields about two cases of beer - try getting two cases of Belgian Ales for $50 at Costco - it ain't gonna happen.)

So there you have it.  If you're on the fence, hopefully this will help you to make a wise decision.  If you're still on the fence, then I recommend the book that pushed me over into the wonderful world of making my own brews - Charles Papazian's The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Better Bible Stories - Noah

God was checking out his creation one day and said to himself, "Well, these humans turned out to be just plain shit."  Of course, being omniscient and all, he knew that this was going to happen and that he would feel this way.  It's not like there was any surprise, but still...

God decided to blot out humanity, which He knew that He was going to decide before He decided it.  He also wanted to snuff out all of the animals.  Why all of the animals?  God's ways are mysterious to us, but it has been surmised that spiders gave him the creeps, and perhaps that's what this was really all about in the first place.

There was one guy whom God thought was pretty decent, so He figured He'd save that guy and maybe his family too.  And the Lord went down and spoke to that man because this was a time when He spoke to people who weren't insane.

Thus spake The Lord:  "Hey."

"Huh?  Who was that?"


"Me?  Me who?"

"I am that I am."

"Umm...okay.  Look, can you just be straight up with me?  I've got a lot of stuff to do today."

"Ugh.  Okay.  Fine.  I am The Lord, Your God."

"Oh yeah?  Well, why didn't you just say so?  What can I do for you?"

"I have determined that I will wipe out all of humanity."

"Really now?  Well, thanks for the warning.  Guess I'd better go tell my wife I love her."

"No, no...not you.  I'm going to save you."

"Really?  Well, if you're wiping out the rest of humanity, it's going to get awful lonely.  I'll be kinda like Burgess Meredith in that one Twilight Zone episode, only there aren't even any libraries around here.  See, there's still irony with that, even though I have perfect vision."

"Will you stop?  I plan on saving you and your family."  God was feeling frustrated, and if he had a circulatory system, no doubt his blood pressure would have started to rise.

"Oh?  Okay then.  That's not so bad.  So, when's this going to happen?"

"Soon.  First you must build an ark made of gopher wood."

"Gophers are made out of wood?"

"No, it's a kind of wood that gophers like to eat, or something.  Anyway, you need to build it 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high.  Make it three levels."

"Man, that sounds like a lot of work, but yeah, okay.  Do you mind if I ask what the point is?"

"I am going to flood the Earth and drown every living thing.  The ark will ensure your survival."

"Like Deucalion and Utnapishtim?"

"Umm...yeah, kinda like that."  God felt embarrassed.  Stupid Greeks and Babylonians.  "But you also need to save two of each animal, one male and one female.  Except for the clean ones, with those you need seven of each one, because seven is a lucky number."

"Umm...okay.  Any chance you can make that boat for me?"

"What?  Build it for you?"

"Well, it wouldn't be a big deal for you, would it?"

"Of course not!  I am God!  I am all-powerful!  I created all of existence with but a thought!"

"Okay then, just poof it into existence."

"I will not be ordered around by one of my creations!"

"Well, it wasn't an order.  I was just hoping that you'd do me a favor.  Look, I get it.  You want me to build a boat, I'll build a boat."

"Good.  See it is done.  You have seven days."

"One week, right.  Say, why are you doing this?"

"Because humanity is wicked and violent."

"Really now?  All of them?"

"Yes.  They are awful."

"Even the babies?"


"The babies," said the man.  "Are they evil?"

"Well, no, of course not, but they have evil parents, so they don't have any hope."

"I could adopt a few of them.  So, why not save some of them and bring them to me?  I figure I can probably take on about five."

"No, no, no.  That's not going to work.  Gonna have to play the 'mysterious ways' card here."

"Fine, fine.  But why do you have to drown them?  That's a pretty awful way to die."

"Indeed it is.  But I have decided that this is the best way to cleanse the Earth."

"You mean commit genocide."

"That's such an ugly word."

"Okay, but why can't you just go 'poof!' and have all of these evil people disappear?"

"Because it must be a flood.  You mentioned Deucalion and Utnapishtim.  There's precedent here."

"But kittens and puppies?  They need to die too?"

"Yes!  Do you have a problem?  Who are you to question your Lord?"

"I dunno.  You gave me a brain, and I'm just saying that this all seems awfully convoluted."  The man sighed. "Okay, forget that I said anything.  How am I going to get all of these animals on the ark?"

"They shall come to you."

"Okay.  How do I get lions to not attack the other animals?"

"Am I not your Lord?  Can I not do anything?"

"Well, anything except behave rationally..."

"I am warning you!"

"Fine.  Fine.  What am I going to feed them?"

"Dried foodstuffs."

"Dried foodstuffs?  Where am I going to get that?"

"There's a Petco around the corner.  Go there."

Okay, is this a young-Earth creationist version of the story or an old-Earth version?"


"Well, do I have to deal with dinosaurs?  If so, I'm sorry, and I don't care what those guys at the Creation Museum say, this is all just going to be way too crazy..."

"We're done."

The next day, God came down to another man.  He liked this one too, even though he was a bit of a drunk.  But the good thing about drunks is that they don't ask too many questions.


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Lies make your cause look bad.

A recent article from something called the Christian News Network reminded me of why religion gets on my nerves.  If you don't feel like clicking the link - and I wouldn't blame you - the headline reads:  "Groundbreaking Genetic Discoveries Challenge Ape to Human Evolutionary Theory".  Oh my!  This is the sort of thing that should completely destroy everything we know!  Quick, somebody call the Smithsonian and tell them to pull down that whole human evolution exhibit that they have!

What?  They're leaving it up?  They're probably not even paying attention to this article in the first place?  Well, they should!  After all, it cites a study that was published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, a scientific journal.  You'd think that scientists all over the world would take note of this startling development. Got that, evolutionists?  It's game over for you!

Here's the funny thing though, the study doesn't do what the Christian News Network is claiming it does.  It doesn't call into question the fact that humans and modern apes share a common ancestor.  Instead, it's stating that some of the mechanisms as to HOW it happened need to be reconsidered, not THAT it happened.

So, that basically means that the person who wrote the article for the Christian News Network either didn't understand what he was reading (very likely, as it's filled with all kinds of scientific jargon) or he had an agenda to disprove basically the foundation of modern biology in order to further a particular Christian theology.  (Because it should be noted that there are plenty of Christians out there who accept evolution just fine and would find this to be as dishonest as anybody else.)  Of course, these two reasons don't necessarily contradict one another.

What gets me about the whole thing is in the comments section.  There are a few people who step in and point out the deception that the article is committing.  And what do we get?  A retraction?  Nope.  Christians commenting and saying that they don't appreciate being misled like this?  Nope.  Basically it all turns into another pointless debate over the theory of evolution between the scientifically literate and the scientifically illiterate.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot here.  I know that there are a lot of atheists out there who like the movie Zeitgeist, as it has a pretty thorough debunking of Christianity in it.  The problem though that I, and a lot of prominent atheists, have with it is that it's full of crap.  Skeptic Magazine critiqued it pretty harshly.  The Atheist Experience blog refers to it as a "an unscholarly, sophomoric, horribly flawed, over-simplification".  In other words, you'll find that atheists resent it when somebody uses a bad argument to further their cause.  The movie is fairly well-done, and it might even convince a person who didn't know any better, but I would never recommend it.  If I knew that the Pope would deconvert after seeing it, I still wouldn't recommend it to him.  I came to atheism because I wanted to be honest with myself about what was true and what wasn't, and lying isn't exactly the way to get there.

My memory is getting fuzzy, but I remember when I was still sitting on the fence between a vague sort of Christian agnosticism and atheism, I would read and listen to debates online.  I quickly noticed that this was an all-too common tactic on the part of theists - especially when it comes to the whole issue of evolution.  So many of these lies still get thrown around, from "there are no transitional fossils" to "we're just interpreting the evidence from a different point of view".  I guess in a way I should be thankful, as it's probably the sort of thing that will continue to push people over to the atheist side of the fence once they wise up and realize that they're being lied to.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Apple users - the most dangerous cult of all!

Years ago, when looking to buy an MP3 player, I was at Best Buy, figuring that I'd probably pick up an iPod.  Why an iPod?  I dunno.  Isn't that what everybody was getting?  While there, I noticed that there were other, cheaper MP3 players, so I asked the guy what the difference was between those and the iPods. Essentially, he told me that there wasn't much, and Apple products basically charged more for the simple fact that they're Apple products.  I had heard the same from others, so I went with a Sansa, which served me so well that when it came time to get a new one recently, I stuck with that brand.

I definitely wasn't going to get an iPod this time around, not because I am some sort of brand loyalist to Sansa, but I've only had one experience with an iPod, and it was a negative one.  My mother-in-law asked me to add some songs to her iPod from a couple of CDs she had purchased, and I was more than happy to do that for her.  I figured that I could just do what I did with my Sansa, which involves plugging it into the USB port on my computer, then dragging and dropping the MP3 files to a folder on the MP3 player.  Turns out, that's not so simple.  Apparently you have to go through iTunes.  Now, I'm sure that the process isn't exactly difficult, but I resented the fact that I had to jump through hoops - Apple's hoops, that is - just to get some songs on the player.  With my player, I could buy stuff from iTunes, Amazon, or wherever and put it on my device the exact same way; I didn't have to go through any kind of service that Sansa demanded.  Lucky for me, my sister-in-law had an iPod as well, so she was able to do it without me having to figure out the process.  (Again, I'm sure that I could have figured it out; I just resent that there was even one to figure out in the first place.)

There's always been something about Apple that's annoyed me, and I think that it goes back to the days when I worked at Internet Alfredo, a cybercafe in SOMA, many moons ago.  We had both PCs and Macs, and while both could be buggy, the Macs gave me no end of frustration.  Perhaps it was due to the fact that I had a PC at home, so I was more used to them and their idiosyncrasies.  What got me though was that there were some people who would swear up and down as to how much better the Macs were than the PCs, even as the stupid things were breaking down.  And my least-favorite thing about them is that when you had a problem with a floppy disc (remember those?) you couldn't simply press a button and eject it out.  No, you had to drag and drop the icon into the recycle bin.  But what about when the whole stupid computer was frozen and the disc was the reason for it?  Then you had to find a paper clip, straighten it out, and stick the clip into a little hole next to the disc drive.  Brilliant.  What would I do when there was a similar problem with a PC?  I'd push the button next to the drive, and the disc would come out.  Just like with the whole iTunes debacle, this isn't a huge deal, but it's convoluted, and I guess I'm just not a fan of convoluted things.

So, based on my completely unscientific analysis, I stuck with PCs.  I remember those "I'm a Mac.  I'm a PC" commercials, where in one of them the Mac Guy makes the bold assertions that Macs don't "crash" like PCs do.  While it was possible that after my time at the cybercafe, Apple started making crash-free computers, I think you'd have to be pretty gullible to believe it.

I don't have a big story to tell when it comes to getting my first smart phone.  I went with Android, mostly based upon the recommendations of a friend of mine who was a former iPhone user and the guy who worked at the AT&T store.  What also contributed to it was some of the wonkiness that my wife encountered while dealing with getting some files off of her iPhone, and no doubt my past annoyances with Apple products, but for the most part she's been happy with hers.  As for my droid, I'm pretty happy with it. Does it have some buggy things about it?  Yes.  But I expected that.

Brand loyalty is a strange thing to me, and Apple certainly seems to have its loyal fans, although I'm not quite sure why.  It's not like their products are objectively better than the competition.  I've been doing a bit of browsing, and sometimes their stuff is rated lower than Android phones and Sansa MP3 players.  (Check out the video from CNET here, where it seems like it's hard to make a case for Apple making a superior product when it comes to MP3 players, at least - and yeah, it's a bit old, and yeah, I know that most folks just use their phones to listen to music now.  I have my reasons why I still like to have a separate player.)  Even back during my internet cafe days, the most objective analysis on the Apple versus PC debate came from a guy who stated that "it depends on what you want to do".

Maybe I'm imagining things, but there seems to be a devotion to Apple that borders on being a religious following.  The reasons for their loyalty don't seem to be borne out of an objective analysis and truly superior products.  It's as though if Apple's products were to start giving you herpes, there would still be some of them not only buying their products, but defending them.

Now please, if your reaction to this is to leave me an angry comment about how it's your right to own Apple products and that you like them and therefore I should shut the hell up, then you're missing my point.  If you like them, and they've been good to you, then by all means, keep buying them.  Shoot, for all I know, they do make superior products - although I'm not really seeing any real proof of that.  I guess what I'm saying is that the next time you have to buy a phone or computer and your first instinct is to go for an Apple product, just take a moment to realize that it is okay to consider buying something else.  You might even get something that you like even better.

Bonus link:  A comparison of Apple's Siri and Google Now.  If you get the sense that the reviewer, Sharon Vaknin, is super awesome, that's because she is.  And why is she super awesome?  She's a former student of mine.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel review

Currently, Man of Steel is at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is fair to say that the reviews have been mixed.  That pretty much sums up my feelings on the film as well, as they have been mixed before I had seen it, and they continue to be mixed afterward.

I'm actually one of the few comic book fans who defends Superman Returns, and I was disappointed that they had no plans to bring Brandon Routh back for more adventures as the Last Kryptonian.  While they kinda painted themselves in a corner with the whole son of Superman thing, I still think that there was room to take things in a new direction for another movie.  So, I wasn't feeling too good about the reboot of the franchise.  Then I heard that Christopher Nolan would be producing, and I got more positive.  When I saw the trailer, I started to get really excited.  I'll admit it - I'm one of those guys who got a tear in his eye in the snippet where Kevin "Pa Kent" Costner says, "You are my son".  I was thinking that this movie was going to do for Superman what Batman Begins did for Batman.

Then the mixed reviews and negative comments from friends on Facebook started coming in.  Was it possible that they could create such a moving trailer to an absolute stinkpot of a movie?  I began to fear the worst, and today I finally saw it.

As I said, my feelings are mixed.  It's certainly not the worst superhero movie ever, the honor for that going to Batman and Robin.  It's also better than some of the not-so-good-but-not-horrifically-awful movies like Spider-Man 3, Green Lantern and Daredevil.  Yet it certainly doesn't belong in the same category as Christopher Nolan's Batman films or even any of the Avengers-related Marvel movies.

It's hard to explain how I feel.  When I compare it to something like Thor, which I thoroughly enjoyed but didn't feel as though it's the kind of movie that would win over people who normally don't like superhero movies, it's simultaneously better and worse.  There are moments in Man of Steel that I absolutely loved more than anything that Thor had to offer, yet there weren't nearly as many moments in Thor that had me scratching my head, wondering what the hell was going on.

If I was to explain what worked, I would have to start with the music.  It's hard to imagine something being as moving as the original John Williams Superman:  The Motion Picture score, but I think that Hans Zimmer has it beat with this one.  The casting was definitely good as well, with Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russel Crowe, and Laurence Fishburne all being good choices who properly embodied their iconic characters.  Also, the flashbacks of young Clark Kent all worked, and they created a new twist on a familiar story - where Superman's greatest fear is how people will reject him for being different.  As I've heard it said before, Superman's real weakness isn't Kryptonite but his heart, and that certainly comes through with this film.

I guess the bad parts were all plot-related for the most part.  As my wife said, they were just trying to cram way too much into it, what with both the origin and an alien invasion.  Also, there was a bit where Superman put Lois Lane down in a field while she happened to have the secret to stopping Zod, yet she doesn't say anything until she reunites with him later for a dramatic moment where she reveals to him that she knows how to stop Zod.  Huh?  Why not say something earlier?  And why is she always able to be exactly where he is?

Usually I just go with the flow in a movie like this.  Characterization and dialogue are always a lot more important to me than being devoid of plot holes, but there were just so many in this that I couldn't help but be annoyed by it all.

Also, some of the action scenes at the end were just plain confusing.  I couldn't tell exactly what the hell Superman was trying to do to that thing that was over the Indian Ocean.  It just involved a lot of him grimacing and stuff blowing up.

So, it wasn't nearly as good as I had hoped, but at least it wasn't nearly as bad as I had feared.  I'm not sure whether that makes it the best of the lamer superhero movies or the worst of the better ones, but overall it just doesn't come together, despite having some truly great moments in it.  Looks like they're on the fast-track to make a sequel to this one with basically the same creative team.  Considering the great stuff, I think that they have the potential to make a phenomenal Superman movie; it's just too bad that this one wasn't it.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Confirmation bias versus following the evidence

I've been noticing something in some of my recent discussions with theists.  While I'm really not bothering to debate things with Biblical-literatlist types, I've noticed something that they all do - from your scientifically illiterate creationist to your more thoughtful, introspective theist.  Essentially, they don't seem to realize that it's pretty bogus to start with a conclusion and then work your way backward.

When it comes to the extreme end of theism, young Earth creationists, they pretty much come out and admit that they start with the conclusion.  Check out the Statement of Faith from Answers in Genesis, but be forewarned that the circular reasoning might give you vertigo.  Some highlights include the following:
By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.
I couldn't write something so obtuse if I tried.  Basically, nothing can contradict the Bible no matter what.  We have all the answers we need.  And you gotta love the idea that scientific evidence is subject to "interpretation by fallible people" (which is true) there is absolutely no way that The Bible could have been changed about as it was written, copied, translated, and interpreted by those same fallible people.

I also love the following:
The final guide to the interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself.
Wow.  If circular reasoning didn't work, then how come it works?  Seriously, if you sit and read this sentence and nod your head like it means something, then there is no hope for you.  You are beyond reason in the same way that any cult member is.

I seem to recall a comic strip on the AiG website where it had a fossil and a creationist on one side and an "evolutionist" on the other.  The creationist thinks to himself, "Great evidence for creation!" and the actual scientist thinks "Great evidence for evolution!"  Essentially the narrative that they're trying to create is that we all have a starting point, and those who look for creation will find it, and those who look for evolution will find it.  Of course, this is complete malarky for the simple fact that there IS NO EVIDENCE FOR CREATION.  And you may be thinking:  "Oh, but Lance!  There is!"  And to you, I must say:  "No, there is not.  Stop.  Just stop.  Seriously, stop."  I could elaborate, but I've done this dance too many times only to find out that the other person lacks basic scientific literacy, is using a bit of supposed "evidence" that's been long-since debunked, or is engaging in some sort of "God of the Gaps" fallacy (not to mention pretty much every other logical fallacy that one can imagine).  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me for the billionth time, and I'm Don frikken' Quixote.

Anyway, so I don't really talk to these types all that much, mainly because the opportunity rarely presents itself, and secondarily because I could better spend my time smashing my head into a brick wall.  No, the theists with whom I converse are a bit more of a slippery species of fish.  It's kind of hard to nail them down on exactly what it is they believe in the first place, but they essentially play this same game where they elevate their position to the same status as the atheist by claiming that we're just looking at the universe from different perspectives.

Because see, when your starting point is that you believe in God, then it's easy to see His work in the universe.  It's all fine-tuned for life and blah blah blah.

Essentially, they give the very definition of a confirmation bias, and then they try and put me on the same level as though I do the same thing.  After all, don't I start with the assumption that there ISN'T a God?  And isn't that why I don't see His work?  Hmm...maybe.

But let's break that down and replace the word "God" with something else - pick something, whether it be hobgoblins, gremlins, or Cthulhu.  Is the reason why I don't see evidence for these things because my starting point is that I don't believe them?  Or is it that I don't believe them because I don't see any evidence for them?  The second one sounds more likely, doesn't it?

Oh, but we're talking about God!  It's different!  I have a personal relationship!

No, it's not any different at all.  And I always have to remind them that I grew up as a believer, so I know exactly what it's like to see evidence for Him all around me.  In other words, my "starting point" was as a believer.  But then I started to realize that I accepted reasons for the existence of God which I would not accept for the existence of anything else.  In other words, I realized my own confirmation bias.  Now I just go where the evidence goes, and it's not going to any kind of theism.  That's right, not even Shinto.

Assuming the non-existence of something is not the same as assuming the existence of it.  There are a billion things that could get me to change my mind.  And what would change the mind of a believer?  Go ahead and ask one some day.  I have yet to get anything approaching a straight answer to this question.  I either get a straight-up evasion along the lines of:  "I'd hate to even think of not believing!" or answers to questions that are somewhat similar but not quite the same.  I was once accused of asking the theist to prove a negative, but that's not the same thing.  I'm not asking: "What would disprove God?"  I'm asking:  "What would change your mind?"  Again, I can give you answers to this for each and every thing which I believe and accept about the world.  Go ahead, put me to the test.

Back to the young-Earth creationists, there are a lot of scientists who refuse to debate them for the simple fact that doing so elevates the creationist to a level with the scientist - a level which he has not earned.  After all, you don't have geologists debating flat-earthers, do you?  To what end?  Of course, a lot of creationists interpret that as cowardice on the part of the scientists, but you really can't waste your time with every crackpot idea.

I'm starting to think though that even debating theists in general is akin to this idea.  By engaging them in the debate over the existence of God, you've just given their side a legitimacy which it has not earned.  The only thing that they have going for them is tradition and majority opinion - neither of which is a foundation for a legitimate belief system.  On the other hand though, I'm sure that I'll still engage in conversations with theists - as I find myself doing that more than "debating" lately.  Otherwise, how do they even know why we atheists don't believe in the first place?  Sure, you might not change their minds, but you definitely won't get anywhere if all they hear is the echo chamber of their particular religious faith.