Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hercules - Movie Review

As a fan (and teacher) of Greek Mythology, I got pretty excited when I heard that they were making not one, but two Hercules movies. I was really hoping that Hollywood would realize the great potential that lies in the character. Sure, the Disney cartoon is a lot of fun, if you ignore the Michael Bolton theme song, but it really doesn't get to the heart of what Heracles is all about. He's a suffering hero, who performs his twelve labors to atone for having killed his wife and children (not by his own free will, the goddess Hera drove him into a hallucinogenic rage).

My expectations dwindled considerably when I heard that one of them was to be directed by Renny Harlin and the other by Brett Ratner. Oh boy, that's not a good sign. It looked to me like the studios weren't going to be taking this very seriously.

Call me crazy, but I think that there's a potential for a Greek Mythology movie that does for the myths what Batman Begins did for superhero movies. I think that they can create something where the actors play their roles straight and the dialogue doesn't need to be stilted with a bizarre, trying-to-sound-like-Shakespeare-but-that-ain't-Shakespeare cadence to it. Perhaps somebody in Hollywood has had this idea, but nobody's funding that movie just yet.

When I saw the previews for the first one, The Legend of Hercules, I couldn't see anything that was even remotely connected to the myth that I know. You could have called it The Legend of This Dude from a Hella Long Time Ago, and it would have made just as much sense. I figured I'd skip it, and considering that it's holding a whopping 3% (no, I didn't leave out a zero - that's three) on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems like that was the wise move. Shoot Hercules in New York has 20%! I'd be better off watching that.

Perhaps I was just hurting for a mythology fix, but when I first started seeing pictures of Dwayne Johnson (Aren't you glad I didn't write "The Rock" in between his first and last names?) as the title character, I started to get optimistic. The pelt of the Nemean Lion on him? Okay, they've got the look down. Also, when I would read interviews with Johnson (no relation) it certainly seemed like the guy was enthusiastic for the project.

When I saw the previews, I started to get optimistic. They certainly weren't skimping on the special effects, and the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, the Erymanthian Boar - yeah, looking good. Still, at best it was just going to be dumb fun, right?

The early reviews confirmed my best-case scenario. It's currently sitting at a 62% on Rotten Tomatoes with the consensus being:
Hercules has Brett Ratner behind the cameras and Dwayne Johnson rocking the loincloth -- and delivers exactly what any reasonable person reading that description might expect.
I'd say that's a fair assessment, but since I have a soft spot for the material, I probably like it a bit more than even most of those who gave it a good review. Is this the definitive Hercules movie that I think can exist? Not exactly. However, they did get one thing right, and that's that he's not just a hero, but he suffers, and there is a lot of pain behind all that heroism.

The story plays around with the source material quite a bit, making the character a mercenary, and the impression is given that all of his labors were done with the help of his friends, but the stories grew in the telling. Also, his friends have no problem with him getting  all the credit, as it makes their enemies more afraid. Still, things are kept just vague enough, and if you want to believe that he's literally the son of Zeus by the time the story ends, you have enough justification to believe so.

I really liked Johnson in the lead role. He's a great action star, and he's able to bring the right amount of humor to a movie like this. However, I think that he also was able to convey the right amount of pain behind that Nemean Lion's pelt. (The movie keeps the bit about him killing his children, but it adds a twist that I won't spoil. As far as I'm concerned, the twist doesn't take away from what's important about that particular piece of the mythology though - and that's his inner need to atone.) From what I read, he really threw himself into the role, even to the point of passing out eight times. I'd say that it paid off, as the particular scene he's describing is the movie's high-point.

Some of the critics have complained that the movie has these dead-serious moments, when the rest of it is a lot of fun. I suppose you can accuse it of having an uneven tone, but it never went too far in either direction as far as I was concerned. Then again, that might be my blind spot for the material talking there.

One thing that struck me is that it was nice to see something that dealt with Ancient Greece that didn't look like 300. When that particular movie came out, it was cool because I had never seen anything like it, as it was bringing Frank Miller's comic book to life. But then I'd see previews for movies like Immortals and it seemed to be aping the same style. I couldn't even get past the first episode of that Spartacus TV show because it was such a stylistic ripoff of 300. With Hercules though, there certainly was a fair amount of CGI, but there were also a lot of practical effects and tons of extras running at each other during the battle scenes. (Or maybe the CGI is just getting that good to the point where I hadn't noticed. It seemed to me that they just used it to enhance the armies, not create them.) I looked up to see where they filmed, as the backgrounds weren't CGI vistas, and while it wasn't Greece, the scenery of Hungary sure looked good.

I figured that at worst, I'd be entertained. I got a bit more than that. Lastly, I should point out that I have only read the first issue of the comic book series on which it's based. I liked it, and now I'm eager to check out the rest of it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sheer cloudy vagueness

One of my favorite authors and personal heroes is George Orwell. Like pretty much all of my personal heroes, I admire him because he was willing to speak the truth even when people really didn't want to hear it.

I have the good fortune to teach his two most famous works, Animal Farm, and 1984, and they're not just among my favorites because I love the books, but I enjoy all of the lessons on propaganda and language that I get to tie into the literature.

One thing that Orwell was a proponent of was clear language, and that's true for me as well. I think that I get the most frustrated with people with opposing views from mine when they engage in vague language and meaningless words. I'll get frustrated, and they'll often think it's because I just can't respect their opinion, but the truth is that I'm annoyed by the cloudy mist of meaningless words that people often use.

As far as I'm concerned, I think that the following words and phrases should either be completely avoided or, at the very least, clarified when making a point:

1. Natural - So many people are a proponent of what's "natural", but I don't think that we can really get a good handle on what that means and why it's necessarily good. If "natural" simply means that it's not human-made, then it's pretty impossible to avoid unnatural things unless you go out naked into the middle of the untamed wilderness and subsist on what you can catch with your bare hands. (A spear isn't "natural", now is it?) Anything you put in your body has been altered from its original state in some way or the other. Shoot, my dog's not "natural". If her ancestors were free from human influence, she'd be a wolf.

Advocating for what's "natural", even if you can nail down that it's possible, begs a couple of questions. First of all, why is it better? Nature is on a mission to kill us at every turn with various diseases, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. Do you know why you shouldn't just pick any random thing you see growing in nature and eat it? Because it might kill you. And if you wind up doing it, you'll likely have to do something unnatural to save yourself.

Also, why are we making ourselves a special exception to what is natural? Sure, we make an impact on the environment and other animals, but other species do that as well. Beavers build dams. There are several animals that practice a form of agriculture as well. Will they no longer be natural if they become able to do it on a scale as large as us?

When it comes to what's "natural", it's best to specify exactly what you mean. Also, it's silly to assume that what's natural is automatically what's good. Is it sometimes better? Sure. But we need to determine that based on the evidence of its potential benefits versus its potential harm.

2. Energy - Obviously this word has a specific meaning. When you're talking about putting gas in your car to make it run, you're talking about the use of energy. When we harness solar power, we're harnessing energy from the sun. When you're exhausted after a long day of work, you have used up all of your energy. In each of these cases, the word is specific and the results are measurable.

However, people will use this word to describe things that are neither specific nor measurable. People sometimes speak of God as being an "energy" that creates all of life. However, there is no way to measure this energy nor test for its results. Also, practitioners of alternative medicines will talk about various energies, but again, there isn't some way of determining how much of it there is nor whether it's actually there or not. In other words, they're using a natural word to describe a supernatural phenomena.

Unless you can measure it, it's not energy. It might be something legit, but in the words of Enigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

3. Chemicals - I've ranted on this before, so I'll keep it brief. Whenever I think of people using this word as an automatic negative, I think of the character Begbie from Trainspotting, who abuses alcohol but won't use heroin because of "all the chemicals" that's in it.

Everything is chemicals! Everything! Water is a chemical!

Think that people aren't ridiculously paranoid about chemicals? Ever hear of the dihydrogen monoxide hoax? In case you haven't figured it out, dihydrogen monoxide is simply water. When presented with basic facts about it, while using the chemical name instead of the common name, people were ready to ban it. That's right, ban water.

We need to stop using "chemicals" like it's a dirty word. The real issue is exactly what chemical we're talking about and how much of it you're being exposed to. Certainly some are more harmful than others, but even water (yes, that again) is potentially dangerous when you're taking in too much. When it comes to chemicals, some of them are harmful with just a small dose. Some of them are harmless in small doses but really dangerous in larger doses.

Of course, that requires much more thought and nuance than just panicking over "chemicals" but when has unreasoned hysteria ever helped anything?

4. "It makes sense." - The problem with this phrase is that it's just too subjective. Quantum physics don't make any "sense" to me, but there are real world applications of it, so who cares if it makes sense to me or not? Astrology "makes sense" to some people, but it has been debunked so many times that you gotta wonder why we're even talking about it anymore.

5. "Common sense" - Just like the above, common sense doesn't necessarily reveal the truth to us. Common sense would have us believe that the world is flat, but we know that's not true. Sure, we rely on common sense a lot, and in most day-to-day applications, it's pretty reliable. However, it's not a substitute for what can be substantiated with evidence.

6. "Spiritual" - I never describe myself as this, although I will hear other people describe themselves this way and I'll find myself on the same page as them. In that case, spiritual simply means having a sense of awe and wonder at the world. Yeah, I've got that by the truckload. Others mean something completely different by it. It's a word that's used by too many people to mean too many different things, so it requires some clarification.

That's probably enough for now. What are some vague and/or meaningless words and phrases that bother you?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Let's make women feel even worse.

Kinda weird that it even needs to be said, eh?
There are so many ways to make mothers feel bad. You can criticize them for their choice to breastfeed or not. You can give them a hard time if they have an epidural while delivering the baby. You can also tell them that they haven't properly bonded with their babies if they have a C-section. (Which overlooks the important fact that the C-section child will be able to kill Macbeth.) It's really fortunate that we have so many ways to make a mother, who's already going through an emotionally taxing experience, feel like absolute crap.

Oh, yeah, Lance? Well what if I know a woman who's not a mother? How can I make HER feel like there's something wrong with her?

Unfortunately, your options are a bit more limited. However, one good way to make them feel bad is if they use birth control. Recently, there has been a post from Buzzfeed where 22 women gave their reasons for taking birth control. I pretty much assumed that all of them responded with: "Because I'm a whore." Turns out, that's not the case, interestingly enough.

Some of the women cited the cramps that they undergo without birth control. Two of them wrote about how it clears up their acne. Apparently the pill also helps keep things like PCOS  and endometriosis under control. Even though I'm a man, and I don't know what any of these things are like, I have a feeling that if I suddenly started having the same sorts of issues every month, and the pill could help alleviate that, I'd be down at the doctor's office at the first sign.

And go figure something else - a couple of these women said that they liked having sex but didn't want to have a kid! Women like sex? Is that true? Are they allowed to say that out loud?

A response showed up on Buzzfeed where 24 women gave their reasons for not using birth control. I'd like to say that their reasons were equally reasonable and explained why they made their particular choice without coming off as condescending or judgmental, but I'd be lying. Allow me to give you the highlights along with my reactions:

1. "Because I can avoid pregnancy without poisoning my body."

The pill is poison? Geez. Peer reviewed source, please?

2. "Because even though cramps suck and I get acne, that's a normal part of being a woman!"

I guess that I have a couple of responses to this. Even though I'm a dude, so chances are I'm probably screwing up something on this post in a colossal way, I'm going to venture to say that not all women go through the exact same amount of pain and discomfort. My wife tells me of a friend who'd have to take a day off of work every month because it was so bad. I don't know many women who go through this (but then again, maybe it's because they don't tell me) but I'm pretty sure that if I had a monthly visitor who liked to kick me in the abdomen until I fell on the floor, I'd do whatever I could do to stop it.

But let's say that there's a woman who has the easiest period as one can possibly imagine. Let's say that her cramps only rank a 2 on a 1-10 scale and there aren't any other side-effects. As far as I'm concerned, if she can do something to prevent it, and chooses to, THEN THAT'S HER DAMNED BUSINESS.

Yeah, so she's subverting what's "normal" about being a woman. How many of us do what's "normal" in the first place? We all pick and choose what aspects of nature we accept and which we fight off like it's the frikken' Balrog.

4. "B/C my body is a gift to my future husband and that gift includes motherhood."

So...much...facepalm. "Hello. I would like to surrender my sense of identity and bodily autonomy to a hypothetical man." If I had a daughter, and I heard her say this, I would scream at the top of my lungs at her. "YOUR BODY IS YOUR BODY!!!!" Sure, she may choose to "share" her body with somebody else some day, but becoming a "gift"? Ugh.

And are these people not aware that you can stop taking the pill? My wife took it. She stopped when we wanted a baby. We had a baby. Then she went back on it. Why is this so hard?

5. "Because I am responsible and make mindful decisions accepting the consequences of my actions."

Umm...okay. This can be true, but what does it have to do with you not taking birth control?

6. "Because I want a healthy, natural, organic, body."

Go find a cave and live as a hunter-gatherer then. No fair taking any kind of medicine, okay?

7. "Because fertility isn't a condition that needs to be fixed."

Who's saying that it is? I'd like to introduce you to my friend Strawman.

9. "Because I don't have to give up my womanhood to be a feminist."

Is that what the pill does? Make a woman less of a woman? Isn't part of feminism the belief that women can have control over their own decisions? I'm sure that the women from the other group don't think less of you for not using birth control, but way to completely dismiss them in one fell swoop.

10. "Because I can control myself."

I find this one to be the most infuriating, and if I was a woman, I'd be so infuriated that I'd bust my infuration meter and have to get a new infuriator. 

I realize that I've been using a lot of sarcasm here, so I just want to make sure that it's clear that my next statement is sarcasm-free:

The implication of this message is that there's something wrong with sex, as it's something that needs to be "controlled" like a desire to eat an entire chocolate cake. If a woman has decided that she wants to have sex, and she has a willing partner, then she can have all the damned sex she wants. She can take a day off of work to have a sex marathon that begins in the morning and ends at midnight, and she can only take breaks to watch some porn, and THAT'S HER DAMNED BUSINESS. 

And let's be honest - we have a biological urge to want to have sex. I think that many of us, given the right set of circumstances, would find ourselves not being able to "control" ourselves very well at all. And I'm talking about men and women. Don't be so quick to think that you're able to control millions upon millions of years of naturally selected desire.

11. "Because it allows men to use women with no consequences."

I wasn't aware that I was using my wife. Good to know. I'm sure that's how she feels.

Seriously though, how much more screwed up of an attitude about sex can a person possibly have?

15. "Because I have PCOS and the pill does less than natural alternatives ...but pharmaceutical companies want to make $$$."

Peer-reviewed source, please?

Honestly though, if some "natural alternative" helps you out, then that's fantastic. I'm going to assume that they're not giving it out for free though, right?

16. "Because children are not an inconvenience - they're a gift!"

These ideas aren't mutually exclusive.

And again - do these women think that once you take the pill you can't ever have a kid?

I'd like to make myself absolutely clear. I respect a woman's right to choose one way or the other as to whether she takes the pill or not. I don't respect the implied judgments of those who take it, the acquiescence to being regarded as chattel, or the fact-free hysteria that's being spread. I honestly can't find any sort of equivalent with the women who give their reasons for taking it. They're giving their personal reasons, and there isn't any sense that choosing to not take the pill is the wrong choice. 

Personally, I feel like all of these women, on both sides, could have just written the same as #5 from the list of women who take birth control:

Also acceptable: "'Cause fuck you, that's why!"

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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The problem with anecdotes

Years ago while weed-whacking, I mowed up a nest of yellow jackets. They were swarming all around me, but for some reason they didn't attack me, and I didn't get even a single sting. (I wrote about this on another post years ago to make a separate point.) It's a pretty incredible story, and it's even better to hear me tell it in person.

Unfortunately, I have absolutely no evidence that this happened. can that be? I lived through it! I was there! I saw the damned things! How can I say that there is no evidence?

Because that's all I have. Now, had somebody been filming it, then maybe I could at least provide you with something that you could verify for yourself. Or if I was willing to go and try it with other yellow jacket nests (I'm not, by the way) and demonstrate my ability to wreak havoc on them sans stings, then you'd have something to evaluate.

But all I have is my story. It's a cool story, but it's not evidence. I'm not saying that you shouldn't believe me, but considering that it's hardly an everyday sort of occurrence, I don't suppose that I'd blame somebody if they didn't.

All I have is an anecdote.

The problem with anecdotes is that people will often submit them AS evidence for whatever phenomenon they're trying to advance as being fact. I was watching a video yesterday between a "psychic" and a professional debunker (I included it below) and the debunker pointed out that there was no evidence. The "psychic" kept saying that there IS evidence, and she cited all of her personal stories (in rather vague terms) as "evidence". What she didn't understand is that that isn't evidence at all because nobody else has any way of confirming what happened.

As a skeptic, I've been told that I "don't accept evidence" for the supernatural when people insist that they've had all kinds of personal experiences from miracles to psychic phenomena to encounters with ghosts and demons. When I try to explain that "anecdotes aren't evidence", I don't seem to get anywhere. I also don't get anywhere when I point to an example of an anecdote for something that they don't believe (My favorite? Sammy Hagar being kidnapped by aliens) and ask them if they count that as "evidence" or not.

Because if anecdotes are evidence then ALL anecdotes must be evidence, not just the ones that confirm what you already believe.

Honestly, I do understand though why people get really insistent when you doubt their personal stories. They take it as a personal attack, as though you're calling them liars. Nobody likes that, but calling somebody a liar and pointing out that they have no evidence for something is not the same thing. Back to my story with the yellow jackets, I suppose I would get a bit annoyed if my close friends called me a liar when told them the story. However, if they point out that I don't have evidence, then why should I get mad? They'd be right.

Try not to misunderstand me here. Just because an anecdote isn't evidence that doesn't mean that it didn't happen, and ultimately it's up to us as to what we believe. For me, I try to have the evidence determine how strong my belief is. My yellow jacket story is unlikely, but it doesn't necessarily break any of the known laws of the universe, and there are various unknown factors that could have contributed to what happened. If I told you that aliens probed my mind though, I would hope that your skepticism would increase as if that story was true, it would certainly change everything we know and understand about the universe in which we live.

Lately, I've tried a new tactic when confronted with people who give anecdotes as evidence. Sometimes they'll just keep giving me more and more, as if ten anecdotes suddenly equal evidence. I have one online friend who apparently lives in the equivalent of Smallville, but instead of visits from various superheroes from the DC Universe, there are miracle healings left and right. I think that he was starting to get frustrated as I was questioning the veracity of these statements.

The strategy that finally seemed to work was when I said that I didn't accept those stories as evidence because I had no way of confirming them one way or the other. All I had was his story and no way to check on it. Evidence is something that can be verified by anybody, and until he gave me something that I could actually check on, I was going to have to remain skeptical.

That seemed to work a bit better. If you're a skeptic like me, and you find that saying "anecdotes aren't evidence" gets you nowhere, try explaining it in those terms. At least then the other person might understand why their story isn't convincing you of anything.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Read these comics! - Part II

I read comic books. You should read comics. I've recommended some to you before. Here are some more recommendations:

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood - This is the latest in Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, and as you can maybe guess from the title, it's all about World War I. It probably sounds inappropriate, but I'm going to say it anyway, I've never associated The Great War with so much fun before, but this comic was a really compelling and entertaining read. It's the kind of thing you could hand to a kid who's showing some interest in that major historical event, or, in my case, it's a relatively quick refresher on all of the important events - while tossing in some facts that I had not known before. (I suppose it's also a handy lesson for anybody who wants to feel like he or she has some knowledge of the war but doesn't necessarily want to read any lengthy history books - which I've done in the past.)

Perhaps the most clever bit is how Hale uses different animals to represent the various warring factions (see image). It definitely helps having that visual cue to keep track of who's who, as there's a lot of different countries that got involved - and he barely even gets into the Middle Eastern campaign. Of course, it leads to a bit of a problem as both Germany and America have eagles as their national birds, so the Americans get to be bunnies instead.

I should probably point out that it, admittedly, makes sure to get to the American involvement, not so much because of the significance of the doughboys entering the war, but because this work is aimed at an American audience, and Hale figures that the readers want to know about its involvement. Still, it's not a piece of American propaganda (your first hint being that we are turned into bunnies) so people of any nationality could probably enjoy this fun history lesson.

Thor: God of Thunder - I realize that right now the buzz is all about Marvel and the (trust me, it's temporary) decision to make Thor a woman. People have asked me what I thought, and I for one am willing to give it a chance. Why? Because it's going to be written by Jason Aaron, who has been consistently turning out some of not only my favorite Thor comics, but favorite comics in general. There are no doubt a few collected editions of this particular series by this point, but I've been getting it in the individual issues.

There have been some multi-issue storylines and some done-in-one issues as well, and I really have a hard time picking what my favorite ones are. The first lengthy story involved a god-killer, and one of the single issue stories dealt with a "day in the life of Thor" and I thoroughly enjoyed them both.

What really separates Aaron's run on Thor is how the main character is treated. There isn't any of this hemming and hawing about him not really being a god but just an alien who was worshipped in the past as a god. No, he's a god. He shows up on a planet to provide rain because the inhabitants prayed to him. I guess we live in an age where people feel less worried about offending religious sensibilities (and why should it offend if you're a believer? It's not pretending to be fact.) Check out the following quote from CBR interview:
Aaron admitted that there's an undercurrent of faith and belief in much of his work, and that despite him being an atheist for half his life Thor is the god he would want to believe in. "It's a book about gods and I wanted to lean into the fact from the get go that Thor is a god," Aaron said. "I don't like in the movies where the Asgardians are aliens."
I didn't know this about him when I started reading the book, but it made sense to me why this book held such an appeal after finding out about it.

Black Science - I just breezed through a re-reading of Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera's series, and I found myself eagerly waiting for issue number seven. (The first five issues have been collected in a trade paperback.)

How to describe this series? Imagine a guy with a crack-addict's dedication to punching through the barriers of what can be done scientifically. He ignores the safety of himself, his family, his friends, and possibly the entire "Eververse", as it's called. Jumping through dimensions, things keep on getting crazier and crazier, and just when you think you've got a grip on where it's all going, another monkeywrench is thrown into the works.

Remender is doing some great work as well over on Marvel's Uncanny Avengers and some hit-and-miss stuff on Captain America. With this creator-owned project, he's really letting loose, and Scalera is the perfect pairing. His art style reminds me of the sort of thing you'd see in some old EC sci-fi comics, which I think is deliberate, without looking like a conscious attempt to mimic the style. I'm not sure how much instruction Remender gives him when it comes to rendering the different dimensions and aliens, but it all looks like it's come from some bizarre nightmare. Perhaps if I had done psychotropic drugs, I could have some point of reference with which to compare (or, you know, traveled to other dimensions) but this is what's great about comics - there's no limit to the imagination as a page filled with giant tortoises carrying pyramids on their backs costs just as much as a couple of people sitting down to talk.

Chicacabra - I greatly enjoyed writer/artist Tom Beland's True Story: Swear to God, so I was an easy sell on this particular graphic novel. Unlike his other work, which was pretty much autobiographical, this one delves into science fiction. However, just like True Story, the characters are complex and likeable, and there's a real sweetness to it all. Also, the art is lively and expressive.

Summarizing the plot doesn't do it justice, but the gist of it is that a Isabella, a teenager in Puerto Rico, gets "joined" with what's likely the last of the chupacabras, a strange species that was nearly wiped out by humanity long ago when settlers arrived in Puerto Rico, where this all takes place. That's all good and fun, and it's reminiscent of the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics, although it takes its time to really explore the characters and is equally concerned with realistic human drama as it is sci-fi hijinks.

I've written recently about the growing influence of a female fanbase in comics and how I think that it's a positive thing. I don't know if that influenced Beland one way or the other when it came to creating this particular series, but if it did, then it's another sign that comics can only get better when they become more diverse. If you're looking for a fun comic that mixes superhero tropes with sci-fi, strong characterization, and a believable female protagonist, then this is a good one to get.

Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me - I've been reading comics a long time, and although I watched and enjoyed the movie American Splendor, I've yet to read anything by Harvey Pekar. This actually came out a couple of years ago in hardcover, but it's in paperback right now, and I just finished reading it a few days ago. Considering that Israel is in the news right now (hard to remember a time when it isn't) I was compelled to pick it up, and I breezed through it.

I'm not Jewish, and I don't know what it's like to be Jewish. I do try to listen and empathize with people though, and I imagine that few things must be more frustrating than to be Jewish and have criticisms of Israel. Even if the criticisms are legitimate, there are people (not just Jews) who are eager to label such a person as a "self-loathing Jew" because that's a lot easier than dealing with the content of their arguments. No doubt Pekar took some flack for this particular book.

If you're looking for some kind of hatchet-job on Israel, you're not going to find it here. If anything, the man is jaded, as he was raised to think that the formation of Israel was the right thing to do and that they were the good guys. As he got older, he discovered that things are not quite so black and white.

What's great about this is that it gives an overview of the history of the Jewish people, and there is no denying that they're a people who have endured a ridiculous amount of hardship and prejudice. What also becomes clear is that they're as human as any other group of people. They don't all think with a hive mind, and their actions should be as open to critique as any other.

I guess the one thing that surprised me is that I was almost expecting to find a really harsh indictment of Israel. That simply wasn't there, although I'm sure that those who have more of a black-or-white view of the world will find it anyway.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Cal Shakes - The Comedy of Errors

I had resigned myself to the fact that the reading that I would do this summer would consist primarily of comic books and audio books, and I wasn't going to feel guilty about it. (I like to do a lot of reading over the summer.) I realized that I should probably read William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors though before I went to see it at Cal Shakes since I was completely unfamiliar with it, and I don't like to watch Shakespeare without having at least a decent understanding of the story beforehand.

Lucky for me, it's an awfully short play. I didn't even bother picking up a version of the play with a plain English translation this time, figuring that since comedies tend to be easier to comprehend, I'd get along just fine without it. I turned out to be correct, although I read summaries of the first two acts just to get everybody squared away in my head first, and then I was able to pretty much just breeze through the rest of it, using my Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Obviously, it's one of Shakespeare's comedies, and one of his earlier ones at that. It doesn't delve into any deeper subject matter like The Merchant of Venice, and it doesn't have as much sincere heartfelt joy as Much Ado About Nothing. It's basically just a big ridiculous situation involving two sets of twins and a lot of cases of mistaken identity. From what I read, Shakespeare lifted the plot from an Ancient Greek comedy and added a few extra layers to it (as he pretty much always does when he adapts something) and, of course, his own clever wordplay.

I was worried that it might be a bit confusing, as the plot involves not only two sets of twins, but each set shares the same first name. In other words, there's Antipholus from Ephesus and his twin brother, Antipholus from Syracuse. Neither one of them knows of the existence of the other, and when the one from Syracuse visits Ephesus, many people confuse him for his brother (including his brother's wife). On top of that, Antipholus of Syracuse has a servant named Dromio, who has a twin brother with the same first name who serves Antipholus of Ephesus. Confused yet? Well, it was harder to keep track of who's who when I was reading it than when I was watching it. (Which confirms that Shakespeare's works are meant to be seen in a performance, not necessarily read as a book.) This is especially impressive considering that one actor played the Antipholus from Syracuse and the one from Ephesus. Same situation for the Dromio of Syracuse and the one from Ephesus.

All in all, it was a fun show, and the actors all did a nice job of breathing life into the text. My wife and I have seen a few of these actors before, like Danny Scheie, Nemuna Ceesay, and Liam Vincent (the latter two were both in this summer's excellent production of A Raisin in the Sun). I'm fairly certain that I've seen Ron Campbell before in past productions as well, and I'll be darned if he wasn't channeling a little bit of the Marx Brothers in his performance as Angelo, the merchant. It was also pretty cool how the actors would go out into the audience and sometimes even interact with the crowd a bit. Comedies tend to lend themselves to that kind of silliness.

If all you know of Shakespeare are his tragedies that you likely learned in school, then you ought to check out his comedies. It wasn't all deep introspection followed by doom for the man. He knew how to write stuff that was silly and fun, and sometimes that's just what we need. I especially recommend checking out this particular play if you're familiar with a lot of his others, as you can see that while this probably wouldn't have survived the centuries had it been the only play the man wrote, it's interesting to see some of his more interesting ideas begin their germination in this early work.

Next up? Pygmalion, followed by A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Talking to evolution deniers

Conversations with evolution deniers are often frustrating but can sometimes be interesting in a psychological sense. The one thing that never fails in my experience is that eventually the denier will reveal a lack of understanding of what evolution is. I certainly know that when I didn't accept evolution, much of that was due to the fact that I didn't have a clue as to what it actually was.

With some deniers, you can catch this right away when they say something like, "Why are there still monkeys?" These are usually the people who haven't even bothered to do the most basic Google search on the topic and don't care to learn.

There are the smarter deniers though, and it often takes a while until they reveal some sort of gap in their understanding. One time I had somebody bring up "Junk DNA" and how biologists believed that we had a lot of info in our genetic structure that didn't do anything, and it turned out that they were wrong. The person was right on this point, but how does that affect the theory of evolution one way or the other? (Hint: it doesn't.)

The thing is, you can give a denier a comprehensive overview, using the most basic non-technical language, of what evolution is, and if they have a motivation (usually religious) to not believe in it, then it'll be like trying to convince the ocean to hold still. I'm not really bothering with that anymore, and instead I've changed my tactic. Oftentimes, it's best just to ask questions. You won't get immediate results, but if you can get them to start thinking a bit, then if there is any chance that they'll come around, that's the way it'll happen.

I like to ask the following questions:

What is it that you understand better about biology than the overwhelming majority of the world's biologists? Ultimately, that is what the denier is saying. A typical response will go along the lines of how scientists have been wrong in the past (often with examples from more than a hundred years ago). That's true, of course, and consensus doesn't equal truth. But I'm not going to drink pond water because scientists have been wrong in the past, so, you know, they could be wrong about the bacteria and parasites that are in it. In other words, that answer is a non-answer, and I point that out. Ultimately, they cannot give a reason as to why they understand things better than those whose life's work revolves around a basic understanding of evolution (which is what modern biology is).

What part of evolution don't you believe? You might get answers, but they'll only prompt more questions. It might also be good to break it down a bit and ask them which point is the one where they just don't accept:

  • Do you not believe that genetic information is passed down from parent to offspring?
  • Do you not believe in mutations? (If not, then what about blue eyes or people born with extra fingers? (I had a cat once who had two extra toes on each foot and an extra toe-less claw on each of her front paws.)
  • Do you not believe that some mutations can be advantageous and enable a species to better survive?
  • Do you not believe that these mutations would be more likely to be passed on?
  • Do you not believe that these advantageous traits would alter a population over time?
  • Do you not believe that these altered populations would bring forth a new species given enough time? (Because we have direct, observable evidence of this happening, so you'd have to show these to be hoaxes.)
With your more-informed deniers, they will often give you all of the above. However, they will often stop and say, 'Yeah, you get new species of lizards, but they're still lizards!"

From there, you can ask the following:
  • Do you not believe that, given enough time and enough changes, you'd expect to see some radical changes? (Like reptiles bringing forth mammals? You'd expect to see things like the platypus if evolution were true, wouldn't you?)
  • Do you not believe that domesticated cats and tigers share a common ancestor? (They share 95.6% of their DNA, and they're both cats.)
  • Do you not believe that human beings and chimpanzees and bonobos share a common ancestor? (We share almost 99% of our DNA - more than house cats and lions.) 
If they have no trouble accepting all of these, then proceed to stop the conversation and talk about the weather, as this person accepts evolution. If they accept the first two but not the third one, then ask them how that can be when we have more in common with our ape cousins than cats and tigers? (And the difference between lions and tigers is about the same as tigers and house cats.)

And while we're discussing DNA, why do they reject the consensus that the field of genetics proves evolution? And what about transitional fossils? (Some of them will flat out tell you that there are no transitional fossils, which is a bold-faced lie. If faced with this, suggest that they look up horse or whale evolution and then try saying that again.) And why the heck do I have a tail bone but no tail?

The best that you can really hope for is to get the person thinking. If you point out enough stuff, and they're genuinely intellectually curious, then you'll at least give them something to think about and you'll be pointing them in the right direction. The unfortunate thing with this issue though is that people don't approach it the same way as they would other issues. For some people, accepting evolution would mean tossing away an important part of their identity. This does not need to be the case though, as plenty of religious people accept evolution

It's too bad, because the more I learn about it, the more amazing I think that the world is.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Jesus and the Mythicists

When it comes to the story of Jesus Christ, the one thing that pretty much everybody agrees on is that he was, in fact, a historical figure just like Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, and Captain America. Not everybody believes that he walked on water, rose from the dead, cursed a fig tree that was out of season, etc., but the one thing that we can all count on is that he really was a real guy who was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate. Everybody from Christians to Muslims to agnostics to atheists will agree on that. After all, there were people who wrote about him during the time in which he lived. We have some first-hand accounts of his existence and teachings.

Okay, no we don't exactly have that. Tacitus wrote about him, but he was born about twenty years Jesus was supposedly killed. As for the Gospels, we don't know who wrote them, (the naming of them after the apostles is church tradition, as the Gospels themselves don't identify the authors) and they were all written down in another language and in another part of the world at least a generation after the death of Jesus.

Yeah...BUT STILL. Most historians agree that Jesus was a real guy. That's undisputed.

Actually, it is disputed.

I recently read David Fitzgerald's Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show That Jesus Never Existed. Another prominent "mythicist" (the word used to describe scholars who insist that Jesus was purely mythological) is Richard Carrier, and he has a book that's coming out soon on the issue, but I've heard some of his speeches and debates.

What do I think? I think that these guys sound pretty convincing.

However, and this is a big however, a lot of things can sound convincing and yet turn out to be total bullcrap. Before I did some more reading on climate change, the "skeptics" ("deniers" is a better term) sounded pretty convincing to me as well. Now, I didn't just fall off the Historical Jesus Turnip Truck. I've done a fair amount of reading on this subject, from several books by John Dominic Crossan to Reza Aslan's recent book, Zealot. These guys are honest enough to say that there's no evidence to take the Gospels literally, but they're both pretty adamant that there's no question that Jesus existed as a human being.

It's also important to point out the burden of proof issue. It's really hard to prove that something or somebody didn't exist. No matter what guys like Fitzgerald and Carrier might be able to present, at best they can show that it was extremely unlikely that Jesus ever existed. Personally, I've always been of the mind that Jesus could very well have existed in the same sense that Achilles existed. It started with an actual guy (or maybe even an amalgam of a few different guys) and then grew in the telling. But hey, I've only read a few books. I'm definitely not a qualified Bible scholar.

Still, I find this fascinating, and I'll probably check out Carrier's new book once it's on Audible. I can't really summarize what Fitzgerald's points were, aside from the bits about how we have no eyewitness testimony to Jesus's existence despite the fact that it all took place in a part of the world where there were enough literate people writing stuff down to make it strange that nobody wrote about it. (But again, that doesn't prove it didn't happen.) A lot of it has to do with what Paul wrote and what he curiously leaves out that shows up in the Gospels. Don't go picking that apart as an argument though - read his book if you care enough and pick that apart.

I haven't spent a lot of time looking into this, but I did check out some counter-arguments to the mythicist idea. From what I've seen, I'm not getting a lot of substance. The main argument seems to be: "The majority of scholars agree that Jesus was a real person." Yeah, sure, that should make you at least seriously consider the idea, but if that's the ONLY rebuttal you have, it's not a very good one - in fact, it's essentially a combination of the Argument from Authority coupled with the Argument from Popularity fallacies.

So, I have no definite take. Seems to me that the mythicists have a tall order on their hands, and they're going to have to bring a lot to the table to make their point. As of right now, I don't feel smart enough on the issue to give any definitive statement as to whether Jesus was a real person or not. The best that I can give you as to my opinion is as follows:

It certainly seems possible that Jesus never existed.